IWPR CA held an expert meeting titled “The Culture by a Leftover Principle, or Attempts to Censor Artists’ Work by the Ministries of Culture in Central Asia” on February 24 on its Zoom online platform.
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The meeting participants discussed a range of issues related to contemporary art and its protest potential in Central Asian countries. The meeting’s agenda included the following questions: Why does art rarely react to the relevant and socially significant issues in Central Asian countries? Why does the Ministry of Culture rarely support artists, while punishing some of them for controversial shows and songs? How to find a balance between new trends in youth culture and high art?
The cultural and public figures from four Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) attended the meeting.
The experts disagreed that currently, most artists prefer to praise love and flowers instead of speaking about poverty and injustice in their art.
Alexandra Tsai, an independent curator and culture expert from Kazakhstan, spoke about how Kazakhstani cultural figures express their protest in art.
While conducting research in the field of various types of contemporary art, she noticed that, despite the censorship and the existing political situation in Central Asian countries, contemporary artists use various possibilities of art, actively protest and explore sensitive social issues. These are the issues of gender equality, access of the population to various benefits, such as the opportunities to protect their political and civil rights.
“My thesis is that the protest is possible in contemporary art. It is there. The field of contemporary art in Kazakhstan is exactly the field where the acute social problems are raised and discussed,” she said.
An example is the performances of the artist Kanat Ibragimov, who, using the language of art, conducted a series of radical installations on the acute social and political processes occurring in the country. For example, in 2010, he went to the main square in Almaty and silently chopped a fish. He called this performance “Fish rots from its head”, and attracted attention of media and law enforcement agencies. This performance was widely covered in the Kazakh media.
In 2016, Almaty street artist Pasha Cas created a building painting dedicated to the environmental collapse and toxic emissions into the air in Temirtau.
Another example of art activism was a campaign in 2019, when several activists went to the annual Almaty marathon with a banner “You cannot run away from the truth #Ihaveachoice”, protesting against the cult of personality. This happened when the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan.
The campaign was widely discussed on social media and covered in media. It showed that protest moods among Kazakh youth are growing. The arrest of the leaders of this campaign Asiya Tulesova and Beybarys Tolymbekov caused a surge of art activism. Young people, using contemporary art methods, actively supported the activists arrested for 15 days on charges of “violating the law on holding protests”.
These small examples show that the protest is possible and does exist in contemporary art. However, in general, when it comes to whether the state should support culture and art and how, it should be kept in mind that the development of art and culture is always associated with freedoms. The development of creativity is impossible without freedom. According to Alexandra Tsai, art and culture create brands and content that can become symbols of the state and attract tourists.
Nikita Makarenko, journalist, popular blogger, TV host, producer, playwright, musician, lecturer and public figure from Uzbekistan, spoke about the relations of culture and state in Uzbekistan. According to him, lately, everything is going well there.
Uzbekistan residents know very well what protest in art is, because under the President Islam Karimov, almost all kinds of art in the country were protest. Rock music was declared ‘satanic’, hip-hop music – the ‘music of criminals’. “Ilkhom” Theatre, where Makarenko works, made it by some miracle. During those years, any open self-expression in art immediately became protest.
“Thank God, those days are over. Now, the situation is developing in such a way that all artists can express themselves in any way, there is no persecution for this. How do we cooperate with the government agencies? In fact, I personally, as an artist, do not need anything from them. When some of my colleagues complain they are not supported, they are not provided with grants, I do not understand them. I say, “Just do not interfere with us! We will do what we want. On such terms, our cooperation will be friendly, wonderful and cool. And you know – it works,” Makarenko said.
His personal experience shows that cooperation with government agencies is successful. In 2020, he founded the pop/rock band “Electro Oko”, which was intended to become a symbol of Uzbekistan for the post-Soviet countries. In Uzbekistan, there were no concert tours around the country for a long time, especially rock bands’ tours. The Ministry of Culture supported the initiative and provided venues for the band’s concerts. The concerts were held with great success in five cities of Uzbekistan, gathering a large number of young people, according to the expert.
The Ministry of Culture offered Makarenko to continue such tours. The expert was surprised; he says that such initiatives would have been impossible in the past. Now, it is becoming an encouraging reality. Makarenko urged all creative figures not to be afraid and propose their initiatives to the government agencies, to address the Ministry of Culture, to go and offer them the ideas.
The next speaker was an expert from Tajikistan, essayist, producer and civic activist Lolisanam Ulugova.
She presented a brief overview of the protest art in Tajikistan. Lolisanam drew the attention of the participants to the differences in perception of art in Eastern and Western European art schools. Islamic values and traditions greatly influenced the oriental art. Back in the day, a successful form of protest art was the Tajik people’s theatre “Maskaraboz”, destroyed in Soviet times and never reestablished.
