Creative Bishkek: Group 705

For the latest inter­view in the Cent­ral Asia Forum’s Cre­at­ive Bishkek series; meet Group 705; Kyrgyzstan’s answer to the Situ­ation­ist Inter­na­tion­al.

Mar­at Raiymku­lov is a Kyrgyz artist who has been involved in Bishkek-based art col­lect­ive Group 705 since its incep­tion in 2005. Draw­ing on an absurd­ist philo­sophy, the group is primar­ily con­cerned with anim­a­tion, draw­ing, and theatre. The group also organ­ize a fest­iv­al of exper­i­ment­al movie and video-art and chil­dren work­shops. In recent years, the art group has spread its influ­ence to oth­er regions in Kyrgyz­stan, while also start­ing to form inter­na­tion­al links.

Who are Group 705 and what is the object­ive behind the group?

Group 705 is part of a trans­lo­c­al net­work of Col­lab­or­at­ory Arts woven into the artist­ic scene of the Cent­ral Asi­an region. The group was formed in 2005 after the Tulip revolu­tion in Kyrgyz­stan and staged per­form­ances in the aban­doned spaces of the city of Bishkek. In 2010, after the over­throw of Pres­id­ent Baki­yev, Group 705 was engaged in a pro­ject of the­at­ric­al research on the rela­tion­ship of power, soci­ety and art. So there were per­form­ances “Broken glasses”, “Len­in and Christ” and “King of Rats”. After 2014, we set ourselves the task of form­ing an altern­at­ive artist­ic plat­form, in which exper­i­ments are con­duc­ted on the themes of the lan­guage of art, ana­lys­is of mod­ern social pro­cesses, dis­cus­sion of artist­ic pro­cesses in the region, etc.

Today the group con­sists of 6 people. The group holds the fest­iv­al of exper­i­ment­al cinema “Olgon-Khorhon”, children’s work­shops, per­form­ances, holds the April Fools Com­pet­i­tion under the super­vi­sion of the Stu­dio “MUSEUM” Ulan Dja­p­arov and holds small exhib­i­tions.

What is the con­text of con­tem­por­ary art in Bishkek?

What does Group 705 add to the city’s art scene?

Are you involved in oth­er pro­jects in the city and if so, which ones?

What do you see as con­tem­por­ary culture’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s devel­op­ment?

In which ways is Bishkek chan­ging? Are these changes primar­ily pos­it­ive?

How do these changes link to the city’s art and cre­at­ive scenes?

Is your art mainly influ­enced by loc­al or inter­na­tion­al trends?

How do you see the inter­ac­tion between young and slightly older artists in the city?

(Something’s going on here, but we’re not all too sure what it is, are we Mr. Jones? — Ed.)

Creative Bishkek: Chihoon Jeong

I saw Bishkek as an unfilled lin­en can­vas; one that I wanted to paint on’.

Chi­hoon Jeong is a South Korean entre­pren­eur based in Bishkek, Kyrgyz­stan. His Korean chick­en res­taur­ant Chick­en Star has quickly estab­lished itself as a cre­at­ive hub in the city, with reg­u­lar cul­tur­al events and loc­al art on the walls (includ­ing works by Chi­hoon him­self). Recently, Jeong also launched Flask, a cof­fee shop on the AUCA cam­pus, which is play­ing a cent­ral role in the city’s cof­fee revolu­tion. Both Chick­en Star and Flask will be expand­ing to Almaty this year. Through his com­munity-centred, artist­ic­ally motiv­ated approach to ser­vice and busi­ness, Jeong has left an indelible mark in his short time in the Kyrgyz cap­it­al.

What led to you becom­ing an entre­pren­eur Kyrgyz­stan?

After com­plet­ing my master’s in Boston and work­ing as an artist for a short time, I was set to start a PhD in Manchester in philo­sophy and art. I wasn’t con­vinced that I wanted to be in the lib­rary for 5 years, how­ever, so I decided to start trav­el­ling to help guide my decision. Dur­ing this trip, I vis­ited my uncle, who has a busi­ness in Kyrgyz­stan. At this point I already felt that I had to do some­thing here. When I first went to Bishkek in Novem­ber 2014, I remem­ber think­ing how raw and organ­ic the city was – for example, there were amaz­ingly clean and fresh ingredi­ents but only very few decent din­ing res­taur­ants, so I real­ised that I wanted to cre­ate some­thing new there.

