Punk Orientalism: how the art of rebellion in Central Asia is challenging the scars of the Soviet past

Punk Orientalism: how the art of rebellion in Central Asia is challenging the scars of the Soviet past
Sickle and Hammer (1997) by Erbossyn Meldibekov

For too long, non-conformity has been seen as an exclusively Western concept. But generations of artists in Central Asia and the Caucasus have used art to rebel against ideals and values imposed on them by officials in Moscow who often both exoticised and fetishised the Soviet Union's outer regions. Curator Sara Raza traces their work, as well as that of a new crop of emerging creatives as they grapple with a complicated cultural and imperial legacy.

12 May 2021

Born in London and based in New York, Sara Raza is an artistic powerhouse: a curator, scholar, editor, and educator, who teaches both at the School of Visual Arts and New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications programme.

She is also the founder of Punk Orientalism — a curatorial studio that re-examines how artists from Central Asia and the Caucasus used poetic code and contraband to confront Soviet propaganda and oppression. Raza coined the term “Punk Orientalism” to capture the non-conformist aesthetics that surrounded her upbringing in 80s London. But she also uses it to challenge the Western gaze on corners of the world relegated to the exotic “other” in the cultural mainstream. It questions the idea of non-conformity as an exclusively Western concept.

A still from Lida Abdul's White House (2005)

Even as a young graduate from London’s prestigious Goldsmith’s University and the Royal College, Raza had decided “it was important to think differently” from her peers, who were “fixated on young British artists”. “I decided to focus on what was happening beyond the borders of Europe, which was far more interesting. I was always interested in how half of the world did not look to Europe and North America to define itself, it looked to Russia,” she says.

She began to expand upon Edward Said’s influential 1978 treatise Orientalism, which criticised the West’s fetishisation and perversion of the East — largely how British and French scholars and artists looked at and represented the Middle East and North Africa.

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Raza felt that Orientalism did not just exist in Europe, but expanded to the territories of the Near East, to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Those in Moscow and western Russia would create their own romanticised image of the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, while at the same time imposing their own culture, values, and ideals — by favouring Russian over local languages, or promoting Russian artists over their contemporaries from the other then Soviet republics.

“Through my academic and curatorial research, I became interested in exploring a Soviet Orientalism,” Raza says. “Edward Said presented the study of Orientalism and how the East existed in the Western imagination, and how it existed as a source of profit through colonial enterprise: there was a very clear-cut East/West binary. But Soviet Orientalism occurred in the so-called East, with Russia being perceived as an extension of that geography. The East-East binary opens up a much more complex and nuanced debate about the confluence and movement of people and ideas.”

In an upcoming book — also called Punk Orientalism — Raza looks at the artists who untangle this complex legacy in different ways, including those who tried to overturn it. By digging into the work of 25 artists from Central Asia, Caucasus, and their diasporas, her research explores mythologies, dogma, recreation, power, and breaking free from the entrapment of imperialism. The artists range from Afghan-American video artist Lida Abdul, whose allegorical films explore spaces of post-devastation across Afghanistan, which was ravaged by war with the USSR, to Kyrgyz-Uzbek writer, artist, and philosopher Vyacheslav Akhunov, who spoke out against the fear of being silenced by force during the Soviet regime. His anxieties are writ large within his monumental wooden installation Breathe Quietly (1976-2013), which magnified the Soviet era’s system of intimidation and control against its citizens in literal 3D Cyrillic text. By bringing such works together under a single spotlight, Raza underscores that artists have played a pivotal role in documenting social and cultural transformation — and ultimately, resistance — in Central Asian art, but remain overlooked and overshadowed by a generation of art history books that are steadfastly focused on Central and Eastern Europe.

Curator Sara Raza. Image courtesy of Mr Ayobe

Raza also uses Soviet Orientalism to examine the USSR’s complex relationship with the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey. In particular, she cites the importance of Afghanistan within the analysis of the post-Soviet sphere and asserts that “there can be no discussion on the post-Soviet space by excluding Afghanistan and the almost 10-year war that effectively contributed to the collapse of the USSR and resulted in generational trauma.” Raza highlights Abdul’s film In Transit, (2008), which features a group of children playing at the site of a former ruined and abandoned Soviet warplane. The plane is ridden with bullet holes and the children repair them with cotton wool and throw ropes over it in an attempt to make it fly like a kite. The metaphor of flight is expressed by the children’s imagination, using images of injury and disarmament to comment on the continuous cycle of violence and its intergenerational trauma.

Those in Moscow and western Russia would create their own romanticised image of the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, while at the same time imposing their own culture, values, and ideals

Such scars from the Soviet era are felt throughout Punk Orientalism. In another example focusing on architecture — which Raza refers to as “an extension of state apparatus” — the book looks at Kazakh artist Erbossyn Meldibekov, who traces how public monuments in Central Asia changed as they’ve swapped hands between centralised Soviet and local officials. In his poetic work Seasons (2018), Meldibekov presents 10 postcards and paintings depicting 10 monuments erected in Amir Timur Square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, over the space of 100 years. To date, the public square has featured monuments dedicated to Lenin, Stalin, and Konstantin von Kaufmann (the first governor-general of Turkestan), and is now home to a monument of 14th century Central Asian hero Amir Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane. Yet in this game of architectural musical chairs, the artist spotlights a city trapped by old cycles and symbols, rather than embracing meaningful progress.

From the series Plates (2009), by Erbossyn Meldibekov in collaboration with Nurbossyn Oris
From the series Plates (2009), by Erbossyn Meldibekov in collaboration with Nurbossyn Oris
From the series Plates (2009), by Erbossyn Meldibekov in collaboration with Nurbossyn Oris
From the series Plates (2009), by Erbossyn Meldibekov in collaboration with Nurbossyn Oris

But that is not to say that rapid change is not making itself felt. When Raza visited Central Asia for the first time in 2005, as a curator for In the Shadow of Heroes at the second Bishkek International, she herself found the country different from, and a lot less Sovietised than, what she had imagined. “You have these old stories in your mind but you see a space that’s actually something hybrid and more complex,” she says. Her work in Central Asia continues today, and Raza is developing a new creative industries curriculum for the Silk Road University in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Three decades on from the fall of the Soviet Union, the curator believes that local artists should now be given space to come to terms with the past: radically dissecting nostalgia in a bid to make their own mark and own identities. Not only does she see their world as important, but she believes the world should be watching them.

“Increasing visibility and taking up scholarly art historical space is an essential mandate of this book,” says Raza. “It exists at the juncture of a historical period that is sandwiched between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events of 9/11, yet these artists and their work have largely been excluded from the broader global art historical narrative concerning the post-Soviet space.”

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