Life is a Legend: Contemporary Art from Kazakhstan

Almagul Menlibayeva, “Red Butterfly”, 2012 Duratrans Impression in Lightbox

WE HAVE become used to seeing contemporary art from Kazakhstan and from other Central Asian countries in such events as biennials, but more rarely in galleries or museums. This makes it all the more remarkable that the exhibition, Life is a Legend, presenting 10 artists from Kazakhstan, is so prominently displayed in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Strasbourg.

The majority of the artists in the exhibition are in their forties and fifties – adults when Kazakhstan gained its independence from the former USSR in 1991. At the time, these artists were in art school they would have been taught under the Soviet regime and would have subsequently witnessed first-hand the changes brought by their newly gained independence. Strategically located at the Caspian Sea and surrounded by the former Russian Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as China and Russia, Kazakhstan’s culture, history, traditions and heritage – at the crossroad of various influences – are immensely rich. This wealth of influences is reflected in the works exhibited in Life is a Legend, a quote taken from the writings of Kazakh poet Mukagali Makataev (1931-1976).

Although Kazakhstan gained its independence more than 20 years ago, the former USSR remains very present in recently completed pieces by some of the artists. Similarly to the Chinese artist Hai Bo, who restaged old photographs taken before the Cultural Revolution, Yerbossyn Meldibekov (b. 1964) presents his Family Album. Two different photographs are paired together: the original, usually in black and white, featuring various family members in front of a famous local building or statue. The same image with the same protagonists, at the same location but taken later, emphasises that the ties were clearly cut with the former USSR after 1991. The original photographs show large statues of Lenin, however, the same image today sees them taken down or replaced by local heroes. The same goes for a work presented by Elena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev (1959) entitled Bazar. Oversized photographs are displayed on square pedestals slightly elevated from the floor that capture the goods available in markets in Kazakhstan. One of the items in the photograph, life size, is also attached to the box. The work features more than 30 boxes giving the feeling of walking through the bazaar and allude to the fact that selling personal items has become a necessity for many people in Kazakhstan in order to survive. Some of these personal items take us back to when Kazakhstan still belonged to the USSR: images of Lenin, or Brezhnev, or other personal items that are now completely outdated.
Georgy Tryakhin-Bukharov (b. 1943) has been a leading figure opposing the Soviet rule and his hallmark artwork is critical of the former USSR. Here, the most poignant work is unquestionably Shuffle. As the title indicates, it features a shovel with the symbolic emblem of the former USSR – the iconic hammer and sickle. Known for his witty pieces, Shuffle is no exception: although the Soviet emblem seems to be aiming at the stars, at infinity, the shovel is inevitably associated with the desire to bury something, or to make it disappear.

Some artists are looking back at the glorious past that was Kazakhstan’s a few centuries ago when it was part of Genghis Khan’s legendary empire. With his photographic series The Clothes of Genghis Khan depicting conquerors on horseback, Saïd Atabekov (b. 1965) mixes history and fiction to reposition Kazakhstan in a different geo-political dynamic. Similarly, in her videos and photographs, Almagul Menlibayeva (b. 1969) does not shy away from the country’s traditional heritage, its typical landscapes reminiscent of the time when Kazakhstan was on the historical Silk Road. Probably the best work summarising the modern Kazakhstan is that of Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbay (b. 1958 and 1964), who through their installation Transgression feature around 400 small canvases placed on five library shelves, depicting images that symbolise the Kazakhstan of the past and the future.

Sharing the same heritage, and aware of the former Soviet regime that they have all experienced and viewed as a burden, these artists each deal with their past in their own way: beyond the aesthetic aspect, they are communicating political statements which make their pieces all the more powerful.


Until 8 March at Museum of Contemporary Art, Strasbourg, France