Artist Profile: Saule Suleimenova

Translation of mursya‘s post (RUS). Timur writes: Saule Suleimenova (b. 1970, Almaty) is one of Kazakhstan’s deepest, most interesting and prolific artists. Her husband, Kuanysh “Kuba” Bazargaliev, is also an artist. Saule’s work has been displayed in the CIS countries, Europe and the United States. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was part of the legendary art group “The Green Triangle.” Besides doing visual art, she also writes poetry. During the events of December 1986, 16-year-old Saule wrote the poem “Let Us Stand as a Wall,” which she read before the protesters in Almaty’s Republican Square. Some excerpts…

Translation of mursya‘s post (RUS).

Timur writes:

Saule Suleimenova (b. 1970, Almaty) is one of Kazakhstan’s deepest, most interesting and prolific artists. Her husband, Kuanysh “Kuba” Bazargaliev, is also an artist. Saule’s work has been displayed in the CIS countries, Europe and the United States. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was part of the legendary art group “The Green Triangle.” Besides doing visual art, she also writes poetry.

During the events of December 1986, 16-year-old Saule wrote the poem “Let Us Stand as a Wall,” which she read before the protesters in Almaty’s Republican Square. Some excerpts made it into Yuri Irk’s novel “Nation of Dreamers” and were also used by the punk band Rubberoid in one of their lyrics.

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Photo credit: Timur Nusimbekov

We held our first collective exhibition [as “The Green Triangle” – Ed.] in 1988. We hated the Soviet Union and laughed at socialist realism, the Artists’ Union and heavy gilded picture frames. We listened to rock music. Our heroes were Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, and “GO” (a soviet rock band – Ed.). We tried to liberate ourselves from “sovietness” in all its incarnations. All sorts of artists took part in our exhibitions, so there was a great variety of art hanging on the walls. Our work was far from academic, appearing on torn pieces of paper, water pipes, cardboard strips, etc. Anyone could attend, so we had lots of old people who came to yell at us, rip the canvases and break stuff.

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Compared to the Western underground, our social protest came about 20 years late, so we were influenced by hippy and punk culture. We grew out our hair or shaved ourselves bald, and never bought new clothes. Our motto was “the worse, the better,” because even beneath our appearance we despised all the formalities of Soviet society. When parents met us on the street, they would avert their eyes and cross over to the other side. Our main goal at the time was to protest the Soviet way of life. Art was of secondary importance.

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After 1991, the artistic community – just like society at large – had no idea what to do, how to live or how to work, because there was no definite sense of time. I was just making my first steps as an artist then. All I knew was that I wanted to be one, but I didn’t know how. In the early 1990s, the first wave of artists appeared. They tried to create a new aesthetic image of an independent country, based on mythology and the decorative arts. They used petroglyphs, traditional ornamentation techniques, etc. This wave of artists made the first attempts to define the visual imagery and aesthetic language of independent Kazakhstan, and I think their effort was very decorative.

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By the mid-1990s, Kazakh artists discovered the concept of “contemporary art.” The community then broke up into two groups – those who continued using traditional painting techniques, and those who sought expression in new technologies (performance pieces, installations, video art, etc.). Some artists insisted on abiding by centuries-old traditions. Others got involved in “souvenir art,” aiming to please wealthy officials and businessmen by creating a saccharine image of Kazakhstan.

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Kuanysh Bazargaliev and I wanted to speak without pathos, using traditional graphic and painting techniques as part of our personal search for an identity. We tried to answer the questions “What does it mean to be a Kazakh?” and “What is Kazakhstan?” Ten years ago, we held our first exhibition, “Kuanyshtyn Saulesy.” We were dissatisfied with the search for symbols and myths, which was our predecessors’ theme, with the rough realism of contemporary art, and, of course, with the “souvenir artists.”

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Since the early 1990s, the artist’s relationship with society and the state has not changed, at least not for the better. The Soviet period was a huge tragedy for our people. They learned to disrespect one another and artists in particular. Frankly speaking, even today, they don’t know how to relate to artists and respect them. They do not realize the importance of art for society, or understand that prominent works will always be remembered in history and used to judge our era. Unfortunately, our wealthy and influential compatriots continue to believe that art is a service for decorating their offices, and that artists are just the servicemen.

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It is difficult to persuade our officials to support progressive movements. Significant budgetary sums are allocated towards supporting culture, but the problem is that our officials are either undereducated or fail to comprehend the essence of art. This is why they support predominantly mainstream, politically correct artists, who present an illusory vision of the country and its people, where everything is “proper,” “sterile,” and “patriotic.” The artists themselves are to blame for this situation, because many of them have lost faith in art’s ability and mission to change the world. The loss of faith leads to degradation and second-rate work.

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It seems to me that Kazakh artists have a certain advantage over their Russian, German or French counterparts. We do not yet have internationally recognized national symbols. We do not have a formed “national ideology.” Our advantage is in having the rare opportunity to create these things here and now. The main goal facing our artists is to define what Kazakhstan is, and what its national ideology should be. It’s time to stop playing lackeys and use our art to change society and the world. We are pioneers on this path, and no one is going to do our job for us.

Transcribed by Timur Nusimbekov. This is an abridged version of a longer piece published on 7 January 2010 in “Svoboda Slova.” Images taken from Saule Suleimenova’s blog at arba.ru, the Almaty LiveJournal community and scca.kz.

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