From Kasteev to Meldibekov

HORSEMILK publishes a chapter of the book of 

Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen "Central Asia in Art.

From Soviet Orientalism to the New Republics"

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Dr. Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen is an art historian working on Soviet and contemporary art in Central Asia. Co-curator of Focus Kazakhstan: Post-Nomadic Mind, London, 2018. She gained PhD at the Courtauld Institute of arts in London, where she also conducted theoretical seminars. She worked at the Christie's auction house, organizing conferences – the latest one was at the University of London in January 2019 on the role of culture in social processes in Central Asia.

While the road from Stalin to Borat is the most visible outside Central Asia, inside it has two other defining figures, at least within the sphere of art: Abilkhan Kasteev and Erbossyn Meldibekov. Both Kazakhs, Kasteev was one of the first indigenous Central Asian artists within the territory of Central Asia, while Meldibekov is the region's most notorious contemporary artist working in the international art world today. In Kazakhstan the question of national identity remained a characteristic feature of art throughout its development during both the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods. While Kasteev and his contemporaries and followers worked within the limiting framework of Socialist Realism, after the death of Stalin the grip this style held on art institutions loosened, especially outside of the Soviet centre. Tensions between the real and the abstract, the Self and the Other, and the so-called acceptable and the unusual were all nurtured in Kazakh art of the 1960s, a time when freedom, however elusive, first became imaginable. Yet the next generation of artists proved to be asking similar questions in their works - questions related to national identity - even though these questions were still enclosed in oil paintings.


1. Zhanatay Shardenov, High up in the Mountains, 1972 

oil on card, 49 х 71, collection of Nurlan Smagulov, Almaty

The 1970s and 1980s were the years of both realisation and revolt. One of the most renowned artists of the period was Zhanatay Shardenov. Here assessed and approached the depiction of nature in a style different from that which was considered the norm in the Soviet Union. Born in the north of Kazakhstan, not far from where the new capital Astana is now, Shardenov spent his adult years in Almaty, the then Soviet capital. His landscapes, such as High up in the Mountains (1972, fig, 1) and Autumn are now legendary. The mountainous landscape, as previously discussed, is a significant subject for Kazakh artists and forms a point of reference for identity formation for Kazakhs, particularly in Southern Kazakhstan. In Shardenov's works mountains and even pastures, such as in Shepherd, are significantly different from those depicted in earlier works of Kazakh art. The vastness seems to disappear and thick, short and harsh brush- work comes in its place. Was he a Kazakh Van Gogh, someone misplaced in both time and space? Although a member of the Artist's Union in Kazakhstan, Shardenov seems to have been overtaken by the power of nature, something he expressed in a way that was accessible and permissible at the time. If, by this time, painting was becoming anachronistic in the West, Shardenov could hardly have known; even less could he allow himself to work in techniques and forms outside of oil painting. In a rapidly changing world he preserved the continuity and integrity of his own artistic practice.


By the end of the 1980s, and certainly by the beginning of the 1990s, the entire world was being transformed. The Soviet Union went through perestroika under Gorbachev and then collapsed and disintegrated in 1991. The Central Asian republics each gained independence. The 1990s produced chaos and uncertainty within the political, economic and social life of the region. Yet economic crisis only stimulated the revolution in art. Two artists emerged in the overall sea of exploding creativity; these were Sergei Maslov and Rustam Khalfin, both of whom are now deceased. Both men continued to paint, yet painting alone could no longer accommodate all their creative energy. In the words of Kazakh art critic Irina Yuferova, the 1990s were a 'sweet decade of hope'.


