RA+C International Editor SIMON HEWITT heads to the Kazakh Capital to report on the inaugural ASTANA ART SHOW curated by Dina Baitassova.
ALTHOUGH OVER HALF the size of the European Union, Kazakhstan remains little known, and this Autumn launched an international PR charm offensive via four shows of Kazakh modern and contemporary art – in Berlin, New Jersey, South Korea and Wapping (see www.russianartandculture.com/focus-kazakhstan-post-nomadic-mind).
But what of the art scene back home – in Kazakhstan’s enigmatic capital, Astana?
Astana had been a sleepy provincial city, isolated in endless steppe 250 miles south of Russia, until Kazakh President Nursan Nazarbayev decided to move his capital up from Almaty in 1997. The last capital to be created in the steppe was Kalmykia’s Elista, back in the 1930s, now a cosy(ish) city of 100,000. Astana has seen its population triple inside two decades… to over one million, despite temperatures that oscillate between -40° in Winter to +40° in Summer.
With its glass towers, yawning highways and fierce steppe winds, Astana seems a daunting place to live. Yet the petrodollar glitz of its futuristic buildings, designed by a roster of international ‘starchitects’ led by Sir Norman Foster, gives it a futuristic vibe that many find compelling (a spate of top-class restaurants helps too).
Skyline stunners include Foster’s tent-shaped Khan Shatyr shopping mall, a giant opera house that carbon-copies the Bolshoi, and a blue-domed Reichstag topped by the spire of the St Petersburg Admiralty (Nursan’s new Presidential Palace). A 1380-foot tower at Abu Dhabi Plaza is set to become the tallest building in Central Asia, dwarfing Astana’s most familiar landmark: the spiky-crested 350-foot Bayterek Tower (only twenty years old, but already closed for renovation). This symbolic Tree of Life containing a mythical Samruk egg is another Foster design, and has been likened to a giant Ferrero Rocher rammed inside a shuttlecock.
Astana’s culture scene revolves around the National Museum, erected in 2014 in a quirky ‘Constructivist Gehry’ style. Its display of Scythian Gold almost compares with that in the Hermitage, and there is a wonderful array of 20th/21st century tapestries and Designer textiles. Highlight is Nikolai Tsivchinsky’s Balga, a spectacular rendering of a Kazakh horserace woven from wool, cotton and metal thread in 1939 – as an inscription in Latin lettering makes clear (Cyrillic was only adopted in Kazakhstan in 1940; Kazakh will revert to the Latin alphabet in 2025.)
A bronze statue of Nursultan Nazarbayev – the former steelworker who, since 1990, has been Kazakhstan’s one and only President – greets visitors in the Museum foyer, enthroned atop a flight of steps like a Eurasian Abraham Lincoln. The popular President, who mustered 97.7% of the vote at the last election, pops up in various media throughout the Museum, whose finest sculptures – sizable metal abstractions by Saken Narynov (born 1946) – occupy the top floor.
Textiles and metalwork remain an important aspect of Kazakh art to this day. Savvy visitors make a beeline to the workshop of Serzhan Bashirov – who uses pieces of wood and discarded scraps of precious metal to create ingenious landscapes (see above).
Sir Norman Foster’s lens-like NAZARBAYEV CENTRE (the name is spelt out in gold English English capitals on the façade) houses tapestries, the President’s library, the many gifts and awards he has received from a grateful world, and another Lincolnian statue.
Then there’s the eight-storey Nur Alem Energy Museum, a ritzy glass sphere designed by Chicago’s Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill for Astana’s EXPO 2017, with hi-tec displays and eye-popping lighting effects. Saken Narynov’s swirling, wire-mesh In Time And Space bestrides the plaza outside, while further contemporary sculptures (selected by Dina Baitassova) pepper the interior.
Yet another Foster design is the Astana Pyramid or, to give it its official title, ‘Palace of Peace and Accord.’ The largely windowless interior, which has the feel of a giant burial chamber, is redeemed by Leyla Mahat’s Kulanshi Contemporary Art Center (American English) on the 6th floor.
Mahat’s own works are on show here – notably a triptych of brightly coloured horses fusing Franz Marc with Petrov-Vodkin – along with eye-teasing portraits by Qanat Nurtazin, some concocted from mosquito netting.
There is talk of the Pyramid becoming the home of a future (and much-needed) Kazakh national museum of contemporary art. Its cheap neon lighting will hopefully perish in the process.
Leyla Mahat also manages a Kulanshi ArtSpace inside the HQ of ForteBank, currently hosting post-war Kazakh art from the collection of business tycoon Nurlan Snagulov – sometimes dubbed Kazakhstan’s answer to Pavel Tretyakov and Peggy Guggenheim. The 136-page catalogue to his collection suggests such comparisons may be ambitious, yet offers the most authoritative overview of Kazakh art of the last half-century.