While liv­ing in the US, I was already inter­ested in dir­ect and sus­tain­able busi­ness – so I only went or res­taur­ants with loc­ally sourced ingredi­ents or cafés with loc­ally sourced milk. Des­pite lik­ing sus­tain­able busi­ness as a con­sumer, I nev­er thought about being an entre­pren­eur. Nev­er­the­less, I saw Bishkek as an unfilled lin­en can­vas; one that I wanted to paint on. As a res­ult, I went back to Korea and star­ted pre­par­a­tions for my new busi­ness, after telling my par­ents that I wouldn’t be return­ing to Eng­land to start my PhD. I decided with my uncle to start a Korean fried chick­en res­taur­ant – it had star­ted to become pop­u­lar around the world. Addi­tion­ally, Kyrgyz­stan is vir­tu­ally the per­fect loc­a­tion for a chick­en res­taur­ant, as it used to be the Soviet Union’s prin­cip­al chick­en sup­pli­er. Fur­ther­more, sun­flower oil is cheap­er than corn oil in Kyrgyz­stan because there are sun­flower seeds every­where – and so I thought that there are per­fect con­di­tions for a Korean chick­en res­taur­ant in Bishkek.

How dif­fi­cult was it to cre­ate Chick­en Star and organ­ise it in a per­son­al way?

It was very dif­fi­cult at the start. I didn’t have any loc­al con­nec­tions and the bur­eau­cracy involved in set­ting up the busi­ness was tough too. There were also lan­guage dif­fi­culties as I spoke neither Kyrgyz nor Rus­si­an and so I had to rely on my first man­ager for trans­la­tion. Indeed, apart from the man­ager, none of the 7 people I ori­gin­ally hired could speak much Eng­lish, so he had to trans­late everything while I was train­ing my staff and explain­ing everything to them.

Chick­en Star’s ‘Star Art Space’ (SAS)

It was a lot of fun though, as it was my first busi­ness and I hadn’t done any­thing like it before. I ori­gin­ally just thought ‘let’s do it’, which I think is the best approach, as I would have oth­er­wise wasted lots of time learn­ing about the leg­al sys­tem and how stuff works in the coun­try, rather than learn­ing by doing.

A key aspect for me from the very begin­ning was my view that it should be a people-centred busi­ness, with a strong focus on the team. I don’t want to give orders but rather expect every­one to be respons­ible and pro­act­ive. They should also not be afraid to make mis­takes. From the begin­ning my goal was for my staff to grow and so I helped them to expand their skills – I brought in Eng­lish teach­ers, for example.

I love the people, and espe­cially the young people, in Kyrgyz­stan – they are all super smart but sadly there is a lack of oppor­tun­it­ies for them. I am a for­eign­er, and I could have just gone to ‘do busi­ness’ but I wanted to con­trib­ute some­thing to soci­ety. As a res­ult, I focussed a lot on build­ing my team and a sys­tem, which required a lot of research before. I made sure to focus on team­build­ing in the first few weeks after hir­ing my staff – we spent hours every day talk­ing, clean­ing, shar­ing food and work­ing togeth­er – an import­ant part of this for me was instilling the cul­ture and philo­sophy that I wanted for the res­taur­ant in my staff mem­bers. It was prob­ably quite tough for them at the staff, as they weren’t used to this work­ing cul­ture, but most were really excited about it.

What is your vis­ion for Chick­en Star and Flask and how can you explain their suc­cess?

I have a clear vis­ion for both. Chick­en Star’s aim was to make the world more joy­ful than the day before – to keep grow­ing and keep devel­op­ing. Human con­flict and suf­fer­ing come from our rela­tion­ships, but so do our hap­pi­ness and joy, so it all depends how we handle our lives and rela­tion­ships. Chick­en Star is related to the Bishkek com­munity so there’s a goal of build­ing a good rela­tion­ship with the city – who­ever walks in should feel joy and should be treated well, even if they aren’t a cli­ent. This all forms my vis­ion of build­ing a sus­tain­able com­munity.