Maslov was drawn towards schisms and contrasts within society. His art practice utilised the notion of irony in order to portray and criticise the broken world around him. In his slide-film Baikonur-221 the artist draws out disproportionate differences between Kazakhstan's traditional past and cosmic present. Baikonur, located in Kazakhstan, was the largest rocket launch site in the former Soviet Union. The artist places traditionally dressed or naked figures onto a moon-like surface, juxtaposing figures of Kazakhs, Russians, cosmonauts and aliens. Maslov also produced oil paintings, but his work seems only to undermine this traditional way of creating art. A large proportion of his art practice was ephemeral, including extremely new and, for the period, controversial installations, happenings and performances. Being at the forefront of the new avant-garde in Kazakhstan, he gained little recognition outside peculiarly segregated art circles. By the 1990s art no longer seemed to attract governmental interest, nor was it perceived to be contentious, thus allowing almost total creative freedom. However, it took another ten years for Maslov to gain international recognition, which eventually happened posthumously: his works were first exhibited within the first Central Asia pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005, curated by Viktor Misiano.


In stark contrast to Maslov, his contemporary and fellow artist Rustam Khalfin devoted all his energy to finding a balance between abstraction and the Self. Inner human nature, points of view and points of vision and, most importantly, his own skin and skin of others, as seen in performance Skin of An Artist, interested Khalfin far more than the ephemeral nature of social interactions. He experimented by using his own body and the space surrounding it.


Just like Maslov, Khalfin found that the canvas could only provide a limited field for artistic expression. He organised performances and filmed them. Thus the Kazakh tradition of video art was established. Khalfin's Northern Barbarians, Part 2. The Love Races, created together with Yulia Tikhonova, is a now legendary pseudo-historic and openly erotic video piece which attracted a lot of attention at the first Central Asian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005. An exhibition of some of Khalfin's works took place in London in 2007 at the White Space Gallery.  It was the first exhibition of its kind to present Central Asian contemporary art in Britain and so highlighted the limited access that the British public has to post-Soviet Central Asia.


The varied nature of both Maslov's and Khalfin's works was symptomatic of the split in personalities and an artistic tension that has its origins in the Socialist Realist period of Kazakh art. A strong sense of the need for social involvement counters an exploration of a fragile identity, both personal and national, which utilises both factual and invented histories. Nomadism, tradition and modernity find their way into Western-inspired forms of art production. Notably, neither Maslov nor Khalfin was Kazakh by ethnicity, highlighting yet another trait of Kazakhstani and, to a lesser extent Central Asian, identity; this identity is based on a mix of nationalities and ethnicities, all of whom came to call Kazakhstan their home. Both Maslov and Khalfin have sadly passed away, closing with the end of their lives a certain page for Central Asian art, while leaving a heritage of art practices and artworks to inspire future generations of artists in the region as well as outside of it.

A whole generation of artists emerged from Kazakh art faculties in the 1990s who insist, just as their teachers, on the continuation of a naturalistic tradition in art, especially in painting. The main themes and preoccupations of these artists can be divided into the philosophical, the beautiful and the nationalistic. Erbolat Tolepbay is one artist who believes in the emotional and philosophical power of paintings. His works seem to always glorify the presence of the artist's gesture and the ephemeral nature of the world, for example Summer Walk. Umirbek Zhubaniyazov creates almost Disney-like images of the pseudo-national past-present in Kezdesu. Bakhytzhan Myrzakhmetov pursued a very fashionable route, that of the construction of a heroic national past and heroic nationalism in his Tarkhan.


2. Saule Suleimenova, A house on Vesnovka, 2003

wax engraving, 130 х 180  (65 х 90 each of four parts)

© Saule Suleimenova

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3. Saule Suleimenova, Three Brides, part of the Kazakh Chronicle, 2008

acrylic on photograph laid on vinyl, 100 х 140

© Saule Suleimenova

One reaction to these grand paintings can be observed in the works on paper by Saule Suleimenova. Escaping the pathos and myth of the Golden Age, Suleimenova traces the colourful and the grey of the everyday in works such as A House on Vesnovka (2003, fig. 2). Neither abstract nor Realist, her works draw from myriad artistic traditions. Perhaps for the first time, Kazakh national ornament is part of that mix. However, Suleimenova does not concentrate on any one particular source; the unification of East and West comes naturally, almost by accident. This accidental trait in her works is most certainly a carefully planned and staged effect, and perhaps comes as the result of her understanding of art practices both in Kazakhstan and abroad. In her series, Kazakh Chronicle (2008, fig. 3), Suleimenova addresses the layering of identity processes: utilising photographs of writings on walls and gates, she paints over them images drawn from nineteenth-century ethnographic photographs, chance encounters with strangers, villagers and town-dwellers - all gathered to compose a fragmented view of Kazakh-ness.


