Multiple identities in Central Asian art
Cross-regional and Blogosphere, Culture and HistoryNo Comment
While Central Asian and national identities are by nature overarching, all-inclusive concepts, the ethnic, religious, class and other categories, although significant in their own right, are usually viewed as fractions of a larger whole.
In everyday life they are often represented in a form of a binary opposition, e.g. European – Asian; Muslim – Christian; Russian – Uzbek; urban – rural and so on, again, reinforcing the Orientalist perception of cross-cultural contacts in terms of the Self vs. the Other. Unlike in the orthodox Orientalist model, in Central Asia these basic personal identifications do not coincide, but overlap, creating a wide range of complex and fluid sub-cultural identities and loyalties. For example, not all ethnic Uzbeks (Tajiks, Kazakhs) speak Uzbek as their first language; often religious ceremonies and rituals are viewed as a part of national traditions which sometimes merge and intersect and vice versa. Applying the infamous Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ to Central Asians, one may be surprised to find that a lot of Tajiks or Uzbeks supporting one or another Russian football team and cheering for Russia in the World Cup would be unhappy to see their son dating a Russian (or any other ‘Christian’) girl and so on.
I would like to outline several possible ways of looking at how certain art forms function as expressions of these shifting identities. Although many of these overlapping identities are the result of the interaction between the indigenous and the Russian (or, indeed, European) cultures, these interactions do not follow the simple Orientalist model but should be interpreted in terms of more complex multiple cultural transfers. It can be argued that all forms of the modern Central Asian art are the result of these transfers, be it Kazakh symphonic music, Uzbek oil painting or Turkmen monumental sculpture. As I have already mentioned, these art forms, cultivated and institutionalised for many decades by and within the Soviet system as the core of the new local art, express the conscious intention of the Soviet authorities to amalgamate the local authentic artistic traditions with the Russian tradition on the new basis of Soviet national ideology. In this sense Soviet Central Asian art already was post-colonial. How can these multiple temporal, ideological and narrative shifts be explored in relation to the multiple identities I have just mentioned? One way of exploring the relations between the narrower identities and art is examining various art genres, in particular, somewhat less established art forms which are often associated with certain social groups or even grassroots movements. Some of such art forms are eclectic and imitative, while some are by far more marginal than others but they all function in a kind of binary opposition to the mainstream post-Soviet art.
Another way of looking at the artistic expression of group identities is classifying these identities and categories (for example, language, ethnicity, religion, gender and so on) and analysing the way they are mediated across a wide range of artistic practices. For example, one of the few narratives which are prominent in the society but underrepresented in art is the whole scope of religious concepts and identities. The secular society of the Soviet Central Asia was replaced by an interesting symbiosis of secular, religious and traditional concepts and lifestyles and in all five Central Asian countries the issue of religion causes some controversy if it falls outside the borders tightly regulated by the government. Generally speaking, in the region the Muslim religion is viewed as a part of the cultural identity and spirituality of the titular nation and its neighbours. The late professor Pyatigorsky of London University reprimanded the Russian proclivity for interpreting philosophy first and foremost in terms of culture. I would like to extend this criticism to the areas of art and religion and to argue that this culture-centred approach is equally characteristic of the modern Central Asian art, philosophy and religion. So, it is difficult to discuss modern Central Asian art in terms of ‘Muslim’ art, although Islamic artifacts and practices are often mentioned or even focused on in a range of paintings, photos, films or even music pieces. There are also some interesting attempts to express religious concepts through the Sufi-flavoured symbols and artistic imagery or, as more often seen in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, through pre-Islamic, shamanic motifs. In most cases, however, artists assume the viewpoint of an outsider, talking about one or another religious ritual or item, rather than expressing a certain religious feeling or idea directly.
One may also take a more social anthropologic approach and examine different target groups, for example, artistic communities, consumers of art products or groups with a specific identity. As an example I would like to touch upon the issue of ethnic minorities and the relation of their artistic activity to the larger issues of Central Asian art. The topic itself merits, perhaps, a few fully-researched academic works thanks to its overarching character on the one hand and to its complexity on the other. The pivotal issue around which the whole concept of multiple ethnic identities in Central Asia revolves is the shift in ethnic hegemony. Although the Soviet system was based on ‘Socialist internationalism’, in the everyday life a great number of concepts, rituals and items were borrowed from the Russian / European praxis, as would be expected of a colonial society. In the broader Soviet context the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and so on were national minorities, while in the Soviet republics, later independent states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and so on they became the titular nations, the dominant group and the Russian, German, Jewish, Armenian, Korean etc. population found itself a part of the ethnic minority. Why is this important?
Soviet propaganda poster, illustration of “Friendship of the nations” concept. Photo: Ridus.ru
Without going too far into the political and sociological detail, and leaving aside the whole post-colonial / post-socialist narrative, I would like to focus on the issue of the identity the artists belonging to these minority groups have to address. These questions are by no means unique to Central Asia with its obsession with primordialism and ethnicity; yet the extent of overlapping and often incongruous identities in the region is indeed remarkable. Should a painting by an ethnic Armenian living in Uzbekistan by definition be regarded as a part of modern Uzbek art by virtue of its geographic location? Or must it comply with some other criteria to be perceived as such and if yes, which ones? Or should it be viewed as a part of the Armenian cultural heritage thanks to the ethnic and cultural origin of the author?
These and similar questions are by nature descriptive and aim at the classification of the processes that can be observed and interpreted. However, what is even more pertinent in the Central Asian context is a range of prescriptive issues that are explicitly or implicitly forced on artists belonging to one or another minority groups. What kind of art is such an artist expected to do for it to be regarded as a part of the local heritage? Is there any moral obligation to reflect the everyday life or the symbology of the dominant ethnic group(s)? Or should an artist be primarily concerned with the artistic values and forms inherent to their own ethnic or, indeed, any other group?
In other words, the relations between the multiple overlapping identities in Central Asia are complex and cannot be explained in terms of the simplistic postcolonial theory. Artistic practices in the region can only reflect this inherent complexity and therefore should be studied as such, which basically means the end of the discourse of ‘the national art’, long overdue.