There are four aspects to Chick­en Star:

  1. Spe­cial – being spe­cial and cre­at­ing a unique atmo­sphere and treat­ing every­one in the same way – every indi­vidu­al is spe­cial and has their own beauty.
  2. Tasty – main­tain­ing the qual­ity of the food, always con­trolling the taste and mak­ing sure the stand­ard remains high.
  3. Artsy – the space is artist­ic. In my opin­ion, art inspires soci­ety and can help devel­op neigh­bour­hoods. I have exhib­i­tions every month and sup­port loc­al artists, includ­ing through 6-month res­id­ency pro­grammes. This is a win-win, as I can sup­port their work and it can help make art more access­ible, while also provid­ing atmo­sphere and inspir­a­tion in the res­taur­ant.
  4. Respons­ible – without the com­munity, we can’t exist and make busi­ness, so we have done mul­tiple char­ity events. We’ve helped loc­al orphan­ages and donate reusable food waste to a loc­al com­munity organ­isa­tion, for example. We also try to recycle our trash and reuse as much as pos­sible.

My aim for Flask is sim­il­ar. Cof­fee is one of my pas­sions – I love how much one cup can change based on where the beans come from and then how you roast and brew them. There are also so many dif­fer­ent tastes – some are fruity, nutty, chocol­atey etc. There’s also no alco­hol and so you can share the joy of the amaz­ing taste of cof­fee with every­one – and it isn’t that expens­ive. On top of this, I want to spark innov­a­tion. When I launched Flask I did a pitch to the AUCA say­ing that I don’t just want to be there to make a busi­ness but that I want to con­trib­ute to the AUCA com­munity. We always cre­ate a new menu and only serve high qual­ity cof­fee, tea and food products.

We have also star­ted doing a lunch talk on Thursdays, where every­one is invited to come and share their stor­ies. I believe that inspir­a­tion and innov­a­tion does not just come from fam­ous entre­pren­eurs and sci­ent­ists but from every­one and so I try to cre­ate a dia­logue. This was per­fect for the AUCA com­munity, but I also want to expand to the city centre and oth­er cit­ies in Kyrgyz­stan – I want to inspire people to tell their stor­ies because every­one has their unique story and unique abil­ity to sur­prise people.

This is why Chick­en Star and Flask are dif­fer­ent from oth­er cafes and res­taur­ants – I always wanted them to be unique and to give some­thing to the com­munity in an innov­at­ive way and with great ser­vice. I really encour­age my team to be friends with our guests – nat­ur­ally they have to give a ser­vice as our cus­tom­ers are pay­ing but I want them to be friends as it cre­ates a bet­ter atmo­sphere.

Guests in Chick­en Star

What is Bishkek’s poten­tial and how can cre­at­ive-minded people help the city achieve these goals?

Bishkek has a huge poten­tial, espe­cially due to its free­dom of speech and cre­at­ive freedoms – this is why there are lots of artists here and why many Cent­ral Asi­an artists come here for their shows. As Kyrgyz­stan doesn’t have many nat­ur­al resources to rely on, art, cul­ture and start-ups should be respons­ible for driv­ing devel­op­ment in the coun­try. They cer­tainly have lots of poten­tial and people here often don’t real­ise that. Young people often tell me that they want to bring Star­bucks here, but I then tell them that I wish they could cre­ate some­thing like Star­bucks here and then take it to the world.

It will prob­ably take a long time for Bishkek to real­ise its poten­tial, how­ever. I also hope that devel­op­ment comes from with­in, rather than from big for­eign com­pan­ies that would take away oppor­tun­it­ies from loc­al people. I think it’s there­fore import­ant for people to see the future and not just the present, which will enable them to launch their own pro­jects. People in Kyrgyz­stan are thirsty, and I think it is import­ant for them to use this energy for good here rather than leav­ing the coun­try and not com­ing back. Of course, life and oppor­tun­it­ies are cur­rently bet­ter else­where but if we provide oppor­tun­it­ies for young people in Kyrgyz­stan, they will stay and will con­trib­ute them­selves to devel­op­ing the coun­try. As a res­ult, the coun­try really needs to focus on the human resources it has and should pay atten­tion to edu­ca­tion and seek to strengthen cer­tain areas, such as IT.

I think it’s really import­ant for there to be a focus on export­ing rather than import­ing in the coun­try. Import­ing ‘cool’ things is tem­por­ary – instead, the focus should be on improv­ing future poten­tial. This can be done by boost­ing Kyrgyzstan’s cur­rent strengths and look­ing for domest­ic solu­tions to its gaps. Cre­at­ive-minded people are cru­cial to any future devel­op­ment, but they need to make sure that they remain patient and have a clear out­look for the future. If they suc­ceed in this, I think Kyrgyz­stan will have a very pos­it­ive future.

