Central Asia's New Art Scene

With Love from the Faraway Steppe

Central Asia has begun a revival of its old cultural roots. The avant-garde art scene has paved the way. And the undertaking is no small task, given that some nations in this region are still busy shaking off one and a half centuries of foreign rule. By Jesko Schmoller

Video still from Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibaeva (photo: Polyzentral)
In her video art, Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibaeva employs the symbolism of her shamanist ancestors

​​The steppe is burning. Where the rolling green hills meet the horizon, a roaring wall of fire blocks the view. Before the flames stand three figures, two young women and an old man, whose naked body is thrown back by the blaze. They just stand there, one moment cradling a horse skull in their arms, the next shrieking out their last ounce of humanity toward the heavens.

Then the film is over. The names of the production team reel across the screen, the light goes on, and there she is: Kazakhstan filmmaker Almagul Menlibaeva. Her narrow eyes peer out from a pretty, round face. Her arm holding the microphone is adorned with a wide silver band. "What I wanted to represent with my video is the birth of the new human being." Sounds like Nietzsche, but the source is a different one.

Intervention in the social structures of the Turk peoples

Like the other nations of Central Asia, the Kazakhs were under Russian and then Soviet rule for a long time. The Soviets in particular brutally intervened in the social structures of the Turk peoples living between the Black Sea and China.

The Soviet hammer came down especially hard on the religions in this region because they were seen as posing a threat to the enlightened communist idea of man. The mosques were closed one by one, and the "superstitious" practices of the shamanists were abolished.

But Menlibaeva is trying to reach back in time and recover shamanist traditions. Fortunately, the religion was not completely wiped out; it somehow managed to survive under foreign rule, though invisible from the surface.

"Soviet censorship also had a positive side," the Kazakh artists explains with an impish grin. "Artists became more creative and simply cloaked their religious expression in symbols."

Accused of propagating bourgeois dialog

Menlibaeva is just one of the many representatives of the new art scene in Central Asia invited by the Kampnagel Theater to visit the city of Hamburg, Germany, and bring their culture a little closer to western audiences.

photo: Polyzentral
Anna Mele as King Lear. Together with Ovlyakuly Khodjakuly the Turkmen actor stages Shakespeare's play in the tradition of the old Turkish theater

​​If you don't know the man, you would never guess that Ovlyakuly Khodjakuly represents the Renaissance tradition in his home country. He has a goatee, a shaved head, and a few long dreads spiraling down his back. A trouble maker? Perhaps. Punk? Most certainly. But a director? Believe it or not, since 1986 his work has been drawing people to the theater—and not just in his native Turkmenistan.

If Khodjakuly had launched his artistic career before the big thaw in Soviet cultural policy—Gorbatchov's Glasnost—it would have been over before it really started. "Back then, the officials at the ministry of culture accused me of propagating bourgeois dialog. Somehow I just never got the communist ideology." The artist's eyes sparkles as he speaks.

The Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. The Soviet Union was crumbling like a house of cards. But where to head?

"Back to our Roots"

"Back to our roots" was the course set by Khodjakuly. This was also the motto for his work with the actor Anna Mele. The rather eccentric Turkmen artist will be coming to Poland and the International Monodrama Festival in the German city of Kiel this year—as King Lear.

With Mele he transforms Shakespeare's tragedy into a story from 1001 Nights, the king becomes a caliph. Without missing a beat, Khodjakuly stages the play in the tradition of the old Turkish theater, with a single actor playing narrator, clown and puppeteer. On Mele the rapid change of roles feels like a split personality. An ideal King Lear, indeed.

The new-found old culture of Central Asia is something to be seen. It is permeated with values that cannot be found in the West, as video artist Menlibaeva explains: "The heritage of my Central Asian home is a wealth of generosity and a deep love for the people. This is something we can offer the West, and the time will come when this will be exactly what the West needs."

Jesko Schmoller

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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