THE ARTIST IN CENTRAL ASIA research by Roger Hill

A Report consequent on research conducted during travel across Central Asia – August-October 2017

1. Introduction

a) Context

My recent journey across Central Asia was undertaken, at least in part, to research the proposition that artists can and should play a role in the continuing development of the Central Asian Republics post-Independence, ie, since 1992. I took as my subject the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with some reference to China where my journey began. I had the opportunity to interview 20 artists and arts-related professionals, and I have audio recordings of 16 of these encounters. Before I set out I was given considerable assistance by the British Council in London, Almaty and Tashkent and I built a list of potential interviewees from these and other contacts as I travelled. This mainly accounts for the predominance of interviewees from Uxbekistan and Kazakhstan, but I have integrated other creative encounters from the wider region into the overall text. None of the interviews took place in Turkmenistan which proved to be the least susceptible republic in terms of ready access to independent artists. I also carried out various actions as an artist during my journey and have incorporated some conclusions from this work in the report which follows.

b) The Research

This is not a statistical report- nor does It does contain very much factual evidence to support or refute the proposition. It should rather be seen as a review of the wide range of experiences and aspirations held by artists in Central Asia and an attempt to thematise, codify and analyse them. If it has a particular purpose this research aims to make more widely known the ideas and issues which impinge upon Central Asian arts practitioners in the second decade of the 21st Century.

c) Central Asia – a brief overview

When in 1992 the Soviet Union collapsed the many socialist republics which had constituted the U.S.S.R. were placed in a position of some difficulty. Decisions about how to manage a polity and an economy without the over-arching support of the Russiandominated Union were taken with some urgency and various pressures for internal areas to secede from the existing republics, or to create Islamic sub-states, were resisted. It was also a significant challenge for each of the new “nations” to establish a unique and coherent identity for itself. Matters of culture, history, language and tradition needed to be debated and resolved. The resulting process of self-identification has been affected by the, sometimes severe, economic problems which attended upon the advent of exposure to a global market and, later, the downturn in that market in 2008. Each of the five Central Asian republics has found its own response to those problems according to its localized resources and to issues of landscape and geography. The political and religious divisions which were deliberately exacerbated by the Soviet imposition of borders and regions upon what had been a loosely defined regional organization brought about different tensions in each country. In some cases they produced civil war and interethnic conflicts, many of which continue today. Among the commonalities experienced by the five republics is the ever-present pressure exerted by neighbouring super-powers Russia and China, with the distant super-power the United States, and the political instability of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. It would be easy to take one of two opposed views of the region, - that it is, as Peter Frankopan has suggested in his book “The Silk Roads”, the fulchrum of a new geopolitics centred upon Asia, or that it is a cluster of historically-weakened subject-powers destined for exploitation by the existing (and competing) global economic giants. The truth will, almost inevitably, fall between these extremes, and be the result of forces as yet unappreciated. Central Asia may be the arena for new tendencies and I hold to the view that much of the future of the region will depend on cultural development in its widest sense in which the artists of the region will have a role to play.

d) The Questions

I took with me the following questions as the basis for most of my encounters with artists and cultural operators,-

Please describe your artistic activities

Where were you born?

Where do you feel you belong?

Does the idea of Central Asia mean anything to you?

Is there any sense of a region?

How far does Russia represent the past?

How far does China represent the future?

How far is Islam a cultural force?

What is the role of the artist in Central Asia?

What part has art and culture played in nation-building?

What art and cultural work is notable to you?

Does your art belong in a tradition?

In practice several of these questions were un-necessary to a discussion of current experiences and issues, and alternative questions suggested themselves as the interviews proceeded. I have therefore chosen a separate structure for the report,-


The Current Situation

Various Alternatives

Versions Of The Future

The People and The Artists

What I did?

I have not included any wider recommendations here. I simply hope that ideas and observations in the report may refresh people’s thinking in relation to their own future actions.