How import­ant is the role of entre­pren­eur­ship in Bishkek?

There are a lot of young entre­pren­eurs in Kyrgyz­stan, includ­ing many people that I admire and respect, and I feel that I can learn a lot from them. I’m a part­ner of a group called Pro Art, which was star­ted by young entre­pren­eurs in Kyrgyz­stan. They cre­ated the group to help young stu­dents devel­op their edu­ca­tion and career, which in turn helps devel­op the coun­try and com­munity. They are all cre­at­ive entre­pren­eurs and when I talk to them I don’t feel any dif­fer­ence to the US. I just wish there were more people like them, as they do more for the com­munity than me. I just own a small res­taur­ant but since I’m a for­eign­er I get more atten­tion from the pop­u­la­tion, even though there are much more incred­ible entre­pren­eurs in Bishkek.

How do you ensure stand­ards and qual­ity in your pro­jects?

I give my team many freedoms but I’m very picky, I guess you could call me a per­fec­tion­ist. The most import­ant things are find­ing the right people, then train­ing them prop­erly and then put­ting them in the right pos­i­tion and con­tinu­ously giv­ing them a mis­sion and goals. It’s really import­ant to give free­dom and respons­ib­il­ity to your staff while ask­ing them to be pro­act­ive. For this to work, you have to make sure you clearly explain what your philo­sophy and vis­ion are, and you have to remind them reg­u­larly what they are.

Any final com­ments?

I remem­ber some­thing my fath­er told me when I was a child, 34 years ago in South Korea. He explained that the situ­ation in Korea was dif­fi­cult but that they were work­ing for the future and that their hard work would pay off in the next gen­er­a­tion. This is also import­ant for Kyrgyzstan’s stage of devel­op­ment. Work­ing towards the future may be slow and you might not be able to taste glory in your life­time, but you leave your leg­acy.

People are nat­ur­ally the most import­ant part of this pro­cess and so in my com­pany I want all the part­ners and staff to be suc­cess­ful because their suc­cess is my suc­cess. If they tell me that they got offered a job from anoth­er com­pany I tell them that I think that’s great. I may lose one of the best work­ers in my team, but it is what it is and I’m glad that they can pro­gress. There’s also the motiv­a­tion of being able to train new people which is fun and allows me to cre­ate the great rela­tion­ships with my team and the com­munity. If they really care about their people, com­munity and future, busi­nesses will solve prob­lems cre­at­ively and people will react pos­it­ively. A lot of people want to make money, which is under­stand­able. How­ever, if they shift their motiv­a­tion towards improv­ing their com­munity, they are much more likely to solve prob­lems, which is a much bet­ter out­come for every­one.

I hope there will be many more young entre­pren­eurs that are pas­sion­ate about the future. I always tell my team to not focus on com­pet­it­ors and to only think about our guests, as they’re the people we meet every day. We don’t meet our com­pet­it­ors and a lot of our people are spend­ing too much time on this. It is bet­ter to focus on our guests in the res­taur­ant, as I want to cre­ate a beau­ti­ful exper­i­ence for every­one that comes.

Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova

Cre­at­ive Bishkek: Aida Sulova is the second inter­view of the series intro­du­cing the lives and work of tal­en­ted and cre­at­ive people from Bishkek, who are help­ing to estab­lish Kyrgyzstan’s cap­it­al as the region’s cul­tur­al hub

Kyrgyz artist and curator, Aida Sulova, developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay.

She has helped pro­duce pub­lic art in the Kyrgyz cap­it­al and been involved in art edu­ca­tion in the city. She is cur­rently work­ing in New York.

How did Asan­bay ori­gin­ally get cre­ated and what have the early chal­lenges been?

