Creative Bishkek: Rafael Vargas-Suarez

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal paint­ing in his stu­dio in Barskoon, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyz­stan (Sum­mer 2018)

Rafael Var­gas-Suarez, also known as Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal , is a con­tem­por­ary artist based between New York and, for the last three years, Bishkek. His work, which is based on the visu­al­iz­a­tion of sci­entif­ic and tech­nic­al data, has been fea­tured in numer­ous museums and gal­ler­ies, and has been the basis of his many col­lab­or­a­tions with insti­tu­tions, gov­ern­ments and uni­ver­sit­ies. Recently he has been explor­ing the his­tory of mater­i­als, from tra­di­tion­al oil paint­ing to exper­i­ment­ing with mater­i­als typ­ic­ally used in space­craft and mater­i­als sci­ences. This was also the inspir­a­tion behind his mov­ing to Bishkek: for the past few years he has been learn­ing to work with ancient tex­tile mater­i­als such as silk and wool. In Kyrgyz­stan, he has found the per­fect envir­on­ment to learn tech­niques and their his­tory from loc­al mas­ters, as well as doing exper­i­ment­al work with them.

What ori­gin­ally influ­enced you to start using these more tra­di­tion­al mater­i­als?

Over the last 15 to 20 years I have been doing a lot of art­work ref­er­en­cing, for example, net­works, micro­chips, visu­al­iz­a­tion of sci­entif­ic phe­nom­ena and sub­jects related to the space pro­grams of the US, Rus­sia, the EU, Japan and Canada. As I got more aware of com­plex visu­al­iz­a­tion sys­tems, I star­ted to get more inter­ested in com­plex archi­tec­ture, such as micro­chips. Thus, I decided to go back­wards rather than for­wards to deep­en my under­stand­ing, first to adding machines and punch cards, and then later to car­pets and tex­tiles, silk and wool. These mater­i­als are the great ancest­ors of what we use today as com­puters, LCD screens and mobile devices. I star­ted to become inter­ested in the ques­tion of how it is that all of these things that are so com­mon­place today came to be. If you look at any car­pet or rug you can see a lin­eage to today’s more com­plex elec­tron­ic devices. Going to Cent­ral Asia you actu­ally get to access a lot of these tra­di­tions from the craftspeople and com­munit­ies, whose ancest­ors cre­ated these com­plex items. The know­ledge has been passed down the gen­er­a­tions and is still very rel­ev­ant there. Com­ing from the US, where I always worked with­in a very con­tem­por­ary and con­cep­tu­al frame­work and mov­ing into those areas of work and research has been really grat­i­fy­ing.

What led you to finally decide to move to Cent­ral Asia?

I was com­mis­sioned to make a per­man­ent art­work for the Amer­ic­an Uni­ver­sity of Cent­ral Asia. HMA2 Archi­tects are based in New York and had seen my art­work before in a gal­lery in Man­hat­tan. They approached me to come up with a pro­pos­al for a per­man­ent art­work, which I presen­ted 1 1/2 months later. Eight months after our first meet­ing we were in Bishkek. We went reg­u­larly for two years to com­plete the work. After fin­ish­ing the com­mis­sion, I real­ised that I enjoyed work­ing there and that I wanted to con­tin­ue explor­ing silk and wool as well as all oth­er ancient mater­i­als and tech­niques, and wondered how I could integ­rate them in non-tra­di­tion­al man­ners into my work. That is to say, I don’t expli­citly fol­low west­ern or east­ern tra­di­tions. These mater­i­als are under­rep­res­en­ted and under-explored in con­tem­por­ary art – there are some fibre and tex­tile artists that use them but they are usu­ally pigeon­holed into a region­al or craft cat­egory, so I wanted to really do research and see what I could do with these mater­i­als in my work.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal 
“34 Blue Vec­tors” (2017)
Tian-Shan moun­tains sheep wool & chi reed tech­nique 45.5 x 26.5 inches (116 x 67 cm)

Listen­ing to your com­ments it sounds like you are more closely involved with tra­di­tion­al artists in Bishkek rather than the city’s con­tem­por­ary art scene – can you com­ment on this?

