Curtains of Iron or Curtains of Silk? Soviet Artwork in Conversation with West and South Asia

Art Dubai is an art fair, and Marker is, in its words, “a site of discovery.” An art fair means investment and, in the art world, a “site of discovery” alerts collectors to high-margin gains.

2014’s Marker focused on the art produced in Central Asia and the Caucasus. It was held as part of Art Dubai in March at the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam hotel, was splayed across an off-hue wall with its very difference beckoning collectors from the Emirates, sure, but also around the world. Five galleries: ArtEast (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), Asia Art+ (Almaty, Kazakhstan), the North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art (Vladikavkaz, Russian Federation), Window Project (Tbilisi, Georgia), and YARAT (Baku, Azerbaijan) curated their shows around post-Soviet work meant to offer a “rare and urgent celebration of complexity and pluralism,” in the words of Marker’s curator (and longtime friends of Ajam) Slavs & Tatars. The collective emphasized the “disconnect” between the Middle East and their Soviet neighbors in their press conference, but also paid deference to a shared history in their published materials.

This “disconnect” was by no means dramatic, and the shared history is by no way history. Art Dubai is an art fair, and Marker’s branding is necessary to bring post-Soviet art to a largely Arab and Iranian collector audience in terms that they understand (and, with any luck, purchase). But Marker tells another ongoing and unbroken story that sneers at the politicized “MENASA” definition of the Islamic world and chuckles at the presumptuous attempts to achieve a “cultural understanding” that never disappeared.

The post-Soviet art of Central Asia and the Caucasus comes out of a Soviet-era conversation of artistic styles that looks not just to Moscow but also to Mecca. An understanding of the high and low registers of this Soviet cultural heritage allows the humor and self-confidence of the work to be appreciated — aesthetically as well as financially — by audiences.

Film Festivals and Societies of Friendship

The political disentanglement of the Persian Gulf from its Central Asian and Caucasian hinterlands due to Soviet rule would seem to create an “Iron Curtain” similar to the one that closed off Eastern Europe. Perhaps even a political Great Wall of Gorgan. However, this was never the case. At the end of World War II, Soviet leadership in Moscow made attempts to devolve leadership to the Republics not only to build up local capacity but also to demonstrate their anti-imperialist credentials to the international community.

“Societies of Friendship” were established in the Soviet republics to serve as centers of international cultural exchange (such as hosting scholars or art exhibitions) in 1958. The Soviet republics were assigned cultural affinities to foreign countries, some of which make sense to 21st-century readers (such as assigning Mongolia to the Buriat Autonomous SSR) and others that seem to reek of political expediency (the assignation of China, Albania, “Arab East” and India to the Azerbaijan SSR). Official relationships with countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan were hampered by those countries’ governments having virulently anti-communist postures in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Soviet cultural sphere was also unafraid of a gala. Events like the Tashkent Festival of Asian, African, and Latin-American Cinema were certainly political responses to Third-Worldism and Tricontinentalism, but the opportunity to meet artists from around the world in a variety of hats made the Oscars seem downright provincial.

Cheap prints and cheaper seats: propaganda style and the Bollywood juggernaut

Although festivals and societies were certainly effective at promoting Soviet-style socialism abroad, access to them was largely limited to the elite foreigners invited to participate in their programs. Cultural exchange did not occur only among an international society of intelligentsia, but also at the popular level. Soviet socialist artwork is perhaps the most visible legacy of this Internationalism. Examples of a shared artistic vocabulary exist not only in Iranian and in Palestinian revolutionary artwork, but also in Indian and Mongolian posters.

The effectiveness of this artistic propaganda lies not in a heavy-handed international style, but rather in a combination of the promoted avant-garde style with local traditions. The Soviet conquest of Central Asia and the Caucasus gave artists a template from which to recombine traditionalist and modernist techniques to deliver an appetizing artistic statement of revolutionary socialism.

Sharing goes both ways, and Central Asia was not invaded with Islamic ideology (despite the concerns and enthusiasms of various political analysts) but Bollywood dance beats. A journalist reporting on Indian cinema in the Soviet Union says that “It was a belief that two prominent figures from India would be known to every Soviet person, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Raj Kapoor.”

Awaara sold over 60 million tickets when it debuted in 1954, as did Bobby in 1975. The films, often shown with a lektor narrating over the original Hindi (as heard in this clip of 2003’s Chalte Chalte), allowed audiences to understand the story while still picking up rote memory of Hindi. The result is a nearly-countrywide knowledge of Bollywood songs, from elite Russian paratroopers to migrant Central Asian craftsmen.

The View from Marker

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the local nomenklatura turned to nationalism as a vocabulary to express power. While this led to some artists producing work to please this new enthusiasm, it also allowed clever artists to use the tension between past “friendship of peoples” and contemporary “ethnic tensions” to show the ridiculousness of the latter. Marker, serving as it did as a survey of post-Soviet art, held many good examples of these clever solutions to contemporary tensions.

