Battlefield – contemporary art in Tajikistan

The goal of this critical analysis is to evaluate the phenomenon that has been widely discussed and yet has hardly ever taken place in Tajikistan

NewEurasia publishes original research of Tajik curator, art critic and manager Farukh Kuziev

The goal of this critical analysis is to evaluate the phenomenon that has been widely discussed and yet has hardly ever taken place in Tajikistan. Contemporary art in Tajikistan will be discusses here not from the aesthetic point of view, but more in terms of the cultural policies on which it is contingent. The main actors of these policies are curators and art managers. This article will also attempt to draw the line between processes in culture and other sociopolitical tendencies in Tajikistan. I will present opinions and facts as an insider who has been involved in this sector for the last 7 years. I will also bring examples of specific contemporary art institutions such as Dushanbe Art Ground, where I worked for 3 years.

Imported contemporary art

Contemporary art in Tajikistan can, to a certain degree, be considered a product of neocolonial efforts of international actors – international organizations and their networks that view this new form of creativity as a space for creative thinking and reflecting on social issues. So called contemporary art, that was neither talked nor written about in Tajikistan until 2006 was receiving generous support from Swiss Cooperation Office (SCO) and Open Society Institute (OSI) in 2006, 2007. Imported nature of contemporary art in Tajikistan can be proved by the fact that from the very first public appearance in Tajikistan it was concentrated around projects supported by international organizations. Self-organized grassroots initiatives in this sphere (involving art students, young artists and professors) have not been shaped even 7 years later.

Within the first pilot projects (Starter, 2007), young artists, students and institutions were offered resources and knowledge about contemporary art, international “experts” (in project proposals this term was used to refer to established artists and curators). As a result, first workshops and exhibitions (Parallel, Yaksart in Dushanbe and Khujand in 2007) were launched. Although the kickoff stage for contemporary art was very promising it did not see any further development. Activity in this field was subsiding to nothing after each new project was finished. Even when the specialized institutions (such as Dushanbe Art Ground, 2012) with relevant resources – space, equipment, books, people, they fail to produce a significant impact on the development of new forms of expression. Crisis of contemporary art is unfolding in Tajikistan along with the crisis of culture and education in general and all aspirations of arts managers and curators of dynamic development in this field remain unfulfilled. One of the reasons of that, in my opinion, is that involved curators and art managers lack understanding of the complexity of sociopolitical and cultural situation in the country. Complicated in terms of production, presentation, form and content, contemporary art seems quite inappropriate in this collapsing country where the majority of population does not have access to proper education and is preoccupied with satisfying the basic life necessities. Besides, contemporary art in Tajikistan, unlike the situation in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan was in complete vacuum, isolated from inner or outer critique. Critique, as a crucial tool for rethinking art and its institutes and the most important precondition for development of new ideas and forms was limited to event announcement and short description of art pieces. Few texts about contemporary art in Tajikistan by local authors that are impossible to find even on the Internet (I tried to find some of those texts and only found a few of my own) make an eloquent evidence of that. Besides, as an insider I can assure my readers that artists in Tajikistan do not read the key contemporary authors writing about art and do not follow on critical materials from other countries.

Illusory hope on leaders

From the very beginning support to contemporary art in Tajikistan was directed not towards any existing environment, potential, trends and practices but to a few leaders. These leaders were artists of traditional genres – painting, sculpture, deign, etc. That explains the ambiguous approach to identifying and involving new contemporary artists. With each new project a curator would go to the Institute of arts to recruit art student as exhibition participants. In other words Tajik contemporary artist is a painter with some exposure to video art or some other new medium. He or she is predominantly a person from art, tending to do art, and producing art. But I’ve had the same question all these years. Doesn’t an artist as a public figure, first and foremost, produce ideas relevant to his or her community? During all these years I never saw Tajik contemporary artists look for an answer to this question or at least try to discuss it. Leaders-traditionalists ignored the main achievement of contemporary art – the richest diversity of media and forms so that any individual with ideas could do it and enrich the marketplace of ideas.

