Askhat Akhmedyarov, Sabyr, 2022, cauldrons, dimensions variable. Photo: Anvar Rakishev.

Askhat Akhmedyarov, Sabyr, 2022, cauldrons, dimensions variable. Photo: Anvar Rakishev.

Askhat Akhmedyarov

Umit” (Hope) was Askhat Akhmedyarov’s first solo exhibition in Almaty, although the artist has been active since 1999 and, as part of the art collective Kyzyl Tractor, even earlier. Umit was also the name of the artist’s grandmother, whose story inspired one of the four interconnected chapters of the show.

Located on the lawn just outside the gallery, The Century, 2022, twirls together red and white kese tea bowls and lyagan plates—traditional Central Asian pots—like an enlarged string of beads suspended in the air as a festive garland. The work reflects Umit’s ninety-three years, during which she lived through three political regimes, two world wars, revolution, famine, Soviet rule, and its collapse. Through its colors, the sculpture sheds a particular light on the civil war of the 1920s in Central Asia, when the region was heavily affected by the fighting between the so-called Reds and Whites—Bolsheviks and their opponents—and points toward a decisive moment when Kazakhstan fought for its own independence from Russian colonial rule.

The installation Sabyr, 2022, filled the entry space with dozens of kazans, the traditional pots used for cooking pilaf, which were hung upside down from the ceiling. In nomadic tradition, the inverted kazan is a symbol of an extinguished fire resulting from violence or loss: A home without a warm hearth is an abandoned home. With or without this knowledge, visitors had to navigate narrow spaces between the cauldrons, which clanged together when touched. The title of the piece refers to a phrase often used by Kazakh police during protests: “Sabyr etiniz,” or “Keep calm, be silent.” Just as one does not keep calm in a protest, one could not move quietly through the installation.

Akhmedyarov himself has long been involved in environmental activism. The two-channel video Ile, 2022, however, is armed with poetic tools more than with bluntly political ones. The story unfolds around the village of Orta Deresin, the adjacent Lake Balkhash, and the village’s inhabitants, whose meeting point was a huge tree trunk the artist installed in the gallery as a bench for watching the video. (He did so with the permission of the villagers, of course, and the promise to bring it back after the exhibition was over.) In the video, two dancers perform the myth of the lake, in which a magician named Balkhash does not want his daughter Ile to marry the shepherd Karatal. But the youths love each other passionately; against the father’s will they elope. Unable to catch the fugitives, Balkhash turns them into rivers and himself into a lake between them. Akhmedyarov’s work evokes the ecosystem of the area: Lake Balkhash is shrinking due to declining water levels in its sourcing rivers and faces the threat of industrial and agricultural pollution. The original location of the tree trunk the viewers sat on in the gallery was on the riverbank, but since the drought it’s far from the water.

The show’s last room was filled with “Square Sun,” 2021–22, a series of portraits on paper made with a dry brush and gunpowder. These depict a range of figures: people repressed under Stalin; a Kazakh girl who was tortured in Xinjiang, China; victims of the January events in Kazakhstan, when a peaceful protest against rising gas prices ended in brutal government-sanctioned violence; and opposition poet and polemicist Aron Atabek, who died in November 2021 after fifteen years in prison. The portraits speak to Kazakhstan’s manifold entanglements with its neighbors in the north and east, as well as to the inner working of the state and what it means for its people. We would all want hope to be easy and ever present, like a name, but what Akhmedyarov’s four-part exhibition signals is that hope is far from being simple.