Hsar Gassiev was 64 when he painted A Man with a Dagger (1993), a boldly-painted and almost naive portrait of an anonymous man in Caucasus attire. While the painting may seem to be a portrayal of an Ossetian man in national costume, Gassiev has instead given an image of an essentialized Caucasian who could be from anywhere in the “Mountain of tongues.” What appears nationalist at first is actually a symbol of similarity. The bold brushstrokes and enlargement of the head call to mind mid-century pan-African art, in particular Kalume’s 1959 portrait of Patrice Lumumba, an image that was reprinted often in socialist art media. Much like how Kalume used particular “African” symbolism to make Congo stand for something larger, Gassiev uses a chokha and dagger to represent not just Ossetian masculinity, but Caucasian identity.

Other works defy such easy comparisons. There is not much to relate into a video of an artist dancing with a statue of a medieval khan in front of a computer-generated sunset. But Alexander Barkovskiy’s The Dance with God is exactly this; a video made in 2008 (five years later and we would call it “a .gif”) of a collage of the artist dancing with a statue of Tamerlane that stands where a statue of Marx once stood in Tashkent. Barkovskiy’s irreverence towards the new nationalist project claiming a 14th-century for a 21st-century state, towards religion, and towards any hero worship whatsoever is notable and not a little gutsy considering his native Uzbekistan’s intolerance for counternarratives. Uzbeks see plenty of devoted hero worship on a daily basis, and Barkovskiy’s deadpan face throughout the whole clip is perhaps the only way his audience can tell that he is in on the joke.

Boikov’s works drip with a bit more sarcasm. Perhaps benefiting from greater openness in Kyrgyzstan (a country widely viewed to have the most open society in Central Asia), Evgeniy Boikov cruelly mocks his country’s enthusiasm for foreign dignitaries. In Prince Charles of Wales blessed the way of democracy development in Kyrgyzstan (1997), Boikov references the British prince’s 1996 visit to Kyrgyzstan and the effusive enthusiasm for international recognition and NGO-speak that marked the Askar Akayev years.

The work is an print image of Prince Charles surrounded by a red field and an abstracted yellow sun similar to the Kyrgyzstani flag. Charles is looking over the sun in a way that could be visionary or oblivious or perhaps both. The agitprop pop-art collage style was common throughout the mid-1990s, and this “street” style is perhaps a true international style made famous by the likes of Icy and Sot in the 21st century.

Kazakhstan is the home of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, home of the Soviet space exploration program. Kazakhstan is also the home of Sergey Maslov, who used state-of-the-art technology in 1990 to create his computer and video installation, Baikonur 2. In it, he portrays a gray alien sitting under an aggressively-starry steppe sky having tea with Kazakh elders. The “grays” are a production of H.G. Wells, but they became popular in the 1980s. One’s existence in this scene is a hearkening of Maslov’s to the “Societies of Friendship” and the production of a “truly Kazakh” culture where guests are welcomed into a yurt for tea and conversation. One imagines, in the 1990, that extraterrestrial life would be welcomed among the socialists of the steppe as long as they were no imperialists. Maslov’s friendship-of-the-workers could perhaps be extended to 2014’s Marker; there is no doubt that an alien would be welcomed at Slavs + Tatar’s takht for tea and perhaps a purchase if the creature’s accounts were in good order.

Not all cultural exchange, it should be noted, is due to good fortune. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent civil war led to literally countless refugees not just to Pakistan, but also to Iran and into the Soviet Union through Afghanistan’s Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik borders. Reza Hazare was born to an Afghan family in Zahedan, Iran, but moved to Baku in 2005.

Hazare’s work struggles with concepts of family, identity, and placelessness; concepts that almost by-definition are not fenced off by politics or ideology. His dreamy (or nightmarish) canvasses mix specific cultural references (such as a burka or lungi) into a complicated story in a style reminiscent of a refugee from a century earlier; Marc Chagall. It was likely Hazare’s art education in Baku that made him comfortable working in a mode traditionally thought of as belonging to Eastern Europe. Just as Chagall was portraying the horrors of refugee life at the beginning of the Soviet experiment, Hazare works in the world created at the end of the grand empire of socialism. Their experiences are more similar — and thus befitting of a shared style — then they are different.

Concluding Thoughts: You Can’t Keep a Good Culture Down

To say that Central Asia was disconnected from the rest of the cultural product on display at Art Dubai by virtue of Soviet policing and post-Soviet disconnect is to give that policing too much credit and to be too proud of the 21st century’s rapid interconnectedness. Soviet art was in conversation with commercial art of the Cold War, it just brought its own peculiar Sovietness to the conversation. The artists on display at Marker from the 1990s and beyond did not jump out of the Soviet vacuum into collectors’ “discovery” but rather were commodified by the changing economic modes of the post-Soviet states.

A reminder of the connectedness of Soviet lands serves as an antidote to the imposition of political narratives over the cultural sphere. Simply because Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus remain underleveraged by global capital and art speculators does not mean that the artists themselves are naifs unscarred by the warring factions of 20th-century artistic movements. Marker did a service by bringing the discourse between these Soviet and Post-Soviet artists and their West Asian and South Asian counterparts to light by housing their galleries in the same artistic space. It is the role of the curators, historians, and their internet-based hangers-on to undergird the enthusiasm for this art by providing the context through which it grew.

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