In general, the strategy of involvement and development of leaders reflects the logics of charity, the essence of which is that it’s not the whole problem sector that is supported for instance education or culture. Instead, target investment is made into leaders in a specific sector. The donating subject (donor) as a rule is convinced that this leader would successfully lead the whole sector filling it with his or her ideas and sharing his or her knowledge. However, in Tajikistan the drive of “young leaders” in contemporary art a few years later after the first exhibition and education projects was significantly subsiding and each of them was occupied with individual interests – business, NGO work, school or new careers. For example, Jamshed Kholikov who refers to himself as a contemporary artist and curator has not produced a single independent art project or an exhibition since 2011 when he’s become the director of NGO Sanati Muosir (а.к.а Dushanbe Art Ground). Aleksei Rumyantsev is actively involved in commercial activity. Other “young promising leaders” (Surayo Tuichieva, Aziza Rustamova, Murod Sharipov, Gamila Abduraufova, Abdullo Ubaidulloev, Vera Karnauhova and many others) either created families or changed their priorities. (Some of these artists – Tuichieva and Sharipov, however, resumed creative activity within a short-term project “Reimagining the New Man”).

As a result, because there was no continuity and knowledge transmission and sharing resources with the new generation of artists, art managers, curators, within a short period of time the process of art production and understanding contemporary art in Tajikistan came to an end. The most active artists and curators, myself and Sergey Chutkov were insistently asked to quit Dushanbe Art Ground. Thus, there is no point of discussing contemporary art in Tajikistan. It would more sense to discuss separate art projects that make the contemporary history of art in Tajikistan.

Exclusive art  

Contemporary art in Tajikistan still fails to become a popular art form, as well as other forms of art. A single visit to film studios, theatres, publishing houses and museums especially in the regions will prove this fact. National content in film, music, visual arts and literature does not meet an adequate audience and in most cases is produced for international film festivals, biennales etc. It should be noted that curators, consciously or unconsciously use contemporary art projects in order to strengthen their own positions in contemporary art scene exploiting voluntary and often unpaid efforts of participating artists and art students. Each new successful project is another step towards the next funded project for a curator while for an artist it is just an opportunity to participate in another exhibition unpaid. As a result of a low financial interest and lack of financial reward, market or systematic support artist are involved in contemporary art in an adventurous and unsystematic mode instead of conscious and responsible. As a specific example I can come back to Dushanbe Art Ground and its last project “Reimagining the New Man”. Being involved in this project from the very beginning I saw that the project curator Stefan Rusu from Moldova would consistently refrain from mentioning other project team members, co-curator and manager, from all announcements and publications who were also excluded from participants selection process and correspondence with invited media experts from the U.S.  This kind of behavior can be considered as an attempt to monopolize an art project and strengthen his own symbolic capital. Such a symbolic capitalist-curator alienates the products of work of artist enthusiasts in order to sustain his or her curatorial resume with another fulfilled project that will help him or her get new grants in the future.

New culture as a gain from a struggle  

My next thesis may sound somewhat radical, mainly because in the context of Tajikistan it is stated for the first time. All these 8 years of contemporary art in Tajikistan (2006-2014) contemporary artists and curators have been simulating the “social demand”. The notion of “social demand” in the arts in general and in contemporary art in specific is understood as a range of social issues that artists and curators reflect on in their work. However, none of the artists in Tajikistan have attempted to formulate this “social demand” (in other words, no one ever talked about actual problems, why they were to be reflected and how specific media would address them). This brings us to the current cultural situation in which art NGOs have to comply with the donors mandates and organize exhibitions on environment, gender, civic activity etc.

I think the following question should have been discussed by the donors and their local not-for-profit satellites from the very beginning. If art stands to address the issues of the indigent masses is the approach to production and presentation of art itself massive? Here we can give a confident No as an answer. A contemporary artist who is thought as a source of critical thoughts and images can demonstrate social issues only to a limited audience in the capital city. This audience can as well get enough information about these issues from the papers where even a mediocre writer can reach out to thousands of readers.

