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19 Jan 2024

As Though We Hid The Sun

in a Sea of Stories

19 Jan 2024

As Though

We Hid The Sun

in a Sea of Stories

While my fingers are typing this text on the keyboard, the final days of the group show As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories are taking place in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) with a subtitle that reads as follows: Fragments for a Geopoetics of North Eurasia. The collective exhibition, which has already been over at the moment when you are reading this review, was the result of the joint work of several people who acted as part of the curatorial team. Among them is the curator Iaroslav Volovod, artists Saodat Ismailova and Nikolay Karabinovych, as well as the historian and researcher of the former Soviet space Kimberly St Julian-Varnon.


As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories positions itself not as a complete plastic utterance, but rather as a deliberately fragmentary vision, a kind of polyphony woven by various art practitioners among which are artists, curators, researchers researchers and holders of diametrically opposite epistems. Geographically, the exhibition covered (or tried to cover) those territories of Eastern Europe, as well as Central and Northern Asia, which were (or continue to be) under the influence of three successive colonial regimes: the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and today's terrorist state of the Russian Federation.


The basis for the undoubtedly poetic title of the exhibition project was borrowed from one of the texts authored by the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, in which, reflecting on his homeland being destroyed, he draws a parallel between his own destiny and the fate of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, repressed by Stalin and died in exile. In other words, one experience of the loss of one’s homeland and the resulting suffering is put into perspective of another rather similar experience of loss, which nevertheless took place under completely different circumstances.

In general, it should be noted that the curators initially emphasised the problematic nature of mapping and the need to choose one single name for the geographical area that they tried to cover in their project, since, as it is known, any act of naming beholds violence in it. Indeed, the name of the same phenomenon can vary greatly depending on the perspective from which we consider it. And sometimes choosing one name over another can say a lot about us politically, especially now, in the context of a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, according to the curators and their statement, North Eurasia, which appears in the subtitle of the exhibition, is exactly the same neutral geographical term that is not charged with politically biased meanings, which means it is still able to convey ideas about the possibility of a future free from violence and the colonial past.


Perhaps the main question that the curators tried to ask themselves when creating As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories was as follows: how can we unite respectfully very different experiences of oppression, each of which, despite all its inherent uniqueness, was forcibly and systematically brought (or continues to be brought) under a common denominator? Or, to put it a little differently, what are the ways to respectfully bring together those different experiences, sensitivities and systems of knowledge that existed or continue to exist under the occupation of the succeeding regimes of colonial modernity of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and today’s so-called russia? The question is quite complex, and, to my understanding, the answer turned out to be complex as well.


Among the participating artists of As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories were representatives of the above-mentioned regions of Eastern Europe, Central and North Asia. However, and not surprisingly, I would like to focus more closely on those coming from Central Asia. They were Kyrgyzstani Chyngyz Aidarov, Kazakhstani Lidia Blinova, Uzbekistani Saodat Ismailova, Kyrgyzstani Zhazgul Madazimova, Kazakhstani Almagul Menlibayeva, Tatarstani Nazilya Nagimova, and Uzbekistani Furkat Palvan-Zadeh.


The group show was woven from several thematic chapters, each of which was highlighted through set design. Anyone who has ever visited the Haus der Kulturen der Welt building knows that it definitely cannot be called a classic exhibition space. But in the context of the conceptual framework of As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories, this, perhaps, only played into the hands of the project. After all, the works located on different levels of the building, separated from each other by peach–colored curtains, supporting pillars or HKW glass doors, are the best metaphor for the possibility of creating a narrative that would be integral with minimal pretension to this very integrity. If desired, individual parts of the exhibition could be viewed even without having general access to the rest of the show. Thus, for instance, Lidia Blinova’s Hand Ornament (1995) or the video performance Yokhor (2018) by Buryat artist Natalia Papaeva exhibited in the immediate proximity, or the Even Further (2020) video by Ukrainian artist Nikolay Karabinovych were exhibited in the lobby of HKW, that is, any visitor could see these artworks regardless of whether they came specifically for As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories or for another reason. By the way, the above-mentioned works, by virtue of exhibiting them side by side, all in one way or another touched on the issue of national identity through the prism of imagination or the process of myth-making, which was activated exactly where knowledge erased by colonial violence ended.

