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Kazakh art is worth a thousand words
Government-ordered work detracts from creativity, some say, leading them to wonder what direction arts will take
By Daniyar Serikov
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- The demise of the Soviet Union created good conditions for the development of contemporary arts in Kazakhstan.
But 18 years after Kazakhstan became an independent republic, experts argue over the direction art is taking. The main problem, according to experts, lies with the indifference by the state and society toward contemporary arts in the country.
Since independence from the Soviet Union, contemporary arts development has mainly been funded by foreign charities, such as the Soros and Hivos Foundations. The funds and enthusiasm of donors has since dried up, and the state has become the primary source of demand for artwork.
“The real support of the state in Kazakhstan is defined as contractual work ordered by the state -- gozzakaz”, Tulegen Baitukenov said, talking about the role of state funds in the development of contemporary arts in Kazakhstan.
“And when you have the state inside, the arts will be out. It is obvious that the state policy in the sphere of culture is formulated by the bureaucrats, not arts people, they have quite a different understanding of what arts are mainly about”, said Baitukenov, a leading columnist on modern culture in “Vremya” newspaper.
Art ordered by the state is mainly aimed at creating the myth-making history of the new political reality in the form of an authoritarian state. Rewriting history through the cultural icons and symbols is skillfully used by the regime to delete collective memory about the years of Soviet rule and retrieve the glorious nomadic past instead.
Unfortunately, the contemporary arts created under the auspices of bureaucratic dirigisme often look ugly because the bureaucratic vision of what should be created clouds real talent.
A recent example of this type of bureaucratic arts coercion provided by Aelita Zhumayeva is the new monument in Astana, “Kazakh eli” (Kazakh people).
“Kazakh warriors there look more like Chinese”, said Zhumayeva, an arts expert in Moscow.
Artist Kanat Ibragimov went even further, saying they resemble the “Chinese terracotta army”.
“The state funds can really financially help the artists. However, they also make their products horrible because of the corruption deals, where the bureaucrats and their client-artists cooperate to steal allocated public financial resources”, Baitukenov said.
“Huge amounts are allocated”, Zhumayeva said. “However, very small amounts reach the target audience of talented artists”.
On the positive side, Kazakh artists have been able to participate in global shows and present their creations in the world’s galleries.
Yet, the open borders could not guarantee the progress of arts in the emerging social fabric.
The search for a national identity and “going to the basics” of a nomadic past in the arts have not provided much creative inspiration for local artists to produce cultural products that would receive global recognition.
While the revitalization of the 1990s brought hope for primordial Kazakh artistry, the dissatisfaction of the 2000s clearly showed that Kazakh society is not ready to have a cultural dialogue with itself through the lenses of contemporary arts.
This became evident since artistic visionaries have yet to be born and genuine arts supporters still need to be nourished in a community full of inertia.
Zhumayeva said there was a wave of Kazakh artists whose works were treated with appreciation abroad. These include Erbossyn Meldibekov, Said Atabekov, Elena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, Almagul Menlibayeva and Saule Suleimenova.
Valeria Ibraeva, a former head of the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts in Almaty, agrees that Kazakh artists have won international acclaim. However, she said no new name has appeared on the art scene since the 1990s, when Kazakh artists first tried to go global.
Others dispute Kazakhstan’s worldwide gains. For example, Baitukenov doubts there are Kazakh artists who are taken seriously internationally.
His opinion is echoed by the representative of artistic talents, hard-edged performance producer Kanat Ibragimov, who says, “Kazakh artists abroad are playing the role of exotic fruits and the species of the limited culture, nothing else”.
The concept of charity for contemporary arts in Kazakhstan is still somewhat unfamiliar.
“There is business support of the contemporary arts in the country, but it does not bring the level of contemporary arts to a new level. Famous Kazakh businessmen like Nurlan Smagulov and Mukhtar Ablyazov often financed the arts projects”, Baitukenov said.
Ablyazov, who headed BTA bank, even led the Alem Art Foundation to instigate the development of arts in Kazakhstan. However, the foundation was disbanded after BTA came close to bankruptcy and was nationalized.
Ibragimov has a different view on business support.
“The help of the private businessmen often depends on his personal relationship with the artist and the taste of the private sponsor himself, which is often awful and vulgar”, he said.
Therefore, it seems that the state and business together with the society are not really ready to support the contemporary arts any time soon.
“Kazakh artists were able to advance themselves on the international art scene only thanks to their self-reliance”, Ibraeva said. “They did not receive any support or endorsement on the state level.”
She thinks “negligence was the strongest instrument directed against the development of culture in Kazakhstan. The consequences of this will appear in the form of kitsch and cultural excesses, common to the countries with weak cultural identities – the most recent example of it is United Arab Emirates. This reminds (us) that the independence is not only political, but also, to a larger extent, is cultural”, she said.