ASTANA ART SHOW
I first encountered Kazakh artists in Turin in 2009, at an exhibition of art from Central Asia entitled East Of Nowhere and curated by Valeria Ibraeva, then head of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Almaty. Sixteen Kazakh artists were featured – including Almagul Menlibayeva, already an international star; Gulnur Mukazhanova and Saule Suleimenova, soon to become ones; and Katya Nikonorova, whose boundary-pounding sense of humour would see her blossom into one of the most extravagant performance artists between Moscow and Beijing.
Most of the 16 artists were from Almaty, none from Astana, which Almatians eye with the same mix of disdain and jealousy that Moscovites reserved for 18th century St Petersburg.
The Kazakh art scene has long been rooted in Almaty, but that’s starting to change. The person leading the charge is Dina Baitassova, who grew up in Almaty and studied Art and Design in Paris before relocating to Astana 18 months ago.
I met Dina in 2014 in Almaty, where she was curating a splendid exhibition called On Love and Other Teachers in an underground car-park. Among my favourite works were paintings and watercolours by Kamilla Gabdullina – a far cry from her expansive, cloud-like Hoelun installation recently on show at Wapping Power Station.
Since settling in Astana, Dina has founded Artios Art Advisory and TSÉ Art Destination, aiming to ‘create an environment where contemporary art is a significant factor in the cultural development of society’ – and persuade Astana’s diplomats and oil barons to start collecting it.
The team she has assembled to help her in these tasks is spearheaded by jet-set Artistic Director Baur-Jean Sagi – who attended Central Saint Martins and has worked for Chanel and Alexander McQueen.
TSÉ (the name derives from Astana’s international airport code TSE – the city was called Tselinograd from 1961-92) opened last February with a solo show by Almagul Menlibayeva, and was the core venue of Dina’s most ambitious project to date: the three-part Astana Art Show that ran September 15-October 28.
This groundbreaking event – accompanied by lectures, workshops and artist masterclasses – was supported by Kazakhstan’s National Museum, Ministry of Culture, and the ‘Rukhany Zhangyru’ programme created in 2017 to ‘modernize the nation’s sense of identity.’
Astana Art Show’s main exhibition, curated by Dina Baitassova and Assel Akhmetzhanova, was held at TSÉ on the theme of Metamorphosis and featured recent or specially commissioned works by Kazakh and international artists.
Things got going before you even made it into the gallery. Visitors were greeted outside by large white panels covered with digital collages made by London-based duo Mika & Berkin (Mika Orynbassarova and Bakhtiyar Berkin) using photographs from 1950s magazines – aiming, said Mika, to ‘reflect a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly.’
TSÉ’s arcaded façade, whose large windows flood the cool white gallery with natural light, had been festooned with monochrome murals. Syrlybek Bekbotayev’s Modern Paradigm (2018) at one end involved the same painted, whir-happy cogwheels as his eponymous work in Wapping.
Starring inside was another artist shown in Wapping, Gulnur Mukazhanova, with sophisticated fabric works in both two and three dimensions. Occupying a cabinet in the centre of the gallery was Ada Yu’s Crystallization of Self-Perception – a row of Soviet banknotes smothered in crystals, evoking the transient nature of material values. Yu, who now lives in Paris, epitomizes Kazakhstan’s cultural mix – hailing from one of the many Korean families forceably relocated from the Russian Far East in the 1930s.
A trio of London-based Kazakhettes were represented at TSÉ by vastly dissimilar works. Aigani Guli’s hazy, Turner-esque triptych, Caspian, offered a dreamy contrast to Aza Shadenova’s eye-whamming neo-Suprematist paintings. The flamboyant Katya Kan meanwhile fizzes in all creative directions. In between parading along Tube platforms in body-hugging leather or pink-eared bunny suits, she dabbles in surrealist painting, bunny-eared graphics and video – her dripping red Younger Heart (2018) stood out at TSÉ.
A strong sculpture section was headed by Tomiris Murat’s shrubs enclosing jade and jasper hearts, and Reformers – various tools (scythes, hammers, axes, spatulas) whitewashed into works of art by Kiev’s Vasyl Grublyak and Alexei Zolotarev (collectively known as GAZ). Mansur Smagambetov’s Kazakh Traditional Tea created a giant piala (Kazakh tea-cup) using smaller, individual china cups set in concrete.
TSÉ occupies the same building as the Bavaria Beerhouse (excellent Weissbier), whose porticoed entance, flanked by stained glass windows, opens on to a large foyer which, during Metamorphosis, was embellished with more artworks.
Neon-lettered signs by Suinbike Suleimenova dangled from the ceiling above Aziz Abdul Mazhetov’s CD map of Kazakhstan. Beibet Assemkul’s Oryn-Taq (two confrontational chairs) fronted a photography section that included a series entitled I, Oblomov by Japan’s Ikuru Kuwadjima – an ode to Goncharov’s famous 1850s novel about gentlemanly indolence… the key, feels Kuwadjima, ‘to deciphering Russian mentality.’ The self-portraits and interiors Kuwadjima snapped on travels through Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan saw him ‘join the ranks of countless modern Oblomovs… lying down for long periods, overcome by laziness, depression and hangovers.’