The ‘art scene’ in Bishkek is very small, espe­cially in com­par­is­on with New York, where I am based. There are hardly any gal­ler­ies or museums in the city, so it couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent in terms of the cul­tur­al land­scape and the amount of activ­ity going on cre­at­ively. There are how­ever a lot of cre­at­ive people in the city, both young and old. I’ve noticed that they’re basic­ally divided between those edu­cated in the Soviet sys­tem and those edu­cated after the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on. The young­er artists def­in­itely tend to be more con­cep­tu­al and tech savvy. In gen­er­al, there is how­ever still a huge emphas­is on craft and what is called ethno art, which means tra­di­tion­al Kyrgyz or Cent­ral Asi­an motifs, col­ors and mater­i­als for mak­ing very luc­rat­ive silk road products, which are very touristy. So there is a very vibrant com­munity in with tra­di­tion­al crafts and its mar­kets.

Part of my cre­at­ive dual­ity in Kyrgyz­stan is that I asso­ci­ate with the artists doing super tra­di­tion­al loc­al region­al craft work and then on the oth­er hand I try to be a ment­or to the young­er, more con­tem­por­ary, artists, who are incred­ibly hungry for inform­a­tion from the west and oth­er places. I do how­ever make sure to not tell them what to do or how to do it.

Put gen­er­ally, it can be said that the whole Cent­ral Asi­an region is try­ing to bring itself into the new ‘west­ern world’ whilst at the same time try­ing to main­tain its ancient tra­di­tions. Do you think Cent­ral Asi­an artists are try­ing to do some­thing sim­il­ar also, by com­bin­ing mod­ern meth­ods with tra­di­tion­al tech­niques, or are you some­what of a pion­eer in this regard?

This is a good ques­tion and indeed is some­thing I ask myself almost every day. You see strict divides between people doing tra­di­tion­al things and those doing exper­i­ment­al con­tem­por­ary things. For example, you are almost guar­an­teed to make a liv­ing with tra­di­tion­al crafts – there is a mar­ket there, even a for­eign one (primar­ily Amer­ic­an) for their loc­al crafts. Because of loc­al policies in Kyrgyz­stan, the artis­ans pro­du­cing such goods are actu­ally con­sidered small busi­nesses and are doing really well selling their goods abroad. One thing I have noticed is that these crafts artists are slightly frus­trated and often afraid to exper­i­ment, as they fear that they won’t be able to make a liv­ing and sus­tain their fam­il­ies if they do so – in effect, they are artists not respec­ted work­ers.

On the oth­er hand, the more exper­i­ment­al/­con­tem­por­ary-minded artists are very much influ­enced by west­ern, mod­ern, con­tem­por­ary ideas and aes­thet­ics but sadly there is very little oppor­tun­ity there to sus­tain a liv­ing doing that, even as a teach­er. They usu­ally have to teach stand­ard west­ern art his­tory, which is a leftover from the Rus­si­an tra­di­tion­al aca­dem­ic teach­ing struc­tures, which are very safe and con­ser­vat­ive. There is also a con­flict between gen­er­a­tions due to dif­fer­ing ideas and inten­tions: young art stu­dents and older tra­di­tion­al pro­fess­ors who were edu­cated dur­ing Soviet times are divided. A lot of the young­er artists feel frus­trated and can’t really do any­thing with the super form­al train­ing that they get. There is how­ever a vari­ety of art col­lect­ives, such as Museum­Stu­dio, 705 Group, Kas­malieva & Djumaliev’s ArtEast , Shtab and the very young Labor­at­ory Ci. There’s even LGBT art col­lect­ives known as SQ and Labrys. The cool thing about Kyrgyz­stan is that you can make art work that spe­cific­ally is crit­ic­al of polit­ic­al, social, class and racial and eth­nic real­it­ies. It’s very import­ant to be free as an artist any­where.

