SHTAB: the queer communists of Bishkek bringing politics and art back together

This hybrid art collective, activist hub and political theory think tank is reimagining the future for Central Asia

11 December 2017

Those in the know appreciate that Central Asia is not the cultural backwater that many would imagine: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are all producing thrilling young artists and thinkers (Turkmenistan is sadly too closed off to function at the same level). Even by these standards, though, the work done at SHTAB in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is radical.

Founded in 2012, SHTAB (short for School for the Creative Actualisation of the Future — you can see why they went with the acronym) describe themselves as a “Central Asian artistic research initiative, whose participants view art as an instrument of social critique, a territory of solidarity and a practice of radical imagination.” Under artistic directors Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalova, SHTAB hosts exhibitions and performances, leads excursions exploring Bishkek’s socialist heritage, stages art interventions around the city, publishes books on political theory and history and much more. From March to June, they host their Spring Creative Report — a themed series of public workshops, lectures and screenings; from September to December, they run their educational Evening School outreach programme. This year’s, centred on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, is entitled When the Oppressed Speak and culminates in an original theatre production.

SHTAB’s aim is to bring art to bear on politics and vice versa, to bring radical theory to the masses, to reimagine the past and leap forward into the future. In one of their manifestos, The Politicisation of Experience, they write: “Art and theory should become public instruments to empower the fight for human dignity and to emancipate of people from both centuries-long prejudice and traditions, and modernised mechanisms of exploitation and oppression.” They look back to the region’s Soviet heritage as a means to explore progressive politics in the here and now.

Kyrgyzstan is a paradoxical place to pursue this agenda — not that paradox is a problem for SHTAB and co. Once labelled “the Switzerland of Central Asia” for its (comparatively) “successful” post-Soviet transition to liberal openness, in recent years crackdowns on civil society, and gay rights in particular, have made the urgency of SHTAB’s work clearer than ever. Bishkek is still arguably the most vibrant metropolis in Central Asia, but it needs progressive cultural forces to come to the fore.

The LGBTQ issue is of particular relevance given SHTAB’s avowed position as “queer communists” — their moniker of choice for their radical anti-traditionalist politics. As they write in another manifesto: “We understand queer not only as blurring of standards of sex, gender and sexuality, but on the whole as a challenge to traditional politics of identity and their essentialist message. Queer is a rejection of all gender, ethnic, racial and national boundaries. Queer and communism are mutually dependent and inevitably interlinked notions as they both denote the process of overcoming alienation.”

SHTAB have produced animations for leftist songwriters, workshopped anti-homophobia protest material, produced cartoons for unions. They train interns and invite all comers to join in their work. In a developing region, they refuse to sit still. As they loudly proclaim: “THE BUILDING OF THE FUTURE IS TO BE CONSTRUCTED OUT OF THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE PRESENT.”

Text: Samuel Goff

Header image courtesy bantmag.