Independent Uzbekistan turns 30 today. Together with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan was the first republic in Central Asia to break away from the Soviet Union on 31 August 1991, directly after a failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the streets of Moscow.
Uzbekistan’s rich culture is deeply intertwined with the ancient Silk Road. Until it was conquered by the Russian empire, the Turkestan region, which spans present-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Xinjiang in western China, was characterized by powerful khanates, and shaped by the rise and fall of the Timurids and Samanids.
Uzbekistan has increasingly drawn on its ancient heritage in its nation-building efforts, a move that has, sadly, obscured the country’s exciting contemporary culture. Former president Islam Karimov, who died in 2016 after more than 25 years in office, deprived the Uzbek people of many freedoms in his bid to consolidate power — repressing the media, religion, and human rights. In 2005, Karimov’s regime attracted global attention when, on 13 May, the Uzbekistani military opened fire on a protest demonstration in the city of Andijon, killing between 400 to 600 people. The massacre plunged Uzbekistan further into international isolation.
Artists and creatives also suffered under this increasingly repressive regime, with many banned from exhibiting or publishing their work. Some of Uzbekistan’s most vibrant prospects, like artist Vyacheslav Akhunov or photographer Umida Akhmedova, were barred from leaving the country. Others, like writer Hamid Ismailov, were forced into exile instead.
Since assuming office in 2016, Uzbekistan’s current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has worked to make a clean break from the past, lifting the country out of years of economic isolation. Some of these modest reforms have sparked new creative life, galvanising the country’s artists to launch to galleries and poetic duels. Others have presented new challenges: Tashkent in particular is losing much of its cultural heritage, as entire mahallas are bulldozed, and replaced with high rises.
There’s hope that this cautious period of openness will present new possibilities for a rising generation of artists — finally coming of age in an independent state. For now, The Calvert Journal tracks the books, films and music that have shaped today’s Uzbekistan over the past three decades.
A vivid picture of President Islam Karimov’s iron-fisted rule is captured within Bagila Bukharbayeva’s non-fiction account The Vanishing Generation. Bukharbayeva was born in Uzbekistan in 1971 and built a career as a journalist, working as a correspondent for the BBC and the Associated Press. In her book, Bukharbayeva recounts Uzbekistan’s transition to independence through her own experience, as well as that of her family, friends, and neighbours. She writes about the generation that came of age at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse: both friends who found faith, and those who found themselves perceived as a threat to the country’s authoritarian government. The book delves into the darkest corners of Uzbekistan’s recent history — including torture, kidnappings, extremism and authoritarianism — and how they have shaped the lives of the generation who witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union. Bukharbayeva also describes leaving the country in 2005 and emmigrating to the United States. The book is harrowing, but carries an important message: why it’s crucial for Uzbekistan’s youth to come to terms with the country’s not-so-distant past.
Despite its 1000-year heritage, modern architecture in Uzbekistan is still searching for its visual identity. One example of a recent success is the remarkable memorial complex of Imam Ismail al-Bukhari in the Samanids’ National Park in Bukhara. The 1998 construction can be easily overlooked; it blends seamlessly with the medieval architecture of the nearby Chashmai Ayyub Mausoleum. Designed by Uzbek architect Zoirsho Kilichev, the building was made in memory of Uzbek cleric Imam Ismail al-Bukhari, who studied Hadith and Islamic theology. Consisting of a mausoleum, a mosque, office space,, the building has also housed a museum in honour of the cleric since 2001.
Anyone who knows anything of contemporary Uzbekistan will point you in the direction of the Ilkhom Theatre. Known as the first independent theatre in the Soviet Union, Ilkhom was founded in 1976 by director Mark Weil. Today, is renowned for its avant-garde productions of provocative plays. One of Weil’s greatest contributions as a director was the play Ecstasy with the Pomegranate, which premiered in 2006 and went on to tour the world.
Ecstasy with the Pomegranate opens up two intertwining worlds: one is the world of bacha, a folk dance traditionally performed by young men in the guise of women, while the other is a world shaped by tradition, Islam, and the military. The play was inspired by the life of Alexander Nikolayev, a painter who was born in Russia in 1897 and sent to Uzbekistan in 1920. There, he fell in love with Central Asia and devoted himself to depicting everyday life, including the bacha boys of Uzbekistan. Together with set designer Babur Ismailov and composer Artem Kim, Weil brought Nikolayev’s paintings to life, creating a three-hour visual masterpiece spanning the period from Uzbekistan’s tsarist era to the present day.
