By reimagining the national dress, one artist shows what it really means to be a woman in modern Kazakhstan

25 January 2021
Text: Yuliya Khaimovich

Assel Kenzhetaeyva began her career as a fashion designer. Then, she became a mother, and began dedicating her practice to womanhood in all its complexity and diversity.

“Art has always been around me,” says Kenzhetaeyva, whose lineage includes opera singers, actors, and writers. “So, it was only natural that I pursued an artistic profession.” Kenzhetaeyva. But after giving birth to her first child in 2013, the new stage in life inspired her to pursue painting. “It was a period of emotional growth. I wasn’t a little girl anymore,” she says.

Now working from her home in Almaty, Kenzhetaeyva’s paintings depict women in costumes which combine elements of traditional Central Asian dress with modern clothing, including national Kazakh jewellery, skirts with ethnic prints from around the region, delicate straps, and lace tights. Each garment acts as a symbol: despite having integrated certain Western norms into their lives, Kazakh women still carry the load of ancient traditions. Kenzhetaeyva’s works speak to the strength and difficulties faced by women who take on many diverse responsibilities, dictated both by her traditional role as a mother but also by the modern ideal to be successful and good-looking. Or, to quote the phrase that accompanied one of her paintings at the UN Exhibition #Artivism for Gender Equality, “A woman rocks the cradle with one hand and rules the world with the other”.

Some of Kenzhetaeyva’s models are partially nude, a choice which has exposed the artist to a vocal conservative backlash. For her first exhibition 40…, which took place in Almaty in 2014, every woman was wearing a kimeshek.

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A kimeshek is a traditional Kazakh headwear of an adult married woman. Kenzhetaeyva has a deep emotional connection with this symbol. It references a Kazakh woman in her more mature stages of life, as opposed to a young girl, which is a more ubiquitous model on the art scene in Kazakhstan. Originally, the artist wanted to name the exhibition 40 kimesheks. However, groups of traditionalists started bothering her with calls, threatening to start protests at the exhibition. “They didn’t want me to use their cultural symbols in my works, where I depicted naked female breasts. But aren’t I a Kazakh woman too? It’s my culture as well as theirs,” Kenzhetaeyva says. The artist, however, still decided to remove “kimeshek” from the title to mollify the public. “It wasn’t my goal to provoke society or to create controversy,” she explains.

Instead, Kenzhetayeva considers her audience to be the co-authors of her works. “When people look at my paintings, they think they see me. But it’s me who sees them. If sex is everything a person discovers in a painting of a naked body, that speaks of their level of development.” For Kenzhetayeva, the female breast has a much broader meaning: freedom, fertility, motherhood, protection. She still remembers a man who was passing by the Aurora Space, where Kenzhetaeyva held her exhibition 7/40. “He was buying ice cream next door. But when he saw my art, he understood everything I meant to express. Immediately, he bought all 22 paintings,” says Kenzhetaeyva.

Assel Kenzhetaeyva. Image: Nikolay Posnikov

Yet while critics focus on what her models aren’t wearing, it’s the clothes that each woman does wear which add nuance to her work. The costumes are detailed by bright colours on white backgrounds; wild and seemingly incompatible tones drawn together in the style of Fauvist artworks. “The choice of such a palette is deliberate. Despite touching on serious social and cultural issues, my paintings are not dark. They are bright and engaging,” the artist says.

Even small details, meanwhile, can add crushing layers of conceptual and symbolic meaning. In her 2020 series The Burning Kelin (Zhasau) (in English, The Burning Daughter-in-law [Dowry]), part of the 50 Shades of Blue exhibition, supported by the Soros Foundation in the Artmeken Gallery, some of Kenzhetaeyva’s models wear traditional Kazakh bracelets on their ankles — uncomfortably reminiscent of fetters. Other paintings show women carrying heavy Central Asian-style carpets. They symbolise the burden of tradition that each Kazakh woman has to carry: to please her husband and his relatives, to be a good housewife, daughter-in-law, and mother. The modern elements of these costumes are also more than just trendy attributes; many of the laces and straps have a BDSM feel. They reference the masochistic tendency of modern Kazakh women, who willingly take the uneasy load of traditional responsibilities, while still trying to build careers, and conform to modern beauty standards. An eye patch on one of the models could represent Kazakh women half-blinding themselves, while a mask on a woman’s mouth signifies the silence of traditional women. “Despite gaining a lot of new contemporary freedoms, a Kazakh woman still hasn’t given up the roles and responsibilities she has been fulfilling for hundreds of years,” says Kenzhetayeva.

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