This article was produced by The Calvert Journal in partnership with British Council
In Tashkent, private enterprise offers the space and freedom to experiment that the state often refuses to give. The Calvert Journal met four independent venues bringing a breath of fresh air to the Uzbek cultural scene.
Founded in 1978, Ilkhom Theatre was the USSR’s first independent theatre. Putting on both classics and contemporary plays, often with a critical take on pressing social issues, the iconic bilingual theatre — performing in both Uzbek and Russian — was set up by Mark Weil, a Jewish-Russian born in Tashkent. Weil was stabbed to death near his flat in 2007: the three men found guilty said the murder was an act of revenge for the director’s portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in the play Imitating the Koran. Today, the company calls Weil’s killing the most tragic consequence of their strong stance for free speech.
Yet, the theatre went on. Actor Boris Gafurov was elected as the new artistic director. He had also been a teacher at Ilkhom’s independent drama school, which “injects fresh blood into the company every year.” “I was not ready for this takeover,” Gafurov admits, “we thought that Mark would live forever.” Yet, the company, with its 15 permanent actors, and 30 collaborators, tried to continue its strong, irreverent artistic line that made it legendary. “We tried to stay as true and brave,” he says.
One of their recent premieres, Tomorrow — half-play, half-rock concert — by Uzbek journalist and playwright Nikita Makarenko, engages with a painful topic for Tashkent: its recent demolitions, caused by big business interests that wipe out entire historical mahallas (or neighbourhoods) in the city. “Tashkent is changing every day,” Gafurov says. “It is not my Tashkent.” Last year, the theatre too was about to lose its space, which they’d been renting for 42 years. Luckily public outrage prompted government officials to intervene. It has been one of the few fights which has seen activists and artists win over developers in Tashkent. Yet, Gafurov hopes that things will get better, and that officials will listen to the citizens’ needs to preserve their heritage.
In addition to theatre performances, Ilkhom also hosts an annual jazz festival, a rock festival, and contemporary art exhibitions, as well as other events. “We see Ilkhom as a cultural centre rather than just a theatre,” Gafurov explains. They usually live off ticket sales, but during the pandemic, when the country imposed restrictions on cultural activities from March until September, Ilkhom put on free online events instead. Ultimately, it was only able to survive financially thanks to grants from the German Embassy and the Swiss Foundation for Development in Tashkent. “We would not have been able to make it otherwise,” Gafurov explains.
Tashkent’s first private gallery, Bonum Factum Gallery, was founded ten years ago in a bid to create a space for freedom and creativity — breaking with the bureaucratic, Soviet-style cultural events taking place under the wing of state authorities. Its founder, Shakhnoza Karimbabaeva, worked on initiatives such as the Tashkent Photo Biennale and the Festival of Contemporary Photo-Video Art before setting up the gallery. “Working in government structures helped me understand that staying relevant and searching for new forms, experiments, as well as supporting talented youth, is only possible via a private gallery that sets its own tasks and goals, and does not represent state ideology,” Karimbabaeva told The Calvert Journal.
For the past ten years, Bonum Factum Gallery has put on more than 200 events and exhibitions, launched research and education projects, and its own online cultural magazine, becoming a springboard for new talent in contemporary art and photography in Uzbekistan.
Yet Karimbabaeva says they arrived at their greatest achievement during the pandemic, when they set up an art residence project while events were put on hold. “It’s been our dream for many years,” she adds, “but it so happened that it was during the pandemic that it was necessary to create a place for artists who were closed in their apartments with their families, without studios.” Initially, the gallery’s team of nine was looking to transform an abandoned Soviet industrial space into studios. Instead, they were offered the house of some of the wealthiest merchants in the old city of Bukhara, the brothers Mirkalon and Jurabek Arabov, dating from the beginning of the 20th century — an opportunity they embraced. While seven artists work on the premises on a permanent basis, dozens of other artists, photographers, actors, and musicians, have had 20-day residencies since the initiative was launched in August, a short period which fits in with local Covid-19 restrictions. In the future, the Bonum Factum team hopes to open up the residence at an international level.
Set in a former agricultural factory, 139 Gallery is Uzbekistan’s first documentary photography space. It opened in February 2020, right as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Yet despite having to close a month later due to lockdown restrictions, the team of three — which has since grown to seven permanent members, has still managed to put on ten events and exhibitions since September last year, when restrictions were removed and the gallery reopened to the public. When they hosted the four-day Russian documentary festival ArtDocFest, they had a full house of 100 for each of their three daily screenings. Other events included an exhibition on the visual elements of propaganda by documentary filmmaker Umida Akhmedova, a show on the stories of political prisoners by gallery founder Timur Karpov, and an exhibition with interviews from women living close to the space. “For us, it’s important to work with our mahalla (neighbourhood); we want to know who they are,” Karpov explains. Such work is especially amid Tashkent’s ongoing, widely-spread demolitions, where whole neighbourhoods are disappearing. “We are losing our heritage, so working with our community, we’re trying to preserve this memory, write the story of this mahalla.”
For Karpov, the gallery is helping to build “a tiny community growing around our centre.” In addition to exhibitions, the team also runs a video production company and a film lab, and are planning to set up an agency distributing Central Asian photography to international media, a library, and a school for documentary film and photography. “Most photographers we’re working with are young and starting out. We wanted to give them the thing that we didn’t have: a space where they can experiment, without any censorship.”
Karpov says he is surprised that, despite touching upon controversial themes, the government has allowed the gallery to exist. “This fear that we will all end up in prison, behind the bars, that the authorities will not like what we’re doing, what we’re showing, and talking about, is constant,” he explains. The fear does not come out of nowhere. The gallery’s name itself is based on the 139 article of Uzbekistan’s penal code that defines slander, the article under which Karpov’s mother, filmmaker Akhmedova, was arrested and later released thanks to a presidential pardon. If the gallery does get shut down, Karpov says he would go back to investigative journalism.
Tashkent Focus Film and Theatre School positions itself as Central Asia’s first independent film school. Set up in 2016, the school offers short courses in filmmaking, acting, screenwriting, and photography direction, as well as short workshops and masterclasses. Its founder, Maria Musakova, says she opened the school for her parents: Uzbek filmmaker and screenwriter Zulfikar Musakov and theatre director Helen Lopatko, both of whom teach at Focus alongside 12 other film and theatre professionals. Musakova herself has a varied background, studying Japanese language and culture at the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies before working in tourism, advertising, marketing, and business. “My goal was very simple: to create a private school for my parents, and an opportunity for young people to study in my homeland,” she told The Calvert Journal.
The school already boasts successful actors such as Rano Shodieva, Feruz Saidov, and Shahzoda Matchanova among its alumni. Musakova is particularly proud of Focus Film and Theatre School’s international connections, such as the internships they organised in Poland in 2019, and the teaching visits from the director of the Oscar-winning film Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears, Vladimir Menshov, or the head of the Moscow Art Theatre School, Igor Zolotovitsky.
The school is non-for-profit but its courses are paid-for: one six-month directing course costs about £250. Since the pandemic, however, they have begun to offer both free masterclasses and grants. Thanks to financial support from the EU delegation to Uzbekistan, the school was able to launch a free online 12-week FOCUS CineLab, involving 50 young students from many countries, including Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, the Czech Republic, France, and Germany. Musakova says they are opening a free children’s acting club, a cinema club for children, and will be offering grants to train people with disabilities in cinema skills, mostly funded by the Swiss Embassy in Uzbekistan.