Kazakhstani Art from Margins to Mainstream?

Below is the English-language version of my article appearing in a recent art publication in Almaty:

Despite Kazakhstan’s increasing inclusion in world affairs since the collapse of the USSR, the country’s art scene has remained on the fringes of the international market. “The art market’s limited understanding of post-Soviet art is almost entirely reducible to Russian art,” observed British art historian Sarah James in 2008.[1] But efforts by James, among others, to encourage interest in Soviet and post-Soviet art outside of Russia have not yet brought Kazakhstan’s art into the mainstream. This is because of a misdiagnosis of the disease; the root problem is that, with few exceptions, Kazakhstan’s local art narratives do not resonate beyond its national boundaries.

According to James, the dominance of Russian post-Soviet art results from a concentration of financial capital in Moscow and the hegemony of Postmodernist critical discourse. However, the global economic crisis has diluted capital and weakened Western theoretical authority. If James’s arguments were correct, this should have created opportunities for artists on the margins to access the mainstream. But even as the Soviet empire is being conclusively dismantled in many spheres, the metropole-periphery relationship between Moscow and the former republics has persisted in the post-Soviet art world. We therefore need an alternative explanation.

Art derives meaning by participating in narratives, the invention of which is the purpose of art history, criticism and theory. The narratives can be grand or modest, general or personal, global or local: the impact of Matisse’s arthritis on his late work or patronage relationships in 15th century Italian city-states. In isolation from any story, however, a study is not a portrait, and a maquette is not a sculpture. Art history weaves artworks into a narrative, and it provides stories guiding the production of new art. Once contextualized, the appreciation of art is not merely a matter of taste. Stories save art from being a trivial commodity.

While art historical narratives take many forms, they are not all of equal value. Although there are no objective criteria against which we can measure the quality of narratives, it is undeniable that some better capture the imagination or reflect the prevailing zeitgeist. We know about Van Gogh’s suicide because it explains something profound about his work; we know about Andy Warhol because he so perfectly represented his era. It follows from this that an artwork’s value—intellectual or monetary—is determined by both the degree to which it interacts with a narrative and the quality of that narrative.

Consider the rise of China’s contemporary artists to international prominence about fifteen years ago. While conventional wisdom is that these artists flourished because of Chinese wealth, the original buyers were in fact Western. What caught their interest? Not a change in styles, which had emerged decades before, but rather a change in the dominant narratives surrounding Chinese contemporary art. The stories of China’s rise and the shift of global power from West to East emerged in the late 1990s and were perceived to threaten Western values. The romanticized vision of the Chinese artist as unable to express herself under a repressive authoritarian regime neatly encapsulated Western anxieties. As a result, Chinese art became a sought-after intellectual and political commodity.

Moscow became the center of the post-Soviet art world in the 1990s and subsequently because, in the Western mind, the narrative of the collapse of Communism was a Russian story. Western intellectual audiences wanted evidence of the contrition and realignment of values “appropriate” of a defeated enemy. Successful Moscow artists like Dmitri Gutov or Valery Koshlyakov were happy to oblige and thereafter attracted international interest and demand.

Meanwhile, in Almaty, Tallinn, and Yerevan, new nations began reclaiming identities, rediscovering histories and reviving mythologies. The art demanded by the process of rebuilding countries was often intellectually monolithic and, by necessity, isolated from broader trends in art. International markets were unfamiliar with the narratives that gave rise to a resurgence of primitivism in form and traditional themes in content across the former Soviet space. In Kazakhstan, the dominant narratives were the ancient origins of Kazakh culture and the historic nomadic life as represented by yurts and horseback batyrs [warriors]. These motifs served important cultural-political purposes, but did not resonate with international audiences. Thus, much Kazakh art in could not “become one more commodity to be packaged for sale,” as Susan Reid has written of Russian post-Soviet art.[2]

On the other hand, Kazakhstan is rich in narratives potentially attractive to international markets because of the country’s long, often difficult history and uncertain future. Alexander Yerashov is an example of a young local artist investigating less popular local themes. In a series of humorous hand-drawn posters, Yerashov exploits Soviet, Russian folk and pop-culture visual vocabularies to present ironic and counter-factual versions of Soviet history that reflect on post-Soviet cultural trends and aspirations. More broadly, his drawings examine propaganda’s functionality, the significance of uniqueness in an age of digital reproduction, and the stigmatization of social utopianism, which are all questions that remain urgent after the collapse of Communism. His works connect historical and geographical particularities to universal topics.

Yerashov situates Kazakhstan’s specific experiences over the last two decades within more general narratives of post-Soviet development and the spread of a postmodern, international cultural order. Thus, instead of marginalizing contemporary art from Kazakhstan, as James suggests is the case, the postmodern critical discourse provides Yerashov a shared vocabulary by means of which international, or at least regional, audiences can relate to the artist’s specific narrative. The challenge confronting Kazakhstan’s artists, art historians and critics is therefore to compose narratives that make local, unique stories relevant to a wider audience.

Paull Randt, U.S. Fulbright Researcher, originally published Ugay, Alexander, ed. Art Listovka (Art Leaflet), issue 5, May 2012.

[1] James, S. “Behind a Theoretical Iron Curtain,” Art Monthly, no. 317, 2008; pp. 7-10.

[2] Reid, S. “The Art Market and the History of Socialist Realism,” Art History, vol. 22, no. 2; pp. 310-316.

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