A major ques­tion there relates to Kyrgyzstan’s iden­tity between the east and west and wheth­er there is an iden­tity crisis cre­at­ively about what it is to be Kyrgyz. This is def­in­itely an inter­est­ing thing to observe as an out­sider, as a for­eign artist. You see Kyrgyz artists address­ing these ques­tions, more so than in oth­er coun­tries in the region, where there is a major lack of free­dom of expres­sion. I always explain to young artists in Kyrgyz­stan that they are liv­ing in a demo­cracy, even if they don’t real­ize it. Yes, it’s a young coun­try and under­developed, but fun­da­ment­ally they are young artists in a demo­cracy and can express any­thing they want, it’s their leg­al right to do so. This is the real dif­fer­ence between artists in Kyrgyz­stan and in Kaza­kh­stan or Uzbek­istan – in Kyrgyz­stan nobody is going to shut you down for cri­ti­ciz­ing – people may tell you not to, but you won’t be arres­ted for it. An even big­ger tragedy in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries is artist­ic self-cen­sor­ship, which is clearly a tragedy and leads to arres­ted devel­op­ment as far as devel­op­ing iden­tity and nation­al cul­ture. This does not mean that crit­ic­al con­tem­por­ary Kyrgyz artists can sus­tain them­selves, how­ever. This entire pan­or­ama is of course truly inter­est­ing to me as a west­ern artist. I make sure to not step on anyone’s toes and I also don’t intend to exhib­it or sell my art there, as I’m very sens­it­ive that I am a for­eign­er and merely observing from the cul­tur­al side lines while I pro­duce my work there.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal Ala-Kiy­iz and Shyrdak tapestries made in Kyrgyz­stan, at his loft in New York City (March 2018)

Let’s carry on with that point. You are a for­eign­er and are try­ing to enact a change in Bishkek and the wider region’s art scene. Has this been dif­fi­cult for you in terms of get­ting con­tacts or loc­al cred­ib­il­ity or has there been a gen­er­al accept­ance and will­ing­ness to learn?

There are many chal­lenges in Kyrgyz­stan – the primary one being the lan­guage bar­ri­er, as I am still try­ing to learn Rus­si­an and only under­stand very basic Kyrgyz. There are how­ever lots of young cre­at­ive people that speak Eng­lish, as a few have been edu­cated abroad. Over­all, in Bishkek, I can also get by with my lim­ited Rus­si­an – I have an assist­ant to help me, how­ever. Anoth­er chal­lenge is that people there are often very insec­ure, espe­cially young artists, as they come from very tra­di­tion­al and con­ser­vat­ive fam­il­ies, which means the idea of being an artist is frowned upon, and there is very little under­stand­ing of it, which is the oppos­ite of my back­ground, where the sys­tem I grew up in fostered and sup­por­ted the idea of being a play­er in a cul­tur­al land­scape. It hap­pens fre­quently that I have to explain and basic­ally define what I do, as people there often don’t fully under­stand it, which was quite sur­pris­ing to me. More often than not, people in Cent­ral Asia are quite sur­prised that I make my liv­ing as an artist.

I have star­ted to hire assist­ants, mostly young­er artists that are not sus­tain­ing them­selves with their art. We often have great con­ver­sa­tions in the stu­dio about lots of top­ics and they do tend to get a lot of con­fid­ence when I tell them how it is that I got to become an artist and what my vis­ion is for the future. They are not used to people being so open and gen­er­ous and so they are very sur­prised and ulti­mately appre­ci­at­ive when someone opens up and gives them advice. Unfor­tu­nately jeal­ousy, ter­rit­ori­al­ity and a tri­bal men­tal­ity are quite com­mon, which can clearly be det­ri­ment­al to their pro­gres­sion.

As far as break­ing into the scene, it should be noted that there isn’t really one. I’m also mind­ful of the fact that I’m just there to pro­duce, to do my work there and then it gets expor­ted back to the US. People often ask me when I’m going to do a show there but I don’t have any plans for that and I don’t think loc­al cur­at­ors intend for that to hap­pen either. At the start of my pro­ject at AUCA, I felt a jeal­ous energy around me by some of the loc­al older artists, as they saw the pro­ject there as a great oppor­tun­ity that was taken away from them by a for­eign artist. How­ever, one of the object­ives of the pub­lic art ini­ti­at­ive, was to bring an artist from the US to do some­thing there. There were people com­plain­ing at the start so the archi­tects and pres­id­ent of the uni­ver­sity decided that it would be a good idea for me to col­lab­or­ate with a loc­al artist on the pro­ject, so I chose to col­lab­or­ate with Dilbar Ashim­baeva, of Dilbar Fash­ion House. She is the most respec­ted fash­ion design­er from Cent­ral Asia. She edu­cated me about silks, embroid­ery, fab­rics and really gave me a crash course on how to work with silk for my art. She is a mas­ter and has trav­elled all over the world to do her work. At the same time, I edu­cated her a lot on con­tem­por­ary art, con­cep­tu­al art and install­a­tion art, so it became a great cre­at­ive part­ner­ship. We even became great friends and have even made some silk paint­ings togeth­er more recently.

