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“It’s Contrary to our Mindset.” Scandal over Exhibition Unfolds in Kyrgyzstan

In Bishkek, female activists decided to draw public attention to the issue of women’s rights violation using contemporary art. Other activists – supporters of the national culture and traditions – opposed it and called to close down the exhibition.


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Photo courtesy of feminnale organisers

On November 27, the first exhibition opened in Kyrgyzstan that united the idea of biennale (festival of contemporary art) and feminism. The feminnale called “Foster Mothers. Economic Freedom. Women” reveals the idea of women’s freedom in Kyrgyzstan.

According to the organisers, the exhibition will be held for 17 days – equal to the number of girls who died in fire at a Moscow printing house in 2016. 14 of the deceased were from Kyrgyzstan. The feminnale is threatened to be closed down just 5 days after its opening, according to organisers.

On December 2, about 15 activists gathered in front of the building of the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism of the Kyrgyz Republic calling to close down the exhibition. The reason was a range of elements that are “contrary” to local cultural and mindset.

At the meeting with Minister Azamat Dzhamankulov, the activists resented the performance in favour of commercial sex workers, where a naked girl crossed the hall and then got dressed, thus saying that every woman has a right to choose what she wishes to do with her own body.

Participants of the meeting also noted the inappropriateness of the installation made of lingerie that was dedicated to every woman’s right to abortion.

The exhibition also contains other performances, installations and paintings.

At the meeting with the minister, activists demanded to close down the exhibition thinking it “discredits moral principles and violates the traditions of the Kyrgyz people.”  According to the meeting participants, such events are contrary to the national mindset.

“They come to our museum and force what is contrary to our mindset and traditions on us. It’s not our tradition to do such things. Men and parents are the ones who raise women,” one of activists, Ilimbek Israilov, said when he came to the museum on December 3.

After the meeting, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Mira Dzhangaracheva, said she decided to leave office at the request of the minister of culture.

Due to the negative aggressive reaction of national-patriotic forces, rampant heresy of uncontrolled groups “Kyrk Choro”, unbearable situation created due to the opening of Feminnale in the museum! (original authors’ statement – author’s note).

The exhibition now works in a restricted version. The committee led by the minister of culture that visited the museum delivered its verdict.

“The exhibition won’t be closed down if we remove some of the exhibits,” Oksana Polyakova, one of the organisers, said.

Art as a tool of social changes

According to organisers, the primary goal of the project was to study the economic freedom of a woman by the example of pieces of art that take different shapes. The name “Foster Mother” is very symbolic as the woman breastfeeds a child and feeds the family, including numerous relatives, lays the table, pours the tea. And she is a breadwinner who usually goes abroad to earn a living. 

The installation dedicated to migrant women. Photo: CABAR.asia

According to the State Migration Service of Kyrgyzstan, about 45 per cent of external migrant workers are women. The report of the International Migration Organisation (IOM) specifies negative effects of women’s migration – stigmatisation, violence against female migrants and their children, family separation and broken social bonds. Migration has its effect on the future life not only of the migrant, but also of all of their family members.

As to the remuneration of labour, according to the National Statistical Committee, women in Kyrgyzstan earn less than men. The situation doesn’t change in the republic. In 2014, women earned 71.1 per cent of men’s salary, in 2018 – 71.6 per cent.

The number of women in civil service has not changed since 2008. Their number has even dropped since 2008.

According to art supervisor of the exhibition, Altyn Kapalova, the objective is to demonstrate the issues existing in the society by means of art. The exhibition itself is about the rights, freedoms and equal opportunities of women.

Photo courtesy of feminnale organisers

“For example, what’s the point of the scandalous performance by a Danish artist Julie Savery? Being absolutely naked, she went around the hall a few times. Another girl who appeared in lingerie in public got dressed slowly. This performance was supposed to make the audience think that a woman’s body is not a subject of a bargain or anyone else’s property. Even a female sex worker has a right to do what she wishes to do with her own body,” Kapalova said.

The society in Kyrgyzstan split down the middle on this issue. One group says that naked women should not be exposed in museums, and this is not the art. Others support the idea of feminnale and try to convey the symbolism of all exhibits displayed.

Ex-president of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbaeva in her message to the Kyrgyzstanis and authorities noted that both West and East had many scandals related to exhibitions. But art is art because it excites, shakes the minds and hearts of people.

