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Unforgettable Post-Communism and Visual Culture 2021

| August 25, 2021 | 0 Comments
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Post Communism

What happens to a country’s visual culture when it moves from Soviet communism to post-Soviet liberalization? A pathbreaking exhibition in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, Epoxa (‘Epoch’) grapples with this question. It presents the republic’s initial independence years, 1991-2005, under the rule of the country’s first post-independence president, Askar Akaev. The Akaev era was brought to an abrupt end by the so-called ‘Tulip Revolution’ of March 2005: after two days of unrest in the capital, following rural mobilization and one night of looting, the president himself fled the country, and a new government headed by Kurmanbek Bakiev took power.

Known internationally also for its rapid liberalization in the 1990s, which earned it the nickname of Central Asia’s ‘island of democracy’ and for being the only Central Asian state to continue to host a US airbase, this small landlocked republic struggles to search for its cultural identity in the twenty-first century. Its population of just over five million is strongly influenced economically and informationally by neighboring China and Russia respectively. For the project’s curator, Gamal Bokonbaev, the sudden change represented: ‘a rejection rather than succession: time lept forward and offered opportunities, encouraged boldness in interpretations.’ How do we interpret what artists did with their new-found political freedom but also the loss of economic subsidization after communist collapse? How did the politics of the era co-exist with these new art forms? Epoxa explores the relationship between visual culture and liberalization through five spheres: film, advertising; painting; modern art; and, photography.

marat surulu in spe tm

Held at the close of 2007, the exhibition was complemented by two beautifully produced catalogues, including an excellent analysis by Bokonbaev himself. Managed by Asel Akmatova (who runs Bishkek’s KuramaART Gallery), Evgenii Boikov and Furkat Tursunov, the project set out to include works finalized after independence and before the departure of Akaev. Further selection, Bokonbaev explained, was based less ‘on the merit of individual works than on their representing general tendencies in visual culture.’

While post-communist collapse increased the influence of global communications, certain features specific to Kyrgyzstan’s visual environment remain important. As a bilingual country (Kyrgyz and Russian), and one forging a new post-independence unity, the importance of visual culture assumed added importance. The upshot is a series of visual culture products that combine influences largely from: pre-Soviet tradition, the Soviet past, and recent Western influences.

youristanbek shygaev kurak tm

At the exhibition’s entrance lies sand shaped in the form of a nude female body, reproducing a scene of Aktan Abdykalykov’s powerful film, Beshkempir. Although commercially financed, Aktan Abdykalykov’s cinema appealed to the new political elite’s independent state ideology. The gentle, kind, funny characters in the trilogy Selkinchek (1993), Beshkempir (1998) and Maimyl (2001) conveyed a positive image of the country, idealizing rural life, rooting the country in tradition and optimistic of its future. Marat Surulu’s urban-set films, also displayed at Epoxa, notably Wild river, Calm Sea (2004, released as In Hope), were the first to question the sustainaibility of this optimism, and portrayed individuals in the city grappling with psychological unease. How, these two cinematographers were asked, would they classify the Akaev years? For Abdykalykov they represented: ‘A terminus. Neverending expectations… huge emotional swings’. For Surulu, ‘a feeling of beginning which gave a sense of independence. A lot was not realized, and there was an inglorious end – producing yet another beginning. … But on the personal level it opened many possibilities.’

rondo by talant ogobaev tm

In painting, ethnographic postmodernism, argues Bokonbaev, trumped all other forms in terms of political support. This trend included painters such as Yuristanbek Shygaev, Kanybek Davletov, Suyutbek Torobekov, Jyrgal Matubraimov, and Bekten Usubaliev.

Combining imported elements from world art with local elements of folk art and nomadism, it conveyed heroic mythological content in international form. For example, Shygaev’s ‘Kurak’, the Kyrgyz word for ‘patchwork’, represents an age-old tradition practised throughout the centuries by craftswomen from all over the world. It holds, however, significance in Kyrgyz traditional culture, where the name comes from the word ‘kura’ which means ‘to piece together or to assemble from separate scraps’ and acquired specific symbolism in the peripetatic lifestyle of traditional Kyrgyz nomads.

i dont see anything by ulan djaparov tm

Also represented, however, was postmodernism, represented by artists such as Evgenii Boikov (‘Last VGIK Graduates’), Talant Ogobaev (e.g. ‘Anamnesis’), Adis Seitaliev (‘Twilight’/ ‘Laer’), and also Valery Ruppel (‘Green City Project’), all conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colours available to them.

In answer to the same question posed to the cinematographers, Talant Ogobaev pointedly remarks: ‘I call this an epoch – epoch of Spanish tiles. Everyone called these Spanish tiles but everyone knew that noone would bother importing them from Spain and that in reality they were Chinese.’ Evgenii Boikov, expresses his frustration with imported capitalism’s new rules in his vivid mounting of a shredded version of Robert T. Kiyosaki ‘world bestseller’.

robert t kiyosaki book by evgenii boikov tm

These paintings are complemented by various installations of modern art. Ulan Djaparov, author of ‘I don’t see anything…’ comments how this was an ‘Epoch of neglected opportunities, profanation of all values, and breaking of all human fates. For me it was a difficult but interesting period, …’ The 2005 revolution itself is only marginally treated in the visual representations here. Vladimir Prirogov’s ‘Without Name’, taken in 2003, has been used by many to illustrate the political events of the years preceding the revolution, where popular demonstrations became a part of the habitual political system. The photographer himself comments that the Akaev era ‘started out with limitless optimism, which slowly changed into pessimism.’

without name by vladimir pirogov tm

Ernest Abdrazakov’s act, illustrated here, was staged the day after on March 25. ‘I don’t think this was an epoch. It also became clear to me that ‘Tsars’ don’t exist, they are only in our heads.’

Shaarbek Amankul’s ‘Altar’ , which was displayed in the shop window of one of Bishkek’s department stores, was the only piece of art work displayed here that was physically destroyed in the looting of the night of March 24; the Akaev years, Amankul commented, were ‘a time of hope, belief. But illusions were shattered, … perhaps only freedom remained as the fundament. For me personally this was a time of hope. I suffered as a result of the revolution: my illustration, that had taken me years to produce, was destroyed.’

Coincidentally, culture and politics in the Akaev era comfortably coexisted. Many privately funded products of visual culture expressed the mission of the new political entrepreneurs. This set out to combine Kyrgyz ethnographic tradition with internationalism, tradition with openness to innovation, a feature of the early Akaev years. 

im by myself by ernest abdrazakov tm

Just as it is difficult to come away with an iconic visual symbol of the times, so is it impossible to define clearly the ‘mainstream’. On the one hand, for a country that had experienced such rapid change the absence of art expressing opposition to the political reforms was striking; on the other, it was befitting a republic that in the Soviet era did not have a significant dissident culture. The output, however, is no less significant, and the forms it adopted offer a unique appraisal of how the worlds of art and politics cohabited in one of the most liberalized post-Soviet states. Project Epoxa vividly and compellingly captures moods of both continuity and change in Kyrgyzstan.

The ‘Epoxa’ exhibition ran from 16 November to 16 December 2007; the two catalogues are available at KuramaARTGallery, 31A Erkindik Blvd, Bishkek. The project was sponsored by Asia-Universal-Bank.

While post-communist collapse increased the influence of global communications, certain features specific to Kyrgyzstan’s visual environment remain important. As a bilingual country (Kyrgyz and Russian), and one forging a new post-independence unity, the importance of visual culture assumed added importance.

Category: Contemporary Art

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