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

Kazakhstan’s contemporary artists have been struggling over the last few years. Feminist art and activism in particular has come under heavy attack. But despite the challenges which lie ahead, the country’s creatives are looking to the future: after all, it’s in difficult times in which they feel needed most of all.

17 April 2020

The past few years have delivered blow after blow to Kazakhstan’s contemporary art scene. In December 2018, Focus Kazakhstan — an ambitious international project showcasing Kazakh art across Europe, Asia, and the United States — crumbled under mismanagement, with hundreds of artworks seized by angry and unpaid contractors. Three months later, Kazakhstan’s long-lauded pavilion for the country’s inaugural Venice Biennale was cancelled in the 11th hour, once again leaving artists and curators without their wages. Then, in November 2019, right-wing nationalists attacked an exhibition of feminist art in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Six works of art, including several by Kazakh artists, were ultimately removed from the show, while the museum’s director resigned amid death threats.

Kazakhstan’s contemporary artists, however, are in no mood to lament recent tragedies. When The Calvert Journal sat down in Almaty with three of the country’s most prominent female creators, they all agreed on one thing: contemporary art flourishes amid turmoil. After all, if an artist provides a voice of reason, it’s in seemingly bleak moments that their words sound loudest.

Zoya Falkova. Image courtesy of t​he artist.

Zoya Falkova

Falkova began her art career in 2008 when the global economy plummeted. As building firms were forced to abandon half-finished projects, Falkova found herself surrounded by skeletons of buildings. She soon began scavenging through heaps of rubble, finding screws, wires, and springs. She brought them to her apartment, and assembled them into figures. The sculptures seem whimsical, but Falkova remembers them as “an attempt to live in that circumstance”.

“[In Berlin,] I could feel that my ideas weren’t strange — they were contemporary art.”

Falkova steadily made a name for herself, but her career didn’t take off until 2013 when she won a contest sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Tashkent. Her prize, a trip to Berlin to tour contemporary galleries, was her artistic awakening. “That boosted me a lot,” she says. “When you are in Kazakhstan, you think no one is interested in your work. [In Berlin,] I could feel that my ideas weren’t strange — they were contemporary art.”

But Falkova’s first solo exhibition, Playing the Woman, held in 2017 at Almaty’s Esentai Gallery, proved that not everyone would be receptive to such ideas. The artworks on display featured male nudes painted using borsch, floor rags reminiscent of flowers and vaginas, and a life-size wedding altar constructed from dirty linen: its repugnant odour an inescapable reminder of how marriage for women often begets domestic slavery. The pieces were reminiscent of much of Falkova’s work, addressing complex problems with nuance and irony.

Two hours before opening, however, the gallery director decided that the nude paintings would not be exhibited, despite protests from the exhibition’s curator that Fernando Botero’s bronze female nude sat outside the same Esentai Mall that hosted the gallery itself. In response, she was told naked women were appealing to look at; naked men weren’t. Falkova painted veils over the men’s genitalia, a move she hoped would draw attention to the attempted censorship.

“Evermust”, which was later censored at the Bishkek Femminale.
“Evermust”, which was later censored at the Bishkek Femminale.
Falkova photographs her censored nudes at Playing the Woman.
Falkova photographs her censored nudes at Playing the Woman.

Similar run-ins with officialdom have punctuated Falkova’s career since. Last spring, her artwork Evermust — a punching bag shaped as a woman’s torso in a not-so-subtle criticism of sexual violence — was one of the pieces censored by the Kyrgyz Minister of Culture at the Bishkek Feminale. When asked about her inspiration, she says: “This country. Everything. Every woman’s experience. Everyone has been harassed by a taxi driver at least once. Everyone has been attacked by a pedophile in their childhood at least once. Violence is everywhere. I can feel it.”

But Falkova isn’t discouraged by the backlash against Evermust. “When something becomes a symbol, this is already a success,” she says. The artwork’s story has reverberated throughout the world, amplifying her cry against sexual violence.

Does she ever tire of the censorship? Of course. But worse, she says, is the pervasive apathy towards contemporary art. Almaty lacks contemporary art museums and institutions, making Falkova a self-taught survivor, but one who is determined to continue. “Contemporary art is important because it can be critical,” she says. “It’s all just a big mirror for what’s happening in society.”

Irina Dmitrovskaya. Image courtesy of t​he artist.

Irina Dmitrovskaya

A journalist by training, Irina Dmitrovskaya quit her job when she realised her beliefs were at odds with the government channel she worked for. Instead she turned to photography, starting with commercial shoots and later earning a degree from Docdocdoc, St Petersburg’s School of Modern Photography.

Now, Dmitrovskaya is interested in the ways we construct our identities, questioning societal constructs, and exploring the factors that compose one’s sense of self. “We use all these terms like, ‘I’m a journalist’, ‘I’m a woman’, but what does it mean?” she asks.

