Central Asian Identity, Orientalism and Modern Art

Interesting research from Alex Ulko, which reveals the essence of identity of contemporary art in the region

First of all, the geographical definition of ‘Central Asia’ requires further clarification. The few proposed definitions of the borders of the region can be broadly subdivided into two groups, each bearing its own connotations. The first, which goes back to von Humboldt and is favoured by many scholars outside the region, emphasises its common long-term historical heritage and geographical integrity.

It views Central Asia as a vast territory that includes Mongolia, Tibet, northern parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, central-east Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics, the ‘stans’. The second, rooted in the Russian and later, Soviet geopolitical concept, defines Central Asia as the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and is as close to a self-definition as it can possibly be. In the Soviet times these two concepts used to be referred to as Центральная (Central) or Средняя (Middle) Азия respectively. Soon after the collapse of the USSR, the five ‘stans’ reached kind of a compromise by sticking to the modified Soviet geographic definition (which had originally excluded Kazakhstan) but at the same time adopting the internationally recognised term even in the Russian language.

More interesting and important than purely geographical, at least for the purposes of this paper, are the cultural and social connotations underpinning these definitions. The former seems to reflect the popular perception of the region as a vast land, sparsely inhabited mostly by nomads and historically associated with the Great Silk Road. This, essentially Orientalist definition, supported by UNESCO, suggests a greater unity between different Central Asian peoples and a broader interpretation of their historical and cultural heritage. However, it seems to take little notice of the profound changes caused by the Russian expansion in the region in the 19th century and the subsequent 70-years long Soviet rule, until very recently associated only with ‘industrialisation’, ‘Russification’ and ‘suppression of local cultures’. This definition, although both contemporary and traditional, lends a conceptual support to the post-colonial discourse of Central Asia.

The latter definition tends to focus more on the traditional culture of urban centres to the north of the Amudarya (Oxus), which later became the centres of the colonial Turkestan, then of the new Soviet nations and finally, the cities and capitals of the modern national states. Although derived from the Soviet socialist experiment of nationality building, this vision of the region was adopted by the governments and the citizens of these newly independent countries mostly for two reasons. First, it legitimises the more recent national history and cultural development in the region over the last two hundred years viewed by post-colonialists as a mere aberration. Second, it also supports the official myth of centuries-long nationhood, first conceived by the Soviet scholars and then firmly established as a part of the national ideology in each of the ‘stans’. This definition and the concept underpinning it can, following Margaret Dikovitskaya’s suggestion, be associated with the post-socialist rather than post-colonial discourse.

Soviet plan of Central Asian demarcation. Source: Soviet historical encyclopedy

It is possible, therefore, to speak of two broad groups of overlapping and interacting Central Asian definitions and self-identities. What implications does this dichotomy have for the artists of the region? The post-colonial narrative, most obviously followed by the outside global world, causes Central Asian artists (the ingroup) to strive for the ‘positive distinctiveness’ against the outside world, first of all, the EU, the US or to a lesser extent, the Russia-centred artistic community (the outgroup) thereby trying to acquire at least some of the attributes and rights of the Other. In search for such recognition, many artists consciously and unconsciously develop a stronger affinity with the ‘greater’ Central Asian identity with its emphasis on centuries-long traditions, nomadism, closeness to the nature, possibly even shamanism and other cultural clichés firmly engrained in the external public perception (for example, the Great Silk Road). It should be noted that this Orientalist trend is discernible in a wide range of genres and kinds of art – from commercial to avant-garde, from neo-traditional to contemporary.

Interestingly, such self-categorisation seems to come easier and more natural for the artists linked to traditionally nomadic subcultures (in particular, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). One of the most internationally recognised contemporary artists from the region, Almagul Menlibayeva, boldly explores the boundaries of nomadism in her controversial installations often featuring naked Kazakh girls adorned with intentionally brutal Central Asian imagery (severed heads of lambs, fur hats, abandoned clay huts and railway carriages, the barren steppe and so on). One can argue whether these works represent fascination with ‘naked black bodies under imperialist observation’ (Enwesor) or a feminist deconstruction of Islamic taboos, but their reference to the Orientalist narrative is clear. Another, albeit very different example is maqom, a range of traditional Central Asian non-chromatic music modes with Arabic roots, which are played on traditional music instruments (e.g. nai) across the region and are juxtaposed against the ‘national’, Westernised even-tempered versions of the same modes. Yet another kind of generic ‘Centralasianness’ is particularly visible in a wide range of commercial, tourist-oriented objects of applied art with their emphasis on the use of rough natural materials that can be found in ‘art boutiques’ across the whole region.

On the other hand, attempts to assert the ‘narrower’, post-Russian, post-Soviet Central Asian identity, rooted in the less exotic, but more specific urban tradition, have been less successful, at least internationally. Although the obvious explanation that it does not fit the external perception of the region’s culture seems simplistic, it is, in fact, more of an overarching statement. The sophisticated urban culture of the region, by and large gone by the 18th century, is of considerable interest only to a relatively narrow circle of art historians and archaeologists. It was badly served by the Soviet Kulturträgers who brought from the oblivion the names of some artists, poets and scholars only to assign them the mythical titles of ‘fathers of Uzbek/Kazakh/Tajik literature/painting/philosophy’. Nevertheless, despite the crude attempts to develop ‘authentic national socialistic culture and art’ in a couple of decades, the Soviet effort ultimately led to a deep transformation of the very foundations of the local art as well as of the society as a whole. This cultural transfer is often overlooked by the external Eurocentric observer, and in many ways it is similar to the one discussed by Maria Todorova in Imagining the Balkans, where she defines ‘Balkanism’ as something entirely different to Orientalism.

Again, the ‘narrower’, more fragmented and complex vision of the culture of the region can be illustrated by a range of examples from different genres, periods and styles. The Soviet-era school of Central Asian painting ranging from the cubist Alexander Volkov, to the impressionist Pavel Benkov, to the realist Semyon Chuikov to the romanticist Ural Tansykbayev has provided numerous examples of fusion between the regional themes and Russian (or Western) artistic methods and techniques. In a somewhat similar way the traditional music of the region has been creatively adapted by several generations of composers starting from Victor Uspensky and Mukhtar Ashrafi to Felix Yanov-Yanovsky and Dilorom Saidaminova to produce eclectic forms of modern Central Asian classical music. An interesting example of the complex relationship between the post-colonial and post-Soviet discourses of authenticity is the development of a hugely popular kind of machine-made silk fabric, khan-atlas based on traditional and more complex hand-made fabrics known as ikats. Spread across the whole Central Asia (mostly in Uzbekistan), khan atlas is often dismissed by Western consumers as too bright and glossy. In the 1990s the ‘revival’ of a more subdued variety of ikat ‘has been brought about by several small projects motivating small entrepreneurs,‘ which is almost solely produced for tourists who prefer its pale hues and more ‘authentic’ look to the ubiquitous khan atlas.

In view of these complex relationships between different concepts of regional identity one may therefore consider whether ‘Centralasianness’ can be a useful concept in its own right or is it subsumed by a larger Orientalist discourse.

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