I returned to Bishkek after fin­ish­ing my under­gradu­ate degree in New York and soon after I star­ted work­ing for Henry Myer­berg, HMA2 Archi­tects, who is the archi­tect of the new cam­pus of the  Amer­ic­an Uni­ver­sity of Cent­ral Asia (AUCA), in Bishkek. While at the AUCA, I was engaged in a pub­lic art pro­gramme with loc­al cur­at­ors and artists, in this time we pro­duced a num­ber of pieces and had an exhib­i­tion cur­ated by Ulan Dja­p­arov. This was how my engage­ment and col­lab­or­a­tion with loc­al artists star­ted. Not long after this, I was approached by loc­al entre­pren­eurs and investors in the devel­op­ment and res­taur­ant busi­ness who showed me a 1800 square metre space, which they inten­ded to use for a brew­ery busi­ness with a dance space. My pro­pos­al was to found a flex­ible multi-pur­pose place which can trans­form its space and resources for vari­ous events. The main activ­ity of the Cen­ter are a strong art and edu­ca­tion pro­grams that are sup­por­ted by side com­mer­cial activ­it­ies such as a res­taur­ant and event hall. This was the ori­gin­al idea for cre­ation of multi-dis­cip­lin­ary Asan­bay, which now has event spaces, a gal­lery and a Geor­gi­an res­taur­ant.

Bishkek’s lead­ing art centre, Asan­bay, developed by Aida Sulova

The mis­sion of the cen­ter is to be a flex­ible space for art, edu­ca­tion, and enter­tain­ment pro­grams for com­munit­ies to enrich their cul­tur­al life. How­ever, not every­one reacted enthu­si­ast­ic­ally after we opened Asan­bay. Some people, for example, accused me of com­mer­cial­ising art by mak­ing it too access­ible and by serving food and drink in an art space. After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an addi­tion­al entrance fee, they star­ted to listen, so I think it’s mainly a cul­tur­al thing. People need to under­stand that due to the cost of pro­duc­tion and rent, it is only pos­sible to have free exhib­i­tions along­side these com­mer­cial activ­it­ies.

Asan­bay

Asan­bay is but one of Bishkek’s many excit­ing new cre­at­ive pro­jects – do you think the cul­ture of the city is chan­ging and where do you see the city head­ing?

There’s been a dra­mat­ic change in the last couple years and I see it as largely pos­it­ive. There is a real thirst and strife for a bet­ter life and the civil com­munity has become much stronger in recent years. There are now lots of people who are launch­ing their own cre­at­ive pro­jects and the city’s start-up cul­ture is improv­ing. There is now even spec­u­la­tion that Bishkek is becom­ing the Ber­lin of Cent­ral Asia. My only con­cern here is that there is no cent­ral vis­ion or mis­sion, so I hope the young­er gen­er­a­tion will be able to provide this. I really hope that edu­ca­tion and cul­ture are seen as pri­or­it­ies – cul­ture is so under­es­tim­ated in my opin­ion and I think it is really import­ant for people to under­stand that it is an effect­ive tool to bring social changes.

I think col­lab­or­at­ive ini­ti­at­ives are extremely vital – and not just from artists, but also from busi­nesses, the gov­ern­ment and the cre­at­ive com­munity. I’ve already seen the chal­lenges involved in these ini­ti­at­ives at the Asan­bay centre, as people often have con­flict­ing interests and ideas. Nev­er­the­less, as Asan­bay shows, such col­lab­or­a­tions can pro­duce very pos­it­ive res­ults. I’m also happy that there are more ini­ti­at­ives like co-work­ing spaces, urb­an talks, research labs, etc. and that people in cul­ture are start­ing to bring inter­na­tion­al artists, cur­at­ors, and art man­agers to the city. Cul­tur­al exchanges such as these are ground­break­ing and so I think the city is head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, all things con­sidered.

Asan­bay

How dif­fer­ent is the pro­cess of being an artist in Cent­ral Asia com­pared to Europe or the United States?

The con­tem­por­ary art scene is strong in Bishkek and I can see the thirst that artists in the scene pos­sess. Artists there are con­stantly pro­du­cing art and the fact that there isn’t fund­ing and sup­port isn’t really an obstacle for them. An artist in Kyrgyz­stan is an artist, where­as an artist in the States is an artist, man­ager, cur­at­or, spe­cial­ist and PR man­ager – as such, artists in New York have much more know­ledge about the art mar­ket and they are more exper­i­enced in pro­mot­ing them­selves. I think this is about sur­viv­al though – the con­text in Kyrgyz­stan is dif­fer­ent as artists there are less focused on per­son­al pro­mo­tion. It is prob­ably more genu­ine in Kyrgyz­stan and their mes­sage is stronger. I have tried to pro­mote some Cent­ral Asi­an artists by mak­ing web­sites for them – not every­one under­stands the value in this though.