Weil’s life ended suddenly and tragically just a year after the play opened, when the director was stabbed to death on his doorstep in Tashkent. But for anyone lucky enough to have seen it, Ecstasy with the Pomegranate was a play like no other: it reinvented the possibilities of theatre, presented complicated and delicate topics, and enchanted audiences for days after viewing. Though the play is not part of the theatre’s current repertoire, it is available to watch on YouTube.
Released in 1999, The Orator was the first film to show the Soviet period through the eyes of Uzbek people. Set in the 1920s, It focuses on the life of Iskander, who is mourning the loss of his brother. Under sharia law, Iskander inherits his brother’s possessions — including his cart, horse, and three widows.
He tries his best to keep a happy home. Then the revolution sets in, bringing civil war and new duties. Through Iskander’s interactions with the revolutionaries and his relationship with his wives, The Orator offers a fascinating insight into how Soviet power established itself in Uzbekistan, and the campaigns it started: for instance, to change the status of women in Central Asia while, at the same time, discouraging age-old traditions such as the wearing of scarves, veils, or burqas. Yusup Razykov, born in 1957, is one of the best known Uzbek directors.
In 2007, photographer Umida Akhmedova ignited controversy with a series of 110 photographs, entitled Women and Men: From Dawn to Sunset. The photos angered Uzbekistani authorities for not showing thriving villages, renovated streets or prosperous businesses — the idealised image that the Karimov regime sought to promote. Instead, Akhmedova showed everyday life in Uzbekistan’s villages, as families laboured in the fields, celebrated holidays and milestones, and struggled against the everyday challenges of poverty and crumbling infrastructure.
A criminal case was eventually launched against Akhmedova, and an investigation was set up to evaluate her work. The authorities had found a photo depicting a circumcision ceremony to be overly critical: “She wants to show her pity for the boy while portraying the Uzbek people as barbaric,” officials claimed. The investigation also found Akhmedova’s depiction of the “relationship between men and women and role models as inappropriate”.
In February 2010, Akhmedova was found guilty of slandering and insulting the Uzbek people. In the years since, however, the artist has remained committed to documenting social changes in Uzbekistan, not just through photography, but also in videography. She has since been able to exhibit her work at home and abroad — but has been repeatedly refused permission to leave the country.
In Gypsy Madonnas, painter Alexander Barkovsky confronts discrimination against the Central Asian Roma, referred to in post-Soviet Uzbekistan as “Ljuli”.
Barkovsky took portraits of Uzbekistan’s Roma community before printing out the images and painted over them with tempera, a method associated with Medieval Christian art. By depicting Roma faces in an artform better known for decorating basilicas and cathedrals, he hopes to change how Uzbekstanis look on their Roma neighbours. One artwork from the series was sold at Sotheby’s, while the project has toured art festivals such as the Moscow Youth Biennale, Art Dubai, the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, among others.
Saodat Ismailova is one of Uzbekistan’s most remarkable contemporary artists, moving fluidly between genres such as film, music and performance. Qyrq Qyz is based on an all-female epic poem that tells the story of Gulayim, the 16-year-old princess of the semi-nomadic Karakalpak people. Gulayim is given a fortress by her father, where she trains 40 young women in the art of war. But when her father is killed by an invading enemy, Gulayim and her army set out to defend their land. They are supported by Aryslan, a knight from the neighbouring kingdom of Khorezm, who has fallen in love with Gulayim. Following their victory, Gulayim and Aryslan join their lands, uniting peoples from different tribes and ethnicities, and build a society founded on peace and compassion.
Ismailova told The Calvert Journal that she had never taken an interest in the ancient epics which became popular in Uzbekistan after independence. Unlike many artists who drew inspiration from their national heritage, she “did exactly the opposite and rejected this trend”. Then she stumbled on the tale of Qyrq Qyz in an antique bookshop and was drawn in by its portrayal of female strength. In Qyrk Qyz, Ismailova combines traditional, live music played on ancient instruments and film sequences to revive the musical and spiritual tradition of Central Asia’s oral history. For this performance, she worked with women from across Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to not just show the power of female solidarity, but also explore the union of Central Asian people.
On 22 April 2021, a user named @metawrx bid 3.30 Ethereum (ETH) — approximately 9,174 EUR — for a NFT titled “Queen of Crypto”. The win marked the first NFT sale by an Uzbek artist. The work was made by Safardiar, an artist from Samarkand, who has lived in London since 1993. The NFT is part of a larger project, Maturation and Prelude Grandiose, where the artist documents a daughter’s path to adulthood through 3D animation and video art. Safardiar, who received a traditional art education at the Russian Academy of Art in St Petersburg, also continues to create monumental sculptures, made with classic techniques such as bronze casting, combined with new media and transparent decorative elements.