Discovering the Kazakhstan arts scene

The country has launched a major programme to show the work of its artists abroad

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In Almaty, a grass-green city at the edge of Kazakhstan's snow-capped mountains, small houses sit next to Soviet-­era blocks built for factory workers. Last week, an international delegation was taken on a tour of artists' studios – all wedged into tiny apartments, with cracks forming in the walls and shelves overflowing with books. Outside, in playgrounds between the apartment blocks, grandparents called out to children in Russian. Weeds grew through lines in the pavement. Women mostly wore knee-length ­dresses. The feeling of being in the Soviet era was everywhere – at least until I climbed back into the white Porsche SUV that was transporting us, and headed to the next studio.

The Kazakh government, after years of benignly neglecting contemporary art, has launched its first major programme to support its working artists and to showcase Kazakh art abroad. The extensive project, titled Focus Kazakhstan, is headed by Rosa Abenova, contemporary art specialist of the National Museum of Kazakhstan, who will oversee four shows of Kazakh contemporary art during the next two years: in London, Berlin, New York, and Suwon, South Korea. "We are known for our oil and gas," Abenova says. "Now we want to be known for our culture."

Exhibiting a gentle deference towards the past

The exhibitions will provide a rare look at a generation straddling a historical divide: artists who trained under Soviet principles of naturalist drawing, social intention, and propaganda, and who then plied their trade under a system of market forces and within a country forging a new identity. Though most of the country speaks Russian, for example, next year the country will begin transitioning to a Latin alphabet. 

Under the Soviets, dissident artists and thinkers were often exiled to Kazakhstan, because it lies far from the power centre of Moscow, and they often stayed there. The country's geography has long been its asset: the practice actually began more happily during the Second World War, when artists and creatives were sent to Almaty to escape the dangers of the front line. Sergei Eisenstein, for example, filmed Ivan the Terrible at the Kazakh Film Studios, in the shadow of the Alatau Mountains. Almaty bears the traces of their artistic influence, and produced a rich tradition of painting during the Soviet era, from sunny socialist realism in the early days of the empire, to the critical and non-conformist work made in the 1980s and '90s.

The latter work is still largely considered "contemporary". At the National Museum, a 74,000-square-metre bunker that opened in 2013, Abenova curated a show of the dissident artist Erkin Mergenov. Mergenov's sculptures, tortured and angry, felt marooned in time: a little too literal for contemporary tastes, and fighting a fight that had long since passed.

But what was curious about our experience in Kazakhstan was that far from disavowing this type of production, the curators of the project – who themselves run the gamut from Soviet-trained to an international banker-turned-art foundation director – exhibited a gentle deference towards the past, and were as keen to recoup it as to move on.

The Soviet/Kazakh split's influence within the work

The shows in London and Berlin, whose artists have been confirmed, will both pair contemporary artists with those that the Kazakhs refer to as Old Masters, the painters of the Soviet era. In London, where the show is curated by Indira Dyussebayeva, alongside Aliya de Tiesenhausen, a painting of a girl in national costume by Salikhitdin Aytbayev from 1977 and the dissident painting Dog Eating Its Puppies by Abdrashit Sidychanov will keep company with collage work by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbay, an artist couple who have worked together since 1996 and represented Kazakhstan in an informal Central Asian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 2013.

The Berlin-based Almagul Menlibayeva, one of the more internationally known Kazakh artists, will appear in both London and Berlin, where she will co-curate the show Bread and Roses: Four Generations of Kazakh Women. This will include the work of Lidya Blinova, an artist who died young in 1996 and whose artistic opportunities are commonly believed to have been forestalled by her husband, extraordinary Kazakh artist Rustam Khalfin, a pioneer of contemporary artistic production. Speaking about Blinova's work and her perceived sacrifice, the eyes of the women involved in this project brimmed with anger: the art history of the country feels very much alive.

The Soviet/Kazakh split is also apparent within the work itself. Madanov and Terekbay, for example, map the changes to Kazakhstan in a series of collages and installations that put side by side newspaper imagery, advertisements, blocks of colour and found elements, as if reflecting a fractious world. The results feel oddly hesitant, and I couldn't help thinking of the stylistic distance between collage, with its additive, relational technique, and dissident strategies, the pointed rendition of one charged idea.

'An unstoppable energy'

Elsewhere, as in Madanov and Terekbay's installation for the Central Asian Pavilion, a more monumental style reigned: the single visual impact of a duvet comprised of small army figurines, which suggested a person sleeping where there was actually only a void. Here, the ideas around the collective and the gulf between appearance and reality made sense – even if slightly too ironic. (This work was on show at the newly launched TSE gallery in Astana, run by Dina Baitassova.)

An unstoppable energy pervades the work of Yerbossyn Meldibekov, in spirited dissections of how identity is transformed and mangled into pre-packaged images – whether monumental or media, symbols of the state or of manufactured national identity. The idea of the artist as responsible for a social populace was also prominent. Saule Suleimenova showed paintings formed from disposable plastic bags, in a commentary on consumerism and environmental damage, as well as a stunning series that overlaid 19th-century images of Kazakh peasants and nomads onto the hoardings that line the construction sites of the newly built capital, Astana.


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Suleimenova's studio was also the site for one of the more unexpected Abu Dhabi connections I have experienced: as we sat discussing her paintings, in wandered Patrick Lichty, an American artist who teaches at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. The two met at the first Abu Dhabi Culture Summit and have been collaborating since.

Contemporary art is now an international language by which developing countries signal their currency. This is an intention behind the Focus Kazakhstan initiative, but the project itself feels more idiosyncratic than usual. Emphatically local, Focus Kazakhstan centres not on the cool contemporary future, but acknowledges an identity in formation, and sheds light on a generation caught in between a cataclysmic past and an equally bewildering present. Astana is only 20 years old – which makes much of contemporary Dubai look old by comparison – and has the eerie feel of its new beginnings, as well as the anxiety of its ambitions. Abenov, who has lived there for 10 years, compared it to a baby, and says she watches over it with the joy and concern of a new mother. "I feel its successes as if they were my own," she tells me. "And its setbacks when it stumbles, too."

Focus Kazakhstan will visit London (September 18 to October 16); Berlin (September 25 to October 20); Suwon, South Korea (November 27 to March 3); and New York (dates TBC)