Over­all, Kyrgyz­stan is a place of pro­duc­tion for me though. I have learned so much there, not just about Kyrgyz­stan and its art but also about myself and the artist­ic tra­di­tions that formed me. More and more I feel that it’s a place I can con­trib­ute to more as a ment­or or edu­cat­or. Last year the Amer­ic­an embassy and sev­er­al NGOs have asked me to help devel­op art edu­ca­tion pro­grammes for the pub­lic and for chil­dren. I always say ‘yes, abso­lutely’ to any pos­sib­il­ity with arts related edu­ca­tion. I find it incred­ibly import­ant and early edu­ca­tion is how real impact­ful change hap­pens.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal paint­ing in his stu­dio in Bishkek, Kyrgyz­stan (Novem­ber 2018)

Are you the only for­eign artist in Kyrgyz­stan with a focus on pro­duc­tion?

As far as I know, there are few­er than a dozen for­eign artists that have taken up space and worked there, while a few oth­ers are tem­por­ar­ily work­ing there with an NGO or embassy. From what people tell me, I’m the most involved for­eign artist ever so far! I have a stu­dio in the moun­tains of the South­ern shores of Lake Issyk Kul and one in the cen­ter of Bishkek, so I am very embed­ded. I’ve made many friends and have star­ted to hire people now so I am now learn­ing who does what and such. I am still more embed­ded in New York but I’m firmly set­ting roots in Bishkek too. I like that there are no dis­trac­tions in Kyrgyz­stan, so I can be really focused and work long hours in the stu­dio. I can do so in New York too, but there are so many more dis­trac­tions and inter­rup­tions. Sur­pris­ingly, Bishkek can be a little busy and and hec­tic too, but in gen­er­al I get a lot of stu­dio work time, so I feel really sat­is­fied there. I tend to be focused wherever I go, but I’m espe­cially pro­duct­ive in Bishkek and at Lake Issyk Kul.

Do you want to stay there for a longer time or do you have a set date for when you want to fully return to the States?

Right now I’m actu­ally in the US but I did just spend 6 months in Kyrgyz­stan, and did the year before also, so I’m cur­rently doing half-half. I don’t have a spe­cif­ic plan and tend to be someone that goes with the flow. As long as I can pro­duce there and don’t run into prob­lems I can con­tin­ue there. I’m lucky that I can work any­where, as I think most artists can’t, after they get set into one way of work­ing. Because of the nature of my work, I’m always look­ing for new mater­i­als, new ideas, new con­cepts, research and travel, which is clearly helped by my innate abil­ity to be able to shift modes and adapt to almost any­where so far. I nev­er actu­ally ima­gined that I would spend very much time in Bishkek or even hav­ing stu­di­os there at all, but the AUCA pro­ject showed me that I could work there. I still have some pro­jects I want to do there, such as design­ing my own yurt, mak­ing car­pets with tra­di­tion­al mater­i­als, using the Shyrdak and Ala-Kiy­iz tech­niques for wool.

Your work is primar­ily at the inter­sec­tion of aeronautics/astronomy and art – is this some­thing you are still doing in Cent­ral Asia or has your focus shif­ted since you star­ted using more region­al mater­i­als?

