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17 July 2023



In summer, exactly one year ago, a research group Davra was formed, bringing together researchers, artists, authors, musicians, and creators from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Uzbek artist and filmmaker Saodat Ismailova, brought together 19 female creators from Central Asia as part of her participation at documenta fifteen, thus creating a unique collective of young and passionate artists. The main topic of research for the young group became working with memory and rituals. However, the research process took on unique paths, where each participant individually or in collaboration reinterpreted scientific articles, conducted their own research, initiated open dialogues on sensitive social topics using artistic practices. The public program prepared for documenta fifteen acquired significant external interest from the global art community, giving a louder voice to the creators from Central Asia and providing a safe environment for an open dialogue.

Meanwhile, documenta fifteen, being one of the important global events in contemporary art, has opened up and emphasised crucial social issues related to colonialism, the crisis of capitalism, and demonstrated that art is much more than static gallery space. The works and statements at documenta went beyond being a mere discourse on socio-political issues that require discussion. On the contrary, through solutions-based thinking artists from the Global South proposed seeking answers to problems transparently, collectively, across borders, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

The artists proclaimed the statement, “Make friends not art”.

The innovative problem-solving approach, which forced us to seek creative solutions, made it clear that art can serve as a support for the community and influence external processes.

Post-pandemic society

Many of us were fortunate to survive the pandemic, which completely overturned our lives and forced us to reevaluate the declining social and institutional mechanisms that hindered the process of sustainable and, most importantly, fair development in the art community.

The global crisis compels civil society to seek new solutions, using a non-standard approach to addressing social and political issues. Changing old definitions and rethinking the past, adjusting the future direction of society once again. Meanwhile, art is becoming increasingly political.

Strangely enough, due to the crisis, the concept of the modern artist and contemporary art, in general, has erased the familiar prejudices that art supposedly does not belong to the masses and is confined to a narrow circle of abstract bohemianism.

Common roots

Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have historically intersected, forming a unique cultural foundation. However, these intersections have not always had a positive direction. The shared experience of the Soviet regime, which inevitably collapsed, granted independence to the countries, and each of them developed in its own way. Despite this, the strengthening of dictatorships and the separate existence of civil society and the state amplified stagnation within society. The prevalence of self-censorship and the suppression of human rights, along with the hesitation to openly discuss self-identification and gender inequality in the age of global discourse on decolonizing thinking, brought about a notable shift in how the urgent issues of the Central Asian region are approached.

According to Erofeeva (2021), during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Central Asian countries began to gain independence, contemporary art in Kazakhstan assumed an underground nature. First-generation artists, seeking to separate themselves from commercialization and state institutions, were among the first to explore the issues of de-Sovietization and reimagining self-identity.

Art collectives in Central Asia

At present, Kazakhstan is witnessing the emergence of novel art collectives consisting of artists, curators, and activists. The Mata Collective, Adyr Aspan art group, and the Artcom platform stand out as prominent representatives of these art collectives.

In Kyrgyzstan, the creative workshop Synergy and self-organisation BiSCA (Bishkek School of Contemporary Art) is active. Additionally, there are the cultural centre Kuduk, the 705 Theater, and MoFA+ (Central Asian Museum of Feminist and Queer Art).

In Uzbekistan, a self-organised collective of creators called Qizlar was formed in 2022. Meanwhile, in Tajikistan, despite the least democratic freedom, the cultural centre Bactria continues to thrive.

Nevertheless, the centralised system, including both art and state institutions, combined with the absence of education that aligns with modern global standards, poses significant obstacles to the processes of development. All of this puts immense pressure on the cultural sector, leaving creators in a precarious position.

Engaging with social issues

Despite the challenging conditions for the art community, these collectives share common socio-political agendas, initiating a discourse on urgent issues in the region.

It is also worth noting that the main motivation behind these self-organised initiatives is the interaction among communities to achieve social transformation, not only within their own environment but also in external socio-political processes. This approach shapes a flexible and fluid form of collectivity, utilising process-oriented multidisciplinary practices through open dialogue, collaborative research, and alternative education that involves civil society to reflect on fast-changing global processes.

“We actively respond to external processes, and as a result, the current priorities of civil society are reflected in our projects.” - Diana Ukhina (co-founder of BiSCA and Art Studio Synergy).

"We support grassroots initiatives that emerge in the region and offer cultural education in Kyrgyz language. It is also important for us to collaborate with art platforms from Central Asia, as one of Kuduk's goals is to establish branches in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Therefore, it is crucial for us to build relationships not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in the Central Asian region." - Diana Rahmanova (co-founder of Kuduk).

The migration of Russians prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a defining catalyst for the establishment of the collective Qizlar in Uzbekistan.

“One of the main reasons for coming together is the significant influx of people from Russia to Central Asia. We were concerned about their cultural influence in Uzbekistan and wanted to uphold our identity and form our own dialogue. Moreover, as women in the creative field, we understand that there is a lack of visibility for us as experts since decision-making positions are often occupied by men regardless of their expertise. So we decided to unite, providing visibility for women and female experiences.” - Sofia Seyitkhalil (co-founder of Qizlar).

Diana Rahmanova shares a similar perspective: “Gender inequality in leadership roles acted as a driving force in creating alternative educational opportunities for young female professionals, enabling them to advance in their careers through acquired expertise.”

Art as liberation

As noted earlier, art is taking on new forms, combining diverse exploratory and process-oriented forms that ultimately lead to internal liberation.

“For me, art is freedom through which you can change the discourse on social relations, offering a safe environment for each other where everybody can be heard. The potential of art lies in the fact that through artistic practices, we can redefine outdated social norms.” - Diana Ukhina (BiSCA, Art Studio Synergy)

“Through our example, we want to show that there is no need to be afraid. We exist, you exist, and together we can help each other because nothing is impossible. We believe that by coming together, we can cultivate inner support and confidence for our community, which has unlimited potential.” - Sofia Seyitkhalil (Qizlar)

External interest

“There is international interest in our initiatives. We especially felt this at documenta fifteen, where we encountered similar initiatives with shared agendas. That's when we realised that we are engaged in relevant art within a global context, even if it is not always recognized as such at the local level. For the majority, art is perceived as a painting hanging on a wall, as presented by our museums or taught in schools or universities.” - Diana Ukhina

Thus, the decentralisation of self-organised initiatives that focus on diverse artistic practices in the Central Asian region mirrors the global scope of the contemporary art agenda that transcends borders. Despite the distance from state institutions and established social systems, the Central Asian art community finds one of the most effective methods of resolving the long-standing crisis - finding support and solidarity in each other, erasing boundaries and prejudices.

In this context, Davra, initiated by Saodat Ismailova, became one of the first platforms to unite the Central Asian region on the international stage of contemporary art, creating important diplomatic connections with neighbouring countries.

1 - Erofeeva, V. (2021, July 20). Самоорганизации художников в Центральной Азии. Часть первая: региональный контекст и история artist-run spaces в Казахстане [Self-organisations of artists in Central Asia. Part one: regional context and history of artist-run spaces in Kazakhstan]. Ariadna Media.

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