The story of Rustam Khalfin, the artist who used Kazakhstani culture to tackle the universe’s biggest questions

The story of Rustam Khalfin, the artist who used Kazakhstani culture to tackle the universe’s biggest questions
A still from Bride and Groom (1999) by Rustam Khalfin

Following an exhibition on his pioneering art at the Tselinny Centre of Contemporary Culture in Almaty, The Calvert Journal traces the life and legacy of Rustam Khalfin, the late father of Kazakhstan's blossoming contemporary art scene.

10 June 2021

The influence of Rustam Khalfin on Kazakhstani contemporary art cannot be overestimated. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the changes to Kazakhstan’s artistic sphere were rapid and intense. The creativity that once took place in secret spilled out from the underground. Ideas previously forbidden became part of a contemporary art scene that was constantly gaining momentum. Rustam Khalfin was a force who spread and cultivated these changes by adapting and exploring new visual languages and techniques.

Khalfin was born in 1949 in Tashkent, but his artistic career did not begin until he moved to Moscow to pursue a degree in architecture. After graduating from the Moscow Architectural Institute, he went to live in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he met Lida Blinova. Blinova would became Khalfin’s wife and “comrade-in-arms”, or as the artist himself would refer to her, his alter-ego. By the mid 1980s, the couple would host exhibitions in their apartment and discuss philosophy, while Khalfin would teach the “bowl-dome system of painting” to students.

The influence of Rustam Khalfin on Kazakhstani contemporary art cannot be overestimated

The bowl-dome system of painting played a big part in shaping Khalfin as an artist. In 1971, Khalfin was introduced to Vladimir Sterligov, who first pioneered the technique. It sprang from Kazimir Malevich‘s theory of the “additional element”: the idea that new structures or ways of painting would arise in artists’ work as they developed as creatives. The bowl-dome system was Steligov’s own “additional element”, the concept that grew within his work as Malevich’s student. He described the system as a way of building a painting’s composition via a curve, connecting the “living touch of two worlds”. The idea itself was born from the scientific theory that the universe consists of an infinite number of spheres touching each other. Two touching spheres would form a curve, and two mirrored curves would form a bowl. The idea was cutting edge for its time, and very much on a par with Malevich’s legacy.

Khalfin’s early works were mostly centered around this bowl-dome system, and were purely experimental. Painted objects would lose their density, becoming weightless, while the space that surrounded them would transform to observe the object it encompassed. In these works, Khalfin continued to explore the ideas of the avant-garde, in pursuit of the same ideas as early Soviet greats.

Nevertheless, the bowl-dome system was only a stepping stone in Khalfin’s artistic development. He felt the need to find his own “additional element”, just as Sterligov had done before him. He turned to the newly-independent Kazakhstan for inspiration.

Apples (Year Unknown) by Rustam Khalfin. The painting is an example of the artist's "bowl-dome" system. Image: Nezorov Museum

With the arrival of the 90s, much of Khalfin’s artistic work became centred instead around the idea of “pulotas”: a word that Khalfin defined as “the void inside a fist”. Pulotas were designed to draw attention to the importance of tactility in nomadic culture, and the household tradition of moulding Kazakhstani kurt, a hard, salty cheese-like food.

In her text, Hand and Eye, Blinova described the reified pulota — the thing that would appear if the space inside a fist grasped at clay, plasticine, or food — as a rudimentary sculpture. But if a pulota is left empty, she pointed out, it becomes a simple optic tool, a means to fragment someone’s field of view. Hold a lightly-clenched fist to your eye, and its outline becomes an internal frame that invades your view to becomes its main character.

Read more Kazakhstan’s feminist artists are finding hope in dark times. These 3 women are leading the way

Pulotas soon became the main element of Khalfin’s work. In his paintings, one can observe references to the works of Matisse, Cezanne, Malevich, and Velazquez, all reiterated and expanded upon using the pulota’s influence.

However, Khalfin’s work in the first few years after independence was not without a certain fetishisation of Kazakh culture. Much of this came from deliberately trying to oppose Soviet values and ideals. Soviet culture was a uniform phenomenon: it may have changed superficially in style across different republics and cultures, but Soviet ideas remained at its core. Viewing traditional Kazakhs art as sensual and wild, as some of Khalfin’s work did, was a form of exoticisation — but it was also a rebellion, a response to the years of formalism and constraint placed on local culture by Soviet officials.

In one example, his series, Northern Barbarians, Khalfin regards Kazakh culture almost as primitive. In it, Khalfin addresses a Chinese brochure of the same name which illustrates nomads having intercourse while horseback riding. Khalfin takes this image and reproduces it in his video works. Another piece depicts sexual encounters in a traditional Kazakh yurt. This constructed narrative continues Khalfin’s idea of ​​the sensual nature of nomadism — even if it was mostly fantasised by the artist.

A still from Northern Barbarians (2000). Image courtesy of the Calvert 22 Foundation

As the result of these experiments, Khalfin created his largest installation Level Zero. The Clay Project (1999-2001). This work became both the artist’s main creation and his personal tragedy: an 18-metre human figure made entirely out of clay and placed in a two-story building in fragments. The sculpture was created — and later destroyed — by the artist himself, the clay representing the quintessence of plasticity. Khalfin hoped the figure would embody the “zero level” of art. But he also wanted to illustrate how Kazakhstan’s artistic sphere was fragmented on different levels. Khalfin felt that Kazakhstani contemporary art scene had little unity, something which damaged the development of artistic practices locally. He wanted the artistic community to come together in order to be recognised on the global stage.

The installation was later destroyed when the landlord who owned the site rented it out to a different tenant. The blow took a toll on the artist’s health, and Khalfin later suffered a stroke that left him gravely ill. Nevertheless, his dream of reaching the global artistic arena came true in 2005, when he was able to present his works alongside other Central Asian artists at the Venice Biennale. He died three years later, in 2008.

A photograph of some of Khalfin's works for Level Zero. The Clay Project (1999-2001).

For Khalfin, there was no separation between something being exclusively local or exclusively global: it was not a dichotomy. Including grand narratives in local culture opened a previously closed field for Kazakhstani art. Even if his works stemmed from several large, all-encompassing ideas — the concept of absence, of duality, of how a single form could mean many things — he still managed to discover a certain “glocality” in which dualities collapse. Ultimately, these great narratives were revealed at the level of cultural sensuality.

Read more

The story of Rustam Khalfin, the artist who used Kazakhstani culture to tackle the universe’s biggest questions

‘… and somewhere everyday life turned into a miracle.’ 2 poems by Kazakh author Aigerim Tazhi

The story of Rustam Khalfin, the artist who used Kazakhstani culture to tackle the universe’s biggest questions

Beyond the glitz: what’s making Nur-Sultan’s kids want to leave the Kazakh capital?

The story of Rustam Khalfin, the artist who used Kazakhstani culture to tackle the universe’s biggest questions

A tale of two cities: Ryan Koopmans photographs the old and new capitals of Kazakhstan