“When we talk about the presence or absence of a protest mood, we need to consider the doublespeak inherent in traditional Tajik art. Everything was veiled. This is a metaphor, an allegory. Of course, in Tajikistan, after the 1992-1997 war, very few people want to protest, because a bad peace is better than the best of wars. However, the allegory is inherent in almost all genres of contemporary art,” said Lolisanam Ulugova.
The expert from Tajikistan highlighted the protest movement in terms of Western European traditions in contemporary Tajik art, for example, in rap and rock music. In 2017, the Ministry of Culture declared such music alien to the Tajik people’s traditions. However, when the rapper Baron performed a song about patriotism praising the President, all state TV channels broadcast this video.
“My point is that those in power are more interested [in such kind of art] when they are praised, but not when they are opposed,” Ulugova said.
Nevertheless, rock and rap music is quite popular in Tajikistan. In addition to Russian-language performers, there is “Zafar” band, which sings in Tajik and in their native Shughni dialect of the Pamir languages. This band is popular among the youth, and although it performs in restaurants and at private events, it cannot be said that it performs only songs about love and flowers. There are performers who could be called ‘protest artists’, but they are simply not on TV, according to the Tajik expert.
In addition, the protest mood is present in contemporary Tajik fine arts. One of the striking examples is the work of a young artist Marifat Davlatova, who was the first to speak out against gender discrimination. She exhibited her paintings depicting nudity and joined the “My body, my choice” movement.
Another vivid example is the work of the artist Farukh Negmatzade – his painting collection “Black and Grey”, which reflects the civil war and other negative phenomena.
Lolisanam also noted the works of the popular Tajik artist Rakhim Safarov, which have a protest component. She also recalled theatrical performances of young talented stage directors in Tajik theatres, including her own work as a scriptwriter and director, which reflect the negative phenomena in society.
Concluding her speech, Lolisanam Ulugova provided her recommendations for art and culture dynamic development, and reflection of life to the fullest. She believes that the dialogue with the authorities is needed. It is necessary to spread more information about art activism. The financial support for art activism is needed from both external donors and government agencies. According to Ulugova, it is necessary to show social issues through art, as the singer and the ambassador of the “Gift of Life” movement since 2019 Manizha did.
A civic activist, ex-director of the Gapar Aitiev Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek Mira Dzhangaracheva spoke about the cultural issues in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Mira Dzhangaracheva worked in management positions in government agencies for many years, and then, during the last six months of her career, was the director of the Gapar Aitiev Museum of Fine Arts. She noted that she deeply felt all the existing problems.
“What is worrying me in our society? We also have protest tendencies and movements in art. There are many them. Sometimes they are open, sometimes – veiled, sometimes they try to hide something, and sometimes they just expose something and shake the state and the Ministry of Culture,” said Dzhangaracheva.
Mira Dzhangaracheva noted a freer atmosphere in media sphere in Kyrgyzstan than in other Central Asian countries, and other positive processes taking place in her country, but sharply criticized the activities of the Ministry of Culture of the Kyrgyz Republic. She believes that the Ministry is doing nothing to understand the priorities of the culture and art development.
“There never was such a situation in our country. On the one hand, there is freedom. People like new Constitution, change of government, new statements on countering corruption and other processes. 90% of the population support these processes. On the other hand, it surprises me – why is the corruption in the cultural segment not analysed? Why are the issues related to the promotion of human rights in the field of cultural achievements, self-expression in the cultural space not integrated into the new Constitution? Why did the people understanding art not participate in the Constitutional Convention? Why was the expert community not given the opportunity to discuss the culture segment and its integration into the new Constitution?” Mira Dzhangaracheva said.
Mira Dzhangaracheva recalled the scandal during 2019 Feminale.
“I was surprised when the scandal during Feminale occurred: a government official, the Minister of Culture allows illegal things contrary to human rights; he drives on a bus around the city with a speaker and says that the rights of the nation are more important than those of an individual. The Minister does this. He makes people sign notifications instead of solving this situation,” said Dzhangaracheva.
According to her, in 2012, the disappearance of two books, “rare, priceless books, of which there are only 61 copies in the world,” was accidentally discovered in the National Library. In the Historical Museum, the audit before repairs discovered the disappearance of more than 500 artefacts.
“During 12 years, when the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts was one person, a substitution was investigated, and the paintings of great artists were stolen. During the last events, the most valuable works were brought from the Museum and placed in the ‘White House’ by the order of the Minister. During the 2010 events, 17 paintings were saved, because the employees entered Museum together with the looters, and during the last October events, out of 12 paintings, unfortunately, 8 were stolen, and it was done very professionally,” says Dzhangaracheva.
She wondered why the government agencies did not investigate these cases.
“You know, these small details show that public administration today does not align with the new trends that you all are talking about. They do not want to talk about it… And today, if someone is trying to say something honestly about it, the Ministry of Culture makes all of them the people’s enemies. The Ministry should deal with its own affairs, manage, be engaged in repairs or some projects, should organise Days of Culture for us, for our neighbouring republics,” said Mira Dzhangaracheva.
You can find the full version of the expert meeting in the video.