Orientalism and the Open Central Asia Literary Forum

Central Asian culture and art are the only unclearly marked areas on the map of the world’s contemporary art – in the new post of our special blogger Alexei Ulko

Editor’s note: NewEurasia already written about the Open Central Asian literary forum. Our special blogger Alex Ulko gives his opinion on the event and on the development of Central Asian art in general

In 2005 the Russian curator Victor Miziano spoke of Central Asian culture and art as of the only unclearly marked areas on the map of the world’s contemporary art. This begs a legitimate question whether anything has changed over seven years which is a long period of time from a contemporary art’s perspective. Actually, not much. We have been waiting for years for a decisive moment to come when Central Asia would suddenly surface as the new Other, unknown until that time in the West, when it would unexpectedly evoke some special interest, but this breakthrough has not come yet. Some occasional names and random works get a mention or two somewhere but so far Central Asian art has not really emerged on the international scene.

In this context too many artists and writers become obsessed with Orientalism, aiming at identifying the essential ‘centralasianness’ of the local art. They ask themselves a question: ‘What must we do in order to reflect our Central Asian identity and to transform this reflection in a commodity to be put on the Western market?’ In my opinion this is a typically export-oriented Orientalist approach and it is worrying to see artist trying to conform to these expected or imaginary standards of artistic perception. While the West has not recognised Central Asia as yet, all the means to stand out are as good as any others. Nobody expect the Japanese to walk around in kimono and to wield their swords, the Japanese can do whatever they want. An artist or a writer from Central Asia cannot afford this or, at least, thinks so. They believe they have a moral duty to produce national art, to reflect a certain social reality or community, national traditions and national elements in their culture. It is even more strongly emphasised in literature, and such writers as Khamid Ismailov know it all too well. He said that he had conceived his novel The Railway as a Soviet novel about a complex multicultural environment that had surrounded him and was hurt when this text was published in France with a third of the novel removed by the publishers. They cleansed the novel of all non-Uzbek elements and left only uzbekchilik (‘uzbekness’). This is a good example of classic Orientalism: they would not bother to see Central Asia as a complex multicultural civilisation; all they want is a simple and stereotypical exoticism: embroidered skullcaps, smelly sheep, oily plov, bright silk and so on, but even worse is the aspiration demonstrated by quite a few artists and writers to comply with these stereotypes.

Open Central Asian literary forum. Photo by Alex Ulko

Although all the above can be said about any art from the region, literature in a way has its own special place, first of all because it uses a certain natural human language. Obviously, painting or any other visual art form does not require translation per se and its national identity is not that important. Literature is always written in a natural language, in this case – in one of the titular national languages of Central Asian states, or in Russian or in a foreign language, e.g. English. As a verbalised kind of art, literature is linked to a wide range of ideological and political issues which, of course, brings about dissent. Trying to project a generalised vision of Central Asian literature as a whole is more difficult than to arrange an exhibition of regional installations which can easily be brought together under one roof. In view of this I would like to express my admiration for Marat Akhmejanov’s and his colleagues’ initiative to organise such an integrated literary forum. Raising the awareness of an authentic and not artificially constructed regional integrity, commonality between writers belonging to different nations, classes, schools and genres is crucial for the development of a healthy attitude to the region’s literary art.

The first forum seems to have been quite successful despite the organisers’ focus on the commercial aspect of literature which has caused some grumbles in certain literary circles. Although I also have a different viewpoint, I think that writers should face the following question: what is it exactly that you really want? To write ‘immortal’ literature to be shelved or something to be published? To achieve the latter, one should follow some criteria and to acknowledge that certain literature sells in a certain environment. And also to write something which you feel for and which at the same time is interesting not only to you and your narrow circle of friends, but also to a wider audience. I think it is very important for writers to develop a true understanding of how it is possible to remain oneself and to write commercially relevant literature.

Open Central Asian literary forum. Photo by Alex Ulko

At the Forum literature was presented as the subject of a dialogue between the writer and the publisher. This was an understandable choice of focus for the organisers who represent publishing industry, and yet there is one more important aspect, which, I hope, Marat and his colleagues may want to take into account while planning future forums. It is the vast field of literary studies, criticism and theory, in other words, the academic or professional context of literary existence. I asked Khamid Ismailov, if he has his reader, whether he had his critic, his theorist or historian who could talk about the contemporary Central Asian literature as of a systemic phenomenon, in the same way as we talk about the contemporary independent cinema in Uzbekistan, or such authors as Boris Chukhovich, Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalova who write about Central Asian art. The answer was negative, and it seems to me that alongside with the publishers’ literary forum there should also be a forum of literary studies which could accommodate both local and foreign literary scholars working with the literature of the region.

In any case, whatever the contemporary Central Asian literature is, it needs its readers and publishers as well as its critics and theorists; and if we want it to be recognised beyond the borders of the region, we need to make some focused – and, importantly, – joint efforts to this end.

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  • Nice article. I definitely agree with the idea of Central Asianness being too prominent in artist’s mind, not only with writers, but also with visual artists, especially crafts people. But it is a careful balancing act between selling and experimenting, so I do not blame them for choosing security first.

    Also, I think it’s important to note that this idea of orientalism not only lives with foreign audiences, but also with locals. It is often them who are most interested in this cliche-ridden art.

  • Thank you for this, Steven, I completely agree with your last statement: obviously, when we first encounter something we don’t really know it’s what is on the surface which attracts attention and serves as a basis for further judgement – so in this sense I don’t blame foreign audiences at all.

    Unfortunately, quite a lot of Central Asian artists who realise the need for cross-cultural dialogue in their work still think it highly original to incorporate elements of the local folk art in their expressionist paintings etc. In Kyrgyzstan you can see humndres of paintings based on paleolithic rock art, in Uzbekistan it’s the solar symbology of suzane (and Persian miniature) that finds its way in every second picture.

    Again, all this is very understandable but leaves you wondering how long this first stage of cross-cultural dialogue is going to last.

  • I’m of two minds about this. I see your point, but at the same time, if they *don’t* incorporate traditional/local elements, then what elements should they include? It almost seems that, by default, they would have to resort only to Western or “global” elements.

    On a related note, I also think this is a tricky criticism when expressionism is specifically concerned, since that is a very in situ artform…

  • Well, traditional elements may be a part of contemporary art, but they don’t HAVE to be. I think the most important thing here is artistic integrity, and there are some good examples of such fusion, e.g. some clothing items made by the Tashkent textile company ‘Human Wear’ or the use of Uzbek folk instruments by the Omnibus ensemble which plays contemporary classical music. A writer should not write about exotic things only because he or she thinks it represents Central Asia and will sell well in the West – I think that such obligatory, mandatory realism is counter-productive.

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