Anvar Musrepov, IKEA Costume, 2017, IKEA shopping bags, cloth, 64 7⁄8 × 33 3⁄8 × 4". From “Alternative Theses.”

Anvar Musrepov, IKEA Costume, 2017, IKEA shopping bags, cloth, 64 7⁄8 × 33 3⁄8 × 4". From “Alternative Theses.”

“Alternative Theses”

Esentai Gallery

There’s a growing sense of discontent with contemporary art. It is too homogeneous, critics argue, and curators seem fixated on a narrow set of themes—migration, gender and minority issues, environmentalism—that make exhibitions predictable and their concerns inauthentic. But that’s hardly true of the art being made today in the young republics of central Asia. “Alternative Theses,” a show curated by Togzhan Sakbayeva at Esentai Gallery in Almaty, Kazakhstan, presented plenty of examples of fresh perspectives, with works by twenty-four artists of different generations from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

This is a young art that sprang up no more than a quarter century ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This may explain why many works were about carving out a distinctive cultural identity—an extraordinarily complex undertaking in societies in many cases wistful for the nomadic traditions of the steppes while clinging to vestiges of Communist ideology and yearning to join the world of consumerism and the internet. In a region where Islam has been the dominant faith for centuries, ornament was the defining element of visual culture. What role can it play today? In Kuurdak—New Kirgyz Ornament, 2007–16, Valeriy Ruppel offered an ironic take on the time-honored craft of using dyed wool to make carpets as well as clothes, here forming it into felt replicas of human internal organs. The photographs of Marat Dilman registered the collision between ancient ornamental patterns that appear on carpets or yurts and the visual signatures of industrial modernity: power lines or computer printouts of graphic charts. In More Than Dreams, Less Than Things, 2015, Alexander Ugai, working in the conceptual tradition, translated the process of thinking itself into ornamental designs.

The countries of central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, with its abundant reserves of oil and natural gas, are undergoing wrenching changes, and of course Afghanistan is still mired in war. Citizens are looking to the future, casting about for new models of community life and social organization—hence the title “Alternative Theses.” In IKEA Costume, 2017, Anvar Musrepov presented a humorous view of the rapid transformation of everyday life, sewing a version of a traditional Kazakh coat and head covering out of the Swedish retailer’s familiar blue plastic shopping bags. Ulan Dzhaparov, meanwhile, parodied the heroic mythology surrounding the horse and its nomad rider in his short video Warhorse, 2016.

Yet despite the pervasive sense that a new era has dawned, the past—particularly the period of Soviet rule and Russian cultural hegemony—is ever present in memory. For this year’s celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, the Uzbek government had soldiers in Tashkent parade in period uniforms with balalaikas and accordions; in their video Russians Are Coming, 2018, Umida Akhmedova and Oleg Karpov capture the ambivalent reactions of local civilians. Aleksandr Barkovskiy’s The Beneficial Benevolent Jihad, 2017, a set of ornamental collages in the style of religious icons, drew attention to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which he interprets as a late repercussion of Soviet-era militarism.

In the video Boztorgai, 2018, the Kazakh artist Bakhyt Bubikanova pours out her grief over her country’s great historical trauma: a catastrophic famine in the 1930s that claimed some two million lives out of a population of six million. Sitting in the steppe, with hypermodernist architecture looming in the distance, she delivers a moving rendition of a traditional dirge. Omaid Sharifi summed up the situation in his native Afghanistan in National Unity, 2014, a depiction of two donkeys that are Siamese twins, one pulling to the left with all its strength, the other to the right. All in all, the exhibition surveyed a richly diverse art that is not shy about its commitments.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.