Multidisciplinary artist Almagul Menlibayeva uses photography and video to reflect on cultural transformation in Kazakhstan.
Inspired by fashion photography and documentary film, Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva captures the unknown, multifaceted history of one of the most misunderstood regions in the world.
At first glance, Almagul Menlibayeva’s images look like exotic fashion shoots, but her female figures, resilient, mystical and often nomadic, in empty landscapes with abandoned buildings, offer a privileged glimpse into the cultural and social change of Kazakhstan; and her subjects, often with the glamour of fashion models, lend their expressions to history.
Menlibayeva tells Art Radar:
I use mainstream communication tools such as fashion photography and documentary for artistic compositions. With the familiar language of media and fashion language as art, my models express ideas about society and history with their postures to speak about a misunderstood region with countless unheard stories.
Born in 1969 in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, Menlibayeva was raised during the country’s occupation by the Soviet Union. She received a conservative Russian art education at State Academy, steeped in Soviet Socialist realism, and studied applied arts and fabric design. When she left Kazakhstan for Europe and America in the 1990s, her artistic work became shaped partly out of her feeling that there was a profound lack of knowledge globally about central Asia, not only as a cultural entity, but also with regards to an accurate understanding of the historical realities of its Soviet occupation. She told Art Radar:
When I left Kazakhstan, I realised that most of the people I met knew little about Kazakhstan and the whole area for that fact, so I as developed as an artist, I felt a need to educate the world about the region, and this greatly influenced me creatively.
Her female figures, and sometimes children, are often dressed in the nation’s cultural and religious wardrobe, including Islamic veils, nomadic costumes and soviet military uniforms. Radical but culturally rich, her style became defined as “Romantic Punk Shamanism” as the artist calls it. Menlibayeva reveals:
It is as though my subjects are trying on different ideologies in a scramble for identity in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The female figures in my work, are in some ways feministic. Control is a force that permeates everything. We felt oppression under the Soviets. But any ideology we choose, whether religious or cultural, might also control us, and control is an issue for the struggle of women socially. After the ideology fell, there was a fresh start. This is represented by the empty landscapes of my work. Different ideologies, whether communist,religious or political, can be worn and then
shed like clothes, but I felt there was common ground with nomadic culture that the Soviets had tragically wiped out and eliminated.
Menlibayeva’s figures appear, mirage-like, against the canvas of that empty landscape. Although nomad culture is no longer everyday in Kazakhstan, she, ostensibly, uses its mythology to visually revitalise a land made sterile by occupation; and while returning to one’s traditional culture is a choice, it doesn’t necessary fit comfortably with the modern world. In Milk For Lambs (2010), a single high definition video, she presents the Kazakh fertility goddess Umai, standing on the body of an old man with a lamb:
She looks like she’s coming from him but dominating him. The face of the goddess is nothing godlike. It is purely psychological.
In the photographic series “My Silk Road to You” (2011) she recreates the ancient story of Aisha Bibi, an 11th-century Kazakh princess who was killed by a snakebite on the way to meeting her fiancé, a nobleman. In mourning he built a mausoleum for her and, after that, he was said to have never married. While the mausoleum, a tourist spot in the south of the country, has become a monument to love and faithfulness, Menlibayeva draws on it as a metaphor for religious unity in a situation of choice:
In the work I use local fabric and architecture of the mausoleum to build on the influence of the local cultural values of religious unity. The building has Tengristic, Christian and Judaistic symbols as well.
Legacy of pain
Menlibayeva’s video work intensifies her visual language. Kurchatov 22, a 29-minute long five-channel HD surround sound video installation, enables the viewer to personally connect with a documentary style. As with the fashion photography methods used in her photographic work, the viewer is drawn into the documentary content with expressions and performance.
Kurchatov 22 lifts the veil on a dark history of Kurchatov, a town with sovkhozes (Soviet state farms) that was sectioned off by the Soviets and made into a laboratory. The artist recounts:
During the Soviet occupation between 1923 and 1991, there was almost nothing written about the tragedies. No books. It was like people could never be heard, no matter how hard they shouted out.
Menlibayeva reveals the generation-old scars of the residents, who were prohibited from leaving the area of a nuclear test conducted in the area in 1955. Throughout the film, we see a spectrum of locals telling the story in their own words, alongside Menlibayeva’s poetic imagery. She intermingles ramshackle buildings and a female figure in expressive performance art movements with documentary first person accounts. This begins with a grandmother, blinded by the flash of a mushroom cloud, whose grandchildren are disabled as a result. There is also an old man who saw the flash and only knew what it was six years later in the army, and an assistant test field worker who was told never to spill the beans but needed the world to know.
The artist tells Art Radar:
It is about recovering the names, dates and facts. The test field worker said that he had signed a paper for the KGB never to tell anything to anybody about it, but because Soviets don’t exist anymore, he wants everyone to know . It was under the control of the secret service and the army elite directed from the Kremlin in Moscow. It got the name Kurchatov 22 much later. For a long time, the place was just called 22 (many other palaces in Kazakhstan just had a number). It was called Konechnaya (The End in the Russian) by ordinary people.
In a blend of poetry and documentary, people are also seen carrying around black and white images of mushroom clouds and stills from the Potsdam Conference of 1945, a meeting that marked the establishment of the site, as though the trauma has replaced old family photos. Menlibayeva printed them like table cloths on nomadic round tables, used in yurtas.
The Centre of Eurasia
Near the end, an iconic female figure, dressed in casual modern clothes, who could also be a model in a glossy magazine, is captured sitting on a pyramid which is said to officially signpost the centre of Eurasia. She is another incarnation of the fertility goddess Umai, and her presence could mark the uncomfortable relationship between a nation and its personal and social identity.
But this vagueness has a kind of freedom, and the emptiness is a canvas, with a sense of creative possibility. According to Menlibayeva, it is up to people to choose how to fill it:
I found the landmark site when I was filming. It was said to be a signpost of Eurasia. Actually there are other two centers of Eurasia, in China and in Russia, and each claim to be a center. Each calculation depended of what Eurasia meant to those who defined it. I made the image into a photograph called The Center of Eurasia. The modern girl sitting on the pyramid, surrounded by an endless space, is not far from the ex-nuclear test field of Kurchatov. But I think the center, while uncertain, marks a free space with a great future because it is open to whatever we decide. When the Soviets left, their ideology fell and we were free. But when that happens, you start to question everything, including tradition, and, okay, you try different ways of thinking, and maybe go back to old ways, religious or cultural, but they can also control you. But it is up to artists and people to creatively find their own identity, one that fits them and makes them feel free.
- Time, nationhood, resistance: Larissa Sansour’s latest film “In The Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain” – interview – February 2016 – Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour presents her latest film project In The Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain at Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi
- ‘Silsila’: Sama Alshaibi on art, beauty and resistance – interview – January 2016 – Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi speaks a unique language of resistance
- Kazakh artist Annya Sand on painting as meditation – interview – March 2015 – the young artist tells Art Radar about her paintings influenced by Kazakhstan’s steppes and Russian culture
- 10 Kazakh artists to know now – January 2015 – the Museum of Contemporary Art in Strasbourg, France is currently presenting a selection of work by Kazakh artists
- Yang Fudong’s ‘Filmscapes’ in Australia – in pictures – January 2015 – a major exhibition of Yang Fudong’s work provides an immersive experience into the artist’s lyrical and dreamlike repertoire
Subscribe to Art Radar for features of Kazakhstani artists and more