Altyn Kapalova, Mira Dzhangaracheva, Roza Otunbaeva at the feminnale. Photo courtesy of 1st Feminnale of Contemporary Art on Facebook

“This is the women’s exhibition of the problems they have, suffer from, die for, fight against, fail yet never give up! This is a heart cry, their call for the society to stop violence, change hoary obsolete views, a call for justice, lawful vengeance,” the message reads.

According to the National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyzstan, the country registered 5,185 cases of domestic violence in 10 months of 2019:

  • Including physical abuse – 3,647,
  • Psychological abuse – 1,362,
  • Sexual abuse – 7.

5,569 cases of offences caused by domestic violence were registered. 

The history of scandalous exhibitions in the world

In mid-November, London faced a scandal and disputes around the exhibition of the famous artist Paul Gauguin at the London National Gallery. It all started with the New York Times article “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled”. The author discusses the personality of Gauguin who was a paedophile and arrogant. The titles of paintings prove the same.

Now fine art experts of the world joined hot battles over whether works of art should be viewed separately from the artist, or their art is just a reflection of their inner world. And whether it is the art that was created by people who have morals and views that contradict the generally accepted ones?

Three years ago, the exhibition of John Sturges called No Embarrassment was closed in Russia. His pictures showed people, beautiful people, both naked and dressed, men and women, mothers, who hug their kids tenderly, teenagers… Back in 1990, he was accused of creation of child pornography, but was never indicted.

At the Moscow exhibition, his most innocent works were presented, but Senator Elena Mizulina and ombudsman for children’s rights Anna Kuznetsova decided this kind of art was not needed by the Russians. The exhibition was closed.

In 2018, ex-director of the museum of fine arts of Kyrgyzstan, Yuristanbek Shygaev, created an exposition in memory of the 2005 “Tulip revolution” by means of naked girls with painted bodies.

“The main reason for such a reaction to art shown at the Feminnale is the poverty. The hungry can never perceive high ideas or stand for the rights of the vulnerable,” Sumsarbek Mamyraly, a Bishkek-based entrepreneur, said. 

Photo courtesy of Sumsarbek Mamyraly, Facebook account

The second reason, in his opinion, is the instinct of self-preservation, on the one hand, and the desire to assert oneself, on the other hand. It’s dangerous to fulfil oneself by means of struggle against corrupt officials and injustice of the authorities, and the most convenient option is to use women and LGBT. They cannot respond or hit back, they are not supported by business or political structures, the entrepreneur said. However, he doesn’t blame anyone, even those who try to solve the issue by means of violence.

“We should not hate them. We won’t reach any consensus if we condemn or suppress them in public. I stand for consistency. First, we should improve our economy, feed the hungry, and warm those in need. Only then people satisfied with their life can think about art and protection of those who are weaker,” Mamyraly said.

“We should get through it”

Today, December 3, the minister of culture held another press conference and announced a few exhibits were removed as the audience complained about their immorality. However, he didn’t specify the censored exhibits and on the basis of which law or statutory act they were removed. Neither had he named the experts of the committee.

“The exhibition will last once its purposes are good. However, we should take into account our mindset and the fact that some pieces of art are provocative. Once there’s another performance, we won’t tolerate it. You can consider it censorship,” Zhamankulov said (as cited from vesti.kg).

A punch bag as the symbol of domestic violence was removed from the exhibition. The committee found it provocative. Photo courtesy of the feminnale organisers

Director and honoured artist of the Kyrgyz SSR, Gennady Bazarov, said the agency played it safe not to fire up the situation.

“The ministry of culture can do nothing, they cannot change the situation by means of calls or slogans, they cannot improve the culture of the people. The only slogan that works is “We’re under attack!” or in this case “It’s a naked woman!”. The guys from Osh market gathered immediately. This is what really works! It’s both funny and sad. We should get through it,” Gennady Bazarov, the director and honoured artist of the Kyrgyz SSR.

According to him, development of culture and art in Kyrgyzstan depends on the authorities. However, people that are in power are not interested in culture.

“They don’t attend museums, exhibitions, theatres, film premieres. They are concerned only with their career and personal welfare. Our intellectual potential is very fragile and vulnerable. It should be protected, favoured and patronised. Who’s going to promote cultural values? It should be executive and legislative powers only,” Bazarov said.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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