You’re ask­ing really good ques­tions, related to things I think about all the time. As far as the images and res­ult­ing art­works that I’m mak­ing there and here in the US, I am still very much con­nec­ted to this idea of spa­tial move­ment, as well as astro­nom­ic­al charts and micro­chips. I’ve also shif­ted my atten­tion from NASA to Roscos­mos, the Rus­si­an space pro­gramme, whose launch facil­it­ies are loc­ated in Kaza­kh­stan. It is an inter­est­ing con­trast to see this rock­et infra­struc­ture in the middle of Kaza­kh­stan with camels and people in tra­di­tion­al Cent­ral Asi­an dress. So yeah I can say that a lot of my work is still very much related to geo­met­ric abstrac­tion, and sci­entif­ic visu­al­iz­a­tion. I don’t know how much my work can change them­at­ic­ally or if there is an ori­ent­al­ist or silk road influ­ence in my art. I think the influ­ence is purely mater­i­al so far, rather than con­cep­tu­al. One of the inter­est­ing things about doing the work I do there is the way people react to it – they asso­ci­ate it a lot with Rus­si­an con­struct­iv­ism and pure mod­ern­ist art, which means they aren’t so con­fused by it, and more import­antly, I’m not con­fus­ing myself with it.

So you have been going to Bishkek fairly reg­u­larly for the last 4 and a half years. How much do you think the city has changed or mod­ern­ised in that time, in terms of its cre­at­ive scene and how people view their city, coun­try and future?

There are def­in­itely many changes to observe and live with. Almost every day in Kyrgyz­stan, I see a new idea or pro­ject that people really grav­it­ate towards or are very curi­ous about. There’s a lot of poten­tial, as well as smart young people who are really hungry for new ideas and new things. At the same time they are still hold­ing on to their very tra­di­tion­al val­ues so I feel that Kyrgyz­stan is cul­tur­ally torn between con­flict­ing cul­tur­al vis­ions of their future. I believe there are three main camps: those that main­tain a tra­di­tion­al Kyrgyz struc­ture infused with con­ser­vat­ive Islam­ic ways of life and tra­di­tions, those that are attrac­ted to Rus­si­an cul­ture, lan­guage, men­tal­ity, and with a lot of nos­tal­gia for Soviet times; and the camp I am asso­ci­ated with socially,  is glob­ally minded and grav­it­at­ing to new, pro­gress­ive ideas and devel­op­ing cul­ture.

I do see a lot of change in gen­er­al though, and it tends to hap­pen at an increas­ingly rap­id rate. You also see things that prob­ably won’t change, espe­cially when you’re out­side of Bishkek. Out­side of the cap­it­al, you’re not going to see the change, amount of change or rate of change. It’s inter­est­ing because there’s a kind of iden­tity crisis – people want to be con­tem­por­ary and up to the minute but are held back by very strong tra­di­tions, so it’s quite a dynam­ic to see as a for­eign­er.

Do you see these three camps as split along gen­er­a­tion­al lines or does every­one have all three inter­n­al­ised in them to great­er or less­er extents?

It’s mostly gen­er­a­tion­al but then from time to time we’re sur­prised –  by “we’re” I am refer­ring to us few for­eign­ers. For example, there is a huge emphas­is on get­ting mar­ried as young as pos­sible, even, at times, in more seem­ingly pro­gress­ive circles. So you do see people whom you think are liv­ing their lives in some sort of anti-estab­lish­ment dir­ec­tion with their life­style and beliefs, and then sud­denly they’re mar­ried and wear­ing the hijab and liv­ing a super con­ser­vat­ive Muslim way of life and then that’s it. They had their fun, they had their chance, they had their for­eign friends and were liv­ing their west­ern val­ues and then all of a sud­den it’s just cut off. That’s some­thing I’ve seen more and more in the last few years and I’m like ‘wow, what a shift’, one minute you’re a fem­in­ist and the next moment you’re mar­ried, either by choice, fam­ily or tra­di­tion, and there’s no going back. It’s not some­thing one sees with­in the eth­nic Rus­si­an pop­u­la­tion. There is def­in­itely a massive emphas­is to marry early, in com­par­is­on with the west at least, and this means that the divorce rate is very high, so I ques­tion the rap­id pace of such major decisions being made. I don’t judge  but I def­in­itely ques­tion them there.

