Daring photos show womanhood and forbidden love in contemporary Uzbekistan

Daring photos show womanhood and forbidden love in contemporary Uzbekistan
Image: Kamila Rustambekova via Telegram

31 March 2021

In this Follow of the Week, we spotlight the brave, gentle, and softly hued pictures of @kamilarustambekova, a young photographer from Uzbekistan who mixes staged portraits, daring nudes, and documentary reportage.

Women of different ages, and from different walks of life, shot in traditional Tashkent mahallas (neighbourhoods), make up a large part of Rustambekova’s world. Her Instagram account whispers acceptance as her guiding principle. “I just do what I love without precise goals,” she told The Calvert Journal.

Rustambekova says that Uzbek heritage stimulates and informs her work. “I feel inspired by our culture, arts, and crafts,” she says. “This is how my real ancestors lived; this is part of me. I am interested in Uzbek culture’s dualities, the roles of men and women, its traditions, and symbolisms.” One particular tradition the photographer loves is suzane — a ritual which sees young women embroider their dreams onto fabric before marriage. “Suzane is full of symbolism; every detail, leaf, and curl has a meaning. I consider it a magical ritual: you embroider what you want to get in life yourself.”

“Yet, I do not feel safe in this country because of my views,” Rustambekova admits. Despite some signs of economic openness and liberalisation that have changed the country since the death of longstanding president Islam Karimov in 2016, the Uzbek state still remains authoritarian, and, like Turkmenistan, it criminalises male gay sex. Rustambekova’s ideas of gender and sexuality — most obvious in her metaphoric photographs of lesbian relationships — put her at risk. “Love, no matter what gender it involves, interests me, and is a recurrent theme in my work,” she explains.

Despite the political climate, the 23-year-old finds solace in the arts community in Tashkent, where she is currently based. “There is a great but very small art community of open-minded, free people. Our young art is open to experiments, which is a good point to start from.”

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