For her series Te-lo, titled after the Russian word for body, Irina photographed nude models amid pastoral scenery. “The idea was born in the process,” she says. “At first I told the models to pose in the landscape, but it felt like a cheap imitation. The models weren’t experiencing anything. I decided instead that the models would hide and I would look for them. The process united us.” The resulting photographs portray figures crouching behind bushes, limbs tangled in leaves, and fleshy shapes that suggest something corporal. Looking at Te-lo now, Irina senses tension: we try to hide our bodies, even though they are what connects us to our environment.

An image from Dmitrovskaya's Te-lo series.
An image from Dmitrovskaya's Te-lo series.
An image from Dmitrovskaya's Te-lo series.
An image from Dmitrovskaya's Te-lo series.

Other works interrogate definitions of gender and femininity. For a recent self-portrait, Irina stuffed fabric into stockings and wrapped them around herself layer after layer. The resulting photograph barely looks human—only a shock of hair hints at the subject buried underneath the imposed layers on top. “It turns out so ugly when you try to be what the perfect woman in Kazakhstan should be like. What LGBT people should be like,” she said of the portrait. I asked her to define these prescribed roles. “[In Kazakhstan] the point of a woman’s life is to have a child,” she said. “If you’re talking about LGBT people, the biggest thought is that they shouldn’t exist.” These expectations, like the fabric in Irina’s portrait, amass until a person no longer recognises herself.

Despite Kazakhstan’s stringent definitions of gender, Irina continues to push the boundaries with her work. Discussing the Feminale scandal, she says: “I don’t know how to move forward from that. But definitely we’ll keep moving forward. Turmoil is a good environment for expressing new ideas, new projects.”

A still from Suinbike Suleimenova's 0GENDER.

Suinbike Suleimenova

Walking into Suinbike’s apartment is like entering a family gallery, without the sterility typical of art spaces. Stacks of her father’s ceiling-height paintings lean against one wall, her mother’s artworks flank the fireplace, while art books featuring Suleimenova’s own work line the shelves. Vibrant toys, courtesy of Suinbike’s newborn baby, coalesce with the masterpieces, a joyful reminder of the family’s egalitarian values — everyone deserves a voice, whether infant or famous artist.

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Suleimenova’s art examines decolonisation and feminism in the internet age. She describes ideas such as gender, politics, and capitalism as “a kind of colonisation of our minds that we can absolutely change if we want.” Through video, photography, and installation, Suinbike imagines a world without such constructs.

Her piece “0GENDER,” which began as a hashtag in 2017 and evolved into a documentary, explores a genderless society. The idea might be utopic, but Suleimenova cites gender as a divisive construct: “It’s gender norms and conformity that we’re all fighting,” she says of men, women, feminists, and LGBTQ activists. “The easiest, and most ideal solution would just be cancelling gender roles themselves.”

Suleimenova also takes a firm stand on putting her ideals into practice: her work is inextricable from her life, and vice versa. “Some ideas don’t grow, they don’t work, because we just leave them for the museums. I’m interested in going outside of the glass shelves [we see at] exhibitions,” Suleimenova says. “For me, art’s not really working if it’s just a theory.” In 2015, she founded FEMFILMCA, an initiative to produce pro-feminist educational media. What began as five cinematographers has since expanded into a 200-strong group of female artists. Through readings, film screenings, and discussions, FEMFILMCA has ignited much of the feminist discourse which had been previously been lacking in Almaty.

A shot of the installation, 2050 —  Colonise Me Now.
A shot of the installation, 2050 — Colonise Me Now.
A shot of the installation from #cellphonepoetry Image courtesy of the artist.
A shot of the installation from #cellphonepoetry Image courtesy of the artist.

Elsewhere, Suleimenova has used art to sway governments and mobilise the public. Along with Falkova and the eco-movement Green Salvation, Suinbike’s designs contributed to #savekokzhailau, a project that reversed plans to convert a Kazakh national park into a ski resort.” Later on, in April 2019, when she was detained for filming activists at the Almaty marathon, Suleimenova’s impassioned court defense sparked demand for a more transparent government. Her films have also been shown in Russia, Italy, Slovenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, China, and the US.

Ultimately, Suleimenova believes that art is a catalyst for change. “Art is so natural for everyone,” she says. “Yes, we can try to use politics to make change, but isn’t that speaking the language of the coloniser? Art is the purest way to express what you’re saying.” Suinbike senses imminent change in Kazakhstan. She guesses that burgeoning nationalist groups can sense it too, prompting the attacks on exhibitions such as the Bishkek Feminale. Such skirmishes are “the last convulsions of a dying beast,” she says.

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