4. Almagul Menlibayeva, Apa, 2003

video, 4"

© Almagul Menlibayeva

Finally, the two most prolific artists visible on the international scene, as well as at home, are Almagul Menlibayeva and Erbossyn Meldibekov. Another legendary piece of Kazakh video art is Almagul Menlibayeva's Apa (2003, fig. 4), which rarely goes unnoticed. This video was shown at the Central Asian pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale and at other exhibitions across Europe and in the UK. Furthermore, Waldemar Januszczak asked the artist to re-enact the performance for his film on Kazakh contemporary art, Kazakhstan Swings (2006, ZCZ productions for More4). Seven seemingly nude women rise above snow 'skirts' in the middle of a vast winter landscape. A return to the tradition of the depiction of landscape can be sensed and a departure from rigid forms of social behaviour is also present. Apa, however unusual it may seems is a form of departure from the past. In Kazakh Apa means grandmother. Shamanism, exploration of common human roots and appreciation of human beauty are all themes common to Menlibayeva's art. However, her main concern seems to be the clash between notions of freedom and identity, obvious in her works such as recent Genogramma (2009, fig. 5). Her videos have as much to say about the rest of the world as about the artist's native land. Mirage-like performances challenge Western stereotypes of Asian female beauty and the body as commodity in order to highlight the absurdity of modern-day cultural frameworks.

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5. Almagul Menlibayeva, “Genogramma" , 2009

lambda print, 100 х 150

© Almagul Menlibayeva

Erbossyn Meldibekov, on the other hand, is keen to highlight his links to Central Asia. His works reflect directly on the situation in the post-Soviet region as well as in neighbouring Afghanistan. One of his most recognizable works, a photograph titled My Brother, My Enemy (2001, fig. 6), is an exploration of self-hatred and the misuse of national identities within Central Asia, both of which lead to tensions within countries and even wars between them. He is an artist whose work is shown widely in international biennales and exhibitions, while at home he is largely unknown to the general public. This poses a number of questions not unrelated to general art processes in the region. How relevant is the nationality of the artist in today's globalised world? May we, for example, say that Meldibekov is a Kazakh artist, knowing that his art practice has little in common with contemporary society in Kazakhstan?


6. Erbossyn Meldibekov, My brother, My enemy , 2001

colour photograph

© Erbossyn Meldibekov. 

He is an Asian artist, a self-proclaimed barbarian of the art world. His performances, photographs, videos and installations are all drenched in violence, war, segregation and antipathy. Beautifully staged and carefully crafted, his artworks possess a menacing undertone. Do his images reveal Asia's dark inner nature or Europe's stereotyping process as it is directed towards Asia? Is he criticising new post-Soviet governments in Central Asia for their totalitarianism or for their weakness? A soft-natured person, Meldibekov creates tough art pieces. An exhibition of carefully chosen works by this artist took place in London in 2009 yet generated little resonance. The outside world reads these works as a critique of the Self. Meldibekov is an artistic Borat, an intriguing Kazakh artist, the ultimate form of the West's Other. He is menacing but harmless and foreign but comprehensible. If Kasteev was the first Kazakh professional artist of the mid-twentieth century, Meldibekov is the first Kazakh international artist of the twenty- first. Kasteev was the first Soviet Oriental to paint within the Soviet Orientalist framework. Meldibekov creates pieces and generates ideas that function within the globalised art market. Both of these artists function, or have functioned, within artificial contexts, thus revealing the ability to utilise their own national and ethnic backgrounds in order to captivate the outsider. Yet both seem to share an ultimate aim: the construction of Kazakhstan's identity and image within the wider art world outside of their homeland.