(c) Chingiz Aidarov

(c) Chingiz Aidarov

(c) Nazilya Nagimova

As part of As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories, Tatarstan's Nazilya Nagimova presented her felt series Metamorphosis (2022), which brings together four works of different dimensions created based on the author's personal memory. When Nagimova was still a child, each time before leaving her native village to regain Kazan, she would make trips to the village’s cemetery to bid farewell to the loved ones lying there. Thus, the artist recalls that at one time, her aunt Minlejihan, who accompanied her, got fully covered with butterflies while she was reading a prayer, paying tribute to the dead. According to Nazilya’s aunt, they were the souls of the departed, appearing in the form of insects.

(c) Zhazgul Madazimova

A black-and-white graphic series by Kyrgyzstani artist Zhazgul Madazimova was also part of the exhibition. Titled Rabitza (2017-2023), it depicted a grid characteristic of Kyrgyzstan and represented in all the other Central Asian countries as the main means of demarcation of private property. The netting in Zhazgul's works is an expressive metaphor of artificially created borders dividing not only houses, but also entire states, and with them their citizens.

(c) Almagul Menlibaeva

(c) Almagul Menlibaeva

Kazakhstani artist Almagul Menlibayeva presented two pieces within As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories, one of which, The Map of Nomadizing Reimaginings #2 (2023), that is a kind of textile cartography of all the artist's videos raising issues of the consequences of modernity, was specially commissioned by HKW for the exhibition. Almagul's second work, the multi-channel video installation The Tongue and Hunger. Stalin's Silk Road (2023), was dedicated to Asharshylyk, or human-caused famine, which claimed the lives of millions of Kazakhs in the 1930s. In the video, Menlibayeva combines images of a hungry steppe generated by artificial intelligence with videotaped testimony on the matter from historians, researchers and other academicians.

(c) Saodat Ismailova

The videos of Uzbekistanis Saodat Ismailova and Furqat Palvan-Zade were exhibited somewhat separately from the show’s main body, but also from each other. The artwork of the former titled 18,000 Worlds (2023) is somewhat of a half–hour journey into visual archival materials in which the collective memory of the Central Asian region intertwines intimately with the personal memory and practice of Saodat herself. According to numerous beliefs, our world is only one of 18,000 others that exist simultaneously at the will of the creator. Ismailova's piece is, first of all, an immersion into her world, inextricably linked with Turkestan, which disappeared under the influence of colonialism. It is also a video amulet, a talisman film that does not submissively mourn the loss, but rather holds the potential to resist the committed violence.


Concluding the Central Asian presence at the exhibition As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories, Furqat Palvan-Zade's work The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy (2022) consists of a 23-minute video offering a decolonial approach to polo as a sports that we tend today to associate with the a priori white European upper stratum. In his research film which links together many temporalities, geographies and personalities, Furqat demonstrates why the steppes of Central Asia can be considered the actual homeland of polo.


Even such an overview of each work which represented our region at the group show clearly illustrates the difference in approaches, knowledge systems and sensitivities, as well as the thematic subjects that were covered by the collective exposition As Though We Hid The Sun in a Sea of Stories. The show really presented the plurality and the richness of what can be perceived by some only as fragments rooted in a common painful past. Nevertheless, it did it by giving each of them integrity and coherence, all while avoiding unnecessary anguish and open politicisation.

(c) Lidia Blinova

In the inside part of the exhibition, among other artists, there were works by Chingiz Aidarov, Nazilya Nagimova, Zhazgul Madazimova and Almagul Menlibayeva. Titled Snail (Spiral), the 2021 video performance by Kyrgyzstani Chingiz Aidarov offers a reflection on the artist's personal experience as a migrant worker in Moscow. For more than ten minutes, Aidarov methodically stitches Kyrgyz toshoks together, subsequently folding them into one large spiral. The piece draws a parallel between Central Asian traditional mattresses and a portable snail shell house, comments on migrant routine expressed in the workers’ daily gesture of folding and unfolding their beds, renting together ‘rubber apartments’ in the capital of the Russian Federation. It also offers an attempt to capture the monotonous passage of time, the only measure of which from now on seem to have become those morning and evening manipulations with the toshoks.

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