My belief is that Tajik contemporary artists cannot hope that contemporary art sees stronger and greater presence in the cultural scene because there is no serious work being done in order to shape and promote a new cultural paradigm. Any avant-garde movement, Suprematism in Russia or Dadaism in Europe first and foremost would be marked by active attacks on what in art language is called ‘tradition’ or an established order of things. Mayakovski’s poetry for me in this case is a many-years long struggle for the right to dictate an alternative cultural discourse. Here, for example, is an extract from Mayakovski’s poem “Облако в Штанах” (The Cloud in the Pants):

размокшие в плаче и всхлипе,
бросились от улицы, ероша космы:
“Как двумя такими выпеть
и барышню,
и любовь,
и цветочек под росами?”

А за поэтами –
уличные тыщи:

Вы не нищие,
вы не смеете просить подачки!

Нам, здоровенным,
с шаго саженьим,
надо не слушать, а рвать их –
присосавшихся бесплатным приложением
к каждой двуспальной кровати!

Contemporary for its time, Suprematism in Russia, was opposing bourgeois arts refereeing to it as “copying, imitating”. Avant-garde artists from the group LEF (Left Front of Arts) characterized traditional arts as “cultural hashish”. In Tajikistan, it seems to me, there has been no struggle for contemporary arts’ domination. None of the curators or artists has seriously struggled for public funding for the new creative trend, for specialized exhibition facilities, for modernization of education programs. During all these years we have seen quite an opposite approach “playing with traditional” art and institutes. Not only contemporary artists “were recruited” among visual art students doing painting, sculpture etc. from the Institute of Arts and Art College, Dushanbe Art Ground, for instance, is intending to associate itself with the new Institute for Visual Arts and Design, i.e. bring itself under control as a part of the traditional institute.

Contemporary art in Tajikistan is viewed apart from contemporary theories, philosophical concepts and social movements. It can thus be assumed that contemporary art in Tajikistan is only half-contemporary as it does not reflect the contemporaneity itself.  The reason behind that is that from the very beginning, the so called leaders of contemporary art in Tajikistan or curators, viewed contemporary art exclusively as a new aesthetics and new forms of expression. For instance, Jamshed Kholikov in his first interview on the radio Asia Plus, in 2007 said that “contemporary art is everything that goes beyond the 2-dimension of the canvas, i.e. photo, video, performance, action, happening and so forth” and mentioned nothing about new content of art, new topics.

As a result, the dominant traditionalist discourse all these years has been successfully reducing all the efforts of local contemporary art actors to nothing. And the only struggle that has been waging consciously was the competition among various cultural NGOs for grants and for influence. In this competition against one another, the actors in contemporary art tend to creating and defending the comfort and security zones. For example, Dushanbe Art Ground, that at its inception was positioning itself to donors as a space for critical art today stands out though its censorship and as a reactionary in which it can compete with the Russian Drama Theater in Bishkek that censored events produced by STAB twice.

Only the oppressed have a voice, everyone else have only desires 

At the end I would like to remind the readers that physiologically a voiced statement is contingent on resistance. In other words only oppressed have a voice and can generate a message as a parts of their subjectivity. Everyone else can have only desires. Contemporary artists in Tajikistan, in my opinion, are the “everyone else”. Comfort life increases desires. One wants more exhibitions, projects, a bigger gallery, a bigger name. Each project or an exhibition first of all, shows a curator’s ego. It is a demonstration of his or her brilliance and unique vision of things. That’s what for artists stand for. In this regards, I would like to share my personal experience as an example. I used to work for a small contemporary art center Hallwalls in Buffalo, New York, United States. This center, as well as other arts organizations, to a certain degree depended on public funding. When a new county executive with more “right wing” views was elected one of his first order of business was to eliminate public funding for about 40 small and medium arts organizations. In the meantime, funding for 10 large art centers was untouched. That was the moment when the rest of the art organizations that found themselves on the brink of closure, their employees and audiences have realized themselves as the oppressed subjects and were united to wage a struggle for the idea that art, culture and education were not businesses but a public right. As a result of the many protests and Mass Media campaigns the insensitive official lost his office and the new county leader reinstituted public funding to all arts organizations. Art can save the world only if it can save itself by using its diverse set of suggestive means. If it is not to happen, it will die without ever being born for real. And there is no point to grieve about that.

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