Astana Art Show’s second exhibition, Ghost Expedition, lurked upstairs. It featured works by six young artists from Poland, Kazakhstan and Switzerland who had been sent to roam the Mangyshlak Peninsular on the north-east shore of the Caspian Sea, to celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and the E.U.
Brexit or not, it was sad to find no homage to the first Briton on the banks of the Caspian: London tradesman Anthony Jenkinson, who landed near Aktau on 3 September 1558 before departing for Bukhara with a thousand-camel caravan.
Ghost Expedition’s goal – to transcribe into art the ‘sacred resonance’ of the camps and burial grounds of ancient Kazakh nomads – was underpinned by spooky blue lighting, piles of desert sand, and breeze blocks interspersed with glowing plastic hands. Most effective was an installation by Grzegorz Demczuk that featured a fan on the floor and a video of the artist spinning around like a whirling dervish in doomed pursuit of eternity (he kept falling over). An overhead fan, two small photos and the crash helmet which Demczuk – ex-Łodź Arts Academy, now based in Zurich – wisely wore during his exertions were superfluous additions to the installation. If Demczuk can pare things down to the essentials, his quirky genius will enthrall art-lovers for years to come.
Astana Art Show’s third exhibition, Reload, was held in a cavernous hall at the Moskva Business Centre – where curator Aigul Ibrayeva had assembled hard-hitting works by 16 young artists from Central Asia (if we include in that definition the Russian city of Omsk, 60 miles from the Kazakh frontier). The bare concrete walls offered a stark contrast to conditions at TSÉ, and the art was radically different too – replete with political positioning and feminist comment, perhaps influenced by Ibrayeva’s exposure to art in the German-speaking world (she returned to Astana last year from three years in Bern).
What wasn’t different from the show at TSÉ was the imposing variety of media – ranging from acrylic, oils, graphics and graffiti to photography, posters, sculpture and textiles.
The Omsk section took the form of caustic posters by Anton Gudkov and a series of snarling works on Chechnya by Nikita Pozdnyakov (see below centre), with Russian military officer Yuri Budanov (shot dead in Moscow in 2011) portrayed as a Caucasus Che Guevara.
From Kyrgyzstan came a Mound of Venus installation – reams of thread and fabric dangling from the ceiling – by the enchantingly named Jazz-Cool Madazimova. From Tajikistan: Farukh Kuziyev’s video installation Media Cauldron, inspired by the Tajik President’s efforts to have platefuls of plof listed among UNESCO’s world heritage. And from Uzbekistan: Alexander Barkovsky’s powerful photo collages and wall of graffiti, all in menacing blood-red and black. Sadly there was no artist from secretive Turkmenistan.
Almaty’s Zoya Falkova, in her repeater-image Dreams of Menemosyne, mesmerizingly exploited a Soviet newsreel salvaged from a dustbin outside the city’s demolished Almaty Railway Museum after months in the sun and rain.
Reload also served as a powerful showcase for Astana artists. Among them: the versatile Aigerim Mazitkhan; Almas Orakbay, whose large, ironically retro painting of Old People evoked vanishing steppe culture; and Dinara Nuger with Consciousness – three plain, navy blue canvases symbolizing the unconscious, offset by a single yellow canvas (embodying enlightenment) swathed in rough twine to symbolize ‘neural connections.’
A haunting tribute to Kazakhstan’s Gulag-ridden past was provided by Aruzhan Zhumabek’s Nameless – a series of 36 drawings of a single finger, hung in six rows of six and resembling tombstones (above right). The work’s Russian title, безымянный, involves a pun on ‘ring-finger.’
The most spectacular work was Mansur Smagambetov’s sand, chain and milk-churn installation Breakthrough (above left), inspired by the pioneering water-supply that existed a thousand years ago in the (now abandoned) Silk Road town of Otrar in southern Kazakhstan. Smagambetov’s milk-churns, transformed into chunky dive-bombers by the addition of wings and tail-fins, symbolized the rough-and-ready means some Kazahs must still use to get water today. The sand leaking from their Dalek-like, watering-can spouts offered pungent comment on creaking Kazakh infrastructure. The comment’s impact was heightened by being made in gleaming 21st century Astana.
Smagambetov caught the eye of Valeria Ibraeva, doyenne of Kazakh curators, who has invited him to take part in the Human Rights exhibition she is staging this December at the Artmeken Gallery she opened in Almaty in 2017.
‘Almaty has been the country’s major art venue until now,’ Valeria told me, ‘but the city’s young artists lack ideas and are mainly interested in money.’ In contrast, she feels, ‘Astana has fresh blood and potential – and many young artists who are actually interested in contemporary art.’
Bringing those artists to domestic and international attention is the task Dina Baitassova has set herself. Her inaugural Astana Art Show was an engaging first step in that direction, and she is already planning an expanded version for 2019.
all photos © Simon Hewitt
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