“45 Vec­tors” (2018−19)
Hand sewn, fel­ted & hand dyed Tian-Shan moun­tains sheep wool in ala-kiy­iz & shyrdak tech­niques
84 x 134 inches (2.13 x 3.40 M)
Edi­tion of 10 + 2 AP

In which dir­ec­tion do you see the coun­try head­ing? Is the dom­in­ant move­ment towards lib­er­al­isa­tion and demo­crat­isa­tion or do you think the more tra­di­tion­al cul­ture is start­ing to claw its way back in?

That’s some­thing else we all talk about all the time. I have a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with people from the US embassy and dif­fer­ent NGOs, amongst oth­ers, about these trends and socio-cul­tur­al dynam­ics. Every­body knows that this is a very small devel­op­ing inter­est­ing coun­try that is fun­da­ment­ally a demo­cracy.  Evid­ently, the last elec­tions and the non-viol­ent trans­fer of power caused for­eign gov­ern­ment to send some of their dip­lo­mat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ives to con­grat­u­late the new Kyrgyz Pres­id­ent and his admin­is­tra­tion. I think the main chal­lenge for Kyrgyz­stan at the moment is to stop expect­ing handouts, and I mean that from the top levels all the way down. There also needs to be a great­er sense of own­er­ship, where people com­mit to pro­tect­ing what is theirs.

I feel Kyrgyz­stan is going in the right dir­ec­tion but there’s going to be a lot of aches and pains along the way. I also think a lot of early edu­ca­tion is needed – not just in schools but also at home, as that’s where all edu­ca­tion starts. So I think in anoth­er gen­er­a­tion or so it’s going to be a really inter­est­ing place in terms of social stand­ards. I always tell young people that there is no reas­on why their coun­try can’t become sim­il­ar to Switzer­land or South Korea. I always use the example of South Korea, a coun­try with very lim­ited nat­ur­al resources that has pro­gressed so much in the last few dec­ades, mainly due to changes in edu­ca­tion, atti­tude and policy to bene­fit its people. It is also import­ant to note that the Kyrgyz gov­ern­ment is sec­u­lar and that they’re really against the grow­ing Islam­isa­tion of the coun­try, so there cer­tainly is a big divide between the sec­u­lar and Muslim pop­u­la­tions, which goes all the way up to gov­ern­ment. Kyrgyz­stan has this same poten­tial as any developed coun­try, but it will take a while and it won’t be easy. Noth­ing good is easy, you need com­mit­ment at all levels.

Do you have any final com­ments with respect to your work or Kyrgyz soci­ety?


Most people I speak to out­side of Kyrgyz­stan haven’t heard of the coun­try when I tell them that I’ve been work­ing there – many also hear Kur­distan, which is obvi­ously very dif­fer­ent, so I always have to explain where it is and that it’s not a dan­ger­ous place, that it’s the only demo­cracy in its region, with free and open inter­net and so on. In a way I’m not just try­ing to encour­age Kyrgyz people  to look into them­selves, to look around, to look bey­ond their bor­ders, but also people in the States and else­where, that Kyrgyz­stan and Cent­ral Asia are import­ant and valu­able parts of the world.  Grow­ing up in the US dur­ing the Cold War and after the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on we knew noth­ing about the region and it’s def­in­itely worth know­ing about. It has a really inter­est­ing his­tory, with the silk road, nomad­ic cul­tures and its vibrant mix of eth­ni­cit­ies and lan­guages. I have met people there that did eth­no­graph­ic stud­ies and anthro­po­lo­gic­al research dur­ing the Soviet times and that found Cent­ral Asi­an con­nec­tions to Nat­ive Amer­ic­an migra­tions. These con­nec­tions actu­ally exist through­out Cent­ral Asia, East Yak­u­tia and East­ern Siber­ia. You see these con­nec­tions in art, archi­tec­ture, food, lit­er­at­ure, and even in the tex­tiles and fab­rics used in these regions. Some­times I see tex­tiles that look Per­uvi­an, Mex­ic­an or Navajo. There are many links that both sides are not very aware of yet.  Art is a very power­ful tool for any­one look­ing to con­nect these dots. it’s both a great oppor­tun­ity and a priv­ilege to be able to serve such a pur­pose.

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