«We haven’t lost anything. We are star nomads. Wandering in the interstellar space, visiting other planets – it is the way we get high». this is how Sergey Maslov defined his feelings about himself and his colleagues in his unfinished novel. Its main characters were contemporary artists of Kazakhstan. The action took place in space, deep into the future. This simple human feeling of a collective high might still be one of the prime movers of our art scene.
One recalls the end of the 1990-s, when the information channels got opened up and our artists felt they were part of the world community. They were searching for novelty in all directions. Rustam Khalfin, who was a spaceship captain in Maslov’s novel, suggested working together and developing a common strategy.
He made «everyone’s head spin» long and tediously preaching a colossal project with the working title of Eurasian Utopia. The project had to present a version of «a new face for a new state». Everyone had his own ideas and there was a feeling that everything was possible. The Kokserek Gallery and its leader Kanat Ibragimov attracted artists, who developed a collective image of a barbarian actionist. The Voyager Gallery and its mastermind Sergey Maslov embraced those artists, who in this or that way located themselves on the territory of russian textual tradition. From time to time Khalfin and the Asia Art Gallery managed to unite those, who sympathized with his «eurasian» ideas; however they rebelled against his despotic rule. Khalfin
would leave, hurt and offended, grumbling something like: «I am
inviting you to eternity and you…»

In 1997 the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) was established in Almaty against the background of rapid development of galleries and «passionarity» of the artistic community. From 1998 till 2000 all the major insiders of the process had been involved in its development. It was a consolidating period of «Sturm und Drang»; it was the time when joint efforts brought to life the strategy for the contemporary art of Kazakhstan. The direction of this movement can be clearly seen in the titles of the main artistic events of that time:
Art Discourse’ 97, Self-identification: Futurological Forecasts, Communications: experiences of interactions. the process, so to say, was under way, but not without a contingency now and then. In 2000 the leading artists broke off with the Centre (due to its authoritarian and separatist policy) and it resulted in the collapse of the institutional situation. Progressive galleries gave way to SCCA and the Centre acquired its long-awaited role of the monopolist. Nevertheless, the artistic community progressed, keeping and strengthening interpersonal connections. Since 2002 the process of consolidation involved not only the artists of Kazakhstan, but also of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and later – Tajikistan. Collegial, almost family-like fraternal co-existence turned out to produce a synergetic effect. It was possible to achieve impressive results without institutions and substantial financial injections.


The artistic community took over the initiative organizing exhibitions, workshops and discussions here and there from Almaty and Bishkek to tashkent and Dushanbe. The artists managed to go into international orbit – this time in the framework of the Central Asian alliance. the list of numerous exhibitions in the most prestigious art centres of the world would itself make a medium-size paper, but the chief strategic achievement was the establishment of the Central Asian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005. Today the Central Asian artistic community has got four pavilions to its credit.

What else? The only institution – SCCA-Almaty – was closed in 2010. the strategies brought forward by Khalfin and later supported by the artistic community in the 1990-s and the 2000-s sank into oblivion. No matter the international recognition, Kazakh contemporary artists are neither acknowledged nor supported in their own country. they form a kind of artistic enclave, yet retaining their leadership in the region in terms
of both quantity and informal influence. By its chaotic development internal artistic situation in Kazakhstan incites artists to choose the strategy of minimal action.

As mentioned above the founding father and catalyst of the process was the adherent of tactility, the «nomadic modernist» rustam Khalfin. Despite the colossal resistanceand failure to fully understand his strategies on the part of his contemporaries, he managed to influence the mainstream of Kazakhstan contemporary art both intentionally and unintentionally. one way or another he influenced the artists
of the titular ethnic group of Kazakhstan. The ideas of the new nomads/shamans/barbarians were interpreted as «Kazakh transavant-garde» by Moldakul Narymbetov and the Kyzyl tractor art group, as «feminist punk-shamanism» by Almagul Menlibaeva, as «media-shamanism» by Said Atabekov and as «actualization of the image of a barbarian» by Yerbossyn Meldibekov. Another branch of Kazakhstan art is represented
by the so-called «Asian russians». They conceptually developed local variations of discursive practices. Here one would mention «laughter provocations» of Sergey Maslov, «everyday conceptualism» of Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, Alexander ugay’s «media-futurism» and Natalya Dyu’s «declarative unoriginality».

Aside from the contemporary art community are the adherents of traditional modernist values, who mix architecture, science and art: the «neo-futurist» Saken Narynov, the tandem of «politicized minimalists» Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbay, the «critical realist» rashid Nurekeyev, the proclaimer of the new «Kazakh» Saule Suleimenova, the «naive and romantic» art duo ZitABL and the creator of «artistic recycling»
Georgy Tryakin-Bukharov.

Quite in line with the most advanced artistic trends and the spirit of the times radical political strategies are represented by the «activist-actionist» Kanat ibragimov and the uncompromising propagator of activism Oksana Shatalova. The so-called «young» artists, who have not yet fully developed their artistic credo,
should also be mentioned: Alexei Shindin, Gaisha Madanova, Katya Nikonorova, Natalya Pankina, Jaksilik Medeshov and others. Now very young Kazakh artists are reaching the orbit of art. They have set out as artists abroad – in London, Berlin, Boston and Oslo. They are very different; they haven’t got a
touch of the «eurasian fraternity»; they are more interested in «the global mini problems of individual identity of cosmic micro particles».

Despite the diversity and marginal extremes of positions, there is something that unites all of our star nomads. It is something that J. Habermas defined as the «avantgardistic instinct for relevances». Our artists have these «quite unheroic virtues: a mistrustful sensitivity to damage to the normative infrastructure of the polity; the anxious anticipation of threats to the mental resources of the shared political form of life; the sense for what is lacking and ‘could be otherwise’; a spark of imagination in conceiving of alternatives; and a modicum of the courage required for polarizing, provoking, and pamphleteering».
What else does a real artist-nomad-astronaut need? Maybe this collective high is needed, which endows Kazakhstan art with the suggestive effect, noticed by everyone, who encounters it.
The effect, which provides the artists from the faraway eurasian province with an opportunity to be understood in the open space of the Universe of Art.


Julia Sorokina

for "Face of the bride" catalog