Asan­bay

Do you think Cent­ral Asi­an artists will soon start to have this broad­er defined set of attrib­utes?

Sur­pris­ingly, it is the older gen­er­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia that have star­ted to get involved online and espe­cially on Face­book. There are now artist groups like the Cent­ral Asi­an pavil­ion of con­tem­por­ary art – this shows that there has been a shift. Young­er artists have increas­ingly star­ted to self-pro­mote on Ins­tagram also. This is of course largely about eco­nom­ics and it is gen­er­a­tion­al. What makes Cent­ral Asi­an con­tem­por­ary art dif­fer­ent from the rest of the world is that artists in the region are not forced to come up with an issue because the issues are already all over – social issues, per­son­al issues, gender issues. The artists there truly reflect openly and freely and this is chan­nelled in their art. Most of the work I see at Art Basel and the Venice Bien­nale, for example, strikes me as lack­ing sub­stance or a strong idea, which I don’t often find in Cent­ral Asi­an con­tem­por­ary art.

Have you per­son­ally cur­ated any Cent­ral Asi­an artists to show them to a broad­er audi­ence?

I have a found­a­tion called “Kachan?” (trans­lated from Kyrgyz as “When?”) and through this I man­aged to bring a few Cent­ral Asi­an artists to Wash­ing­ton a couple years ago. In Wash­ing­ton, there is little cul­tur­al know­ledge of Kyrgyz­stan and so I wanted to dis­play the works of two pro­voc­at­ive artists from the region – one was about the revolu­tion and was called the ‘Kin­emat­ics of Protest’ by Eugene Boikov, while the oth­er was called ‘Peres­troika’ by Shailo Djek­shen­baev . This was the start of my cul­tur­al exchange pro­gramme.

Asan­bay

What oth­er pro­jects have you been work­ing on recently?

A few years ago, I did quite a few urb­an art pro­jects on the street – as I didn’t go to art school and am not trained I prefer these kinds of pro­jects to more clas­sic­al gal­lery pieces. One of my major pro­jects was about how people react to sur­prises on the street and in the city envir­on­ment, an idea which is known as hijack­ing the space. For example, I dec­or­ated trash cans and bus stops in Bishkek as a response to the city’s garbage prob­lem.

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated trash can in Bishkek

I’m also cur­rently work­ing for an archi­tec­tur­al firm, help­ing on pro­jects in both Kaza­kh­stan and in the States, which I have been doing for a little while. Recently, I have star­ted work­ing on a pro­ject to change the role of lib­rar­ies in Bishkek, which I see as really import­ant. The lib­rary has changed its role and has become more of a com­munity centre. As a res­ult, lib­rar­i­ans can become more like cur­at­ors and event organ­isers — people who provide more know­ledge than just giv­ing out books. I find this espe­cially import­ant as Bishkek’s lib­rar­ies are empty cur­rently, even though they could be used by new star­tups, for example, who cur­rently rent expens­ive stu­di­os in order to be more like Sil­ic­on Val­ley star­tups. I’m con­vinced the role of lib­rar­ies can be enlarged and they can be used to cre­ate a stronger and hap­pi­er com­munity.

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated bus stop in Bishkek

Have your pro­jects been par­tic­u­larly inspired by any cit­ies you’ve lived in or vis­ited?

Of course my pro­jects have been inspired by places I’ve vis­ited but I do think that most of my ideas are fairly uni­ver­sal, rather than geo­graph­ic­ally bound. People will say that I copied the idea of Asan­bay, but every large city has an art centre with activ­it­ies. The concept behind Asan­bay was nat­ur­ally also influ­enced by exper­i­ences I have had in New York, Ber­lin and Tbil­isi.

On a more per­son­al note, leav­ing to study in New York had a major impact on my out­look and per­son­al­ity. I like the fact that I was able to express myself the way I wanted there, which hadn’t been the case before. In that sense, I was able to fol­low my own Amer­ic­an dream. Nev­er­the­less, I always felt that I wanted to return to Bishkek, in order to help devel­op the city. The inter­na­tion­al exper­i­ences I gathered before return­ing were cru­cial in know­ing how to enact pos­it­ive changes there.

Urb­an pro­jects: hijack­ing the space

Any final com­ments about Bishkek’s future and its cre­at­ive scene?

When I talk about my coun­try, I don’t want to talk about it in black and white terms – it’s cool and it’s doing well but some­times it gets the wrong lead­ers – I am how­ever hope­ful for the future and think we’ll see more pos­it­ive changes soon.


Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov

Cre­at­ive Bishkek: Mak­sat Sydykov is the first inter­view of the series intro­du­cing the lives and work of tal­en­ted and cre­at­ive people from Bishkek, who are help­ing to estab­lish Kyrgyzstan’s cap­it­al as the region’s cul­tur­al hub

I am trying to bring the world here’ — Maksat Sydykov reflects on his role in the world of contemporary Kyrgyz ballet.

Mak­sat Sydykov

Mak­sat Sydykov is a Kyrgyz cho­reo­graph­er based in Bishkek, who has per­formed in bal­lets for many of the world’s lead­ing com­pan­ies. He is cur­rently also the head of the Kyrgyz pub­lic found­a­tion Pro Art, which sup­ports art and cul­ture in Cent­ral Asia, espe­cially in Kyrgyz­stan. While at Pro Art, Sydykov has been respons­ible for put­ting on sev­er­al ambi­tious pro­duc­tions, such as Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and The Nutcrack­er by Tchaikovsky.

Since Pro Art’s launch in 2016, the found­a­tion has invited many of the world’s lead­ing cho­reo­graph­ers to the Kyrgyz cap­it­al. Due to fin­an­cial lim­it­a­tions, many young Kyrgyz dan­cers are unable to travel, and so Sydykov set out to ‘bring the world to Kyrgyz­stan’. After many years of exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the UK at the Eng­lish Nation­al Bal­let and Europe, Sydykov decided to return to his nat­ive land to ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s next gen­er­a­tion of artists would stamp their mark on the world map. 

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

How was your exper­i­ence study­ing in Lon­don and how has it affected your career and later cre­at­ive pro­jects?

Study­ing in Lon­don was a great exper­i­ence. The city really opened my eyes to a lot of things, which was in large part to its being alive 24 hours a day. It is a fant­ast­ic cul­tur­al hub and I was for­tu­nate to see a lot of great premi­eres, shows and museums. Lon­don showed me the size of the world and how much is going on and it def­in­itely allowed me to become more cre­at­ive and open as a res­ult. This has def­in­itely influ­enced my career and sub­sequent pro­jects.

Thanks to my exper­i­ence study­ing in Lon­don and work­ing in Europe, I have been able to col­lab­or­ate with many crazy and cre­at­ive people, which has espe­cially been the case in Ger­many. I was nev­er afraid to try new things and try to meet new people and this has also been bene­fi­cial to me, through col­lab­or­a­tion with many dif­fer­ent people you can cre­ate some­thing amaz­ing.

Mak­sat Sydykov in Lon­don

This has inspired me with my aspir­a­tion for Bishkek. I hope that my city will turn into a small Cent­ral Asi­an Ber­lin. Ber­lin isn’t a beau­ti­ful city but the people make it spe­cial: they provide it its spir­it and atmo­sphere and are the reas­on why so many people have fallen in love with the city. A sim­il­ar phe­nomen­on exists in Bar­celona and Por­tugal, where artists have helped cre­ate cre­at­ive hubs. Hope­fully one day more people will start to cre­at­ive small cre­at­ive spaces in Bishkek and will spark a cre­at­ive shift in the city — this is why I believe artists and cre­at­ives are so import­ant to cit­ies.

What do you see as the fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ences in cre­at­ive edu­ca­tion in Cent­ral Asia and Europe and what do you see as Kyrgyzstan’s poten­tial in this area?

The Eng­lish sys­tem is very open and teach­ers in the UK tend to give their pupils max­im­um free­dom to exper­i­ment. The focus is on guid­ing pupils while leav­ing them their free­dom. In Kyrgyz­stan, there is an older sys­tem where a teach­er tells you what to do and guides you with­in cer­tain rules, which leaves pupils with less free­dom. One of my motiv­a­tions in return­ing to Kyrgyz­stan was to try to encour­age young dan­cers to go bey­ond this strict sys­tem and to try some­thing new.

Mak­sat Sydykov in a con­tem­por­ary bal­let piece

I want to bring cho­reo­graph­ers to the coun­try that can get young artists to exper­i­ence a dif­fer­ent approach. This has been slightly tricky at times as some of the young dan­cers are very young — only 16 or 17 — and are often, as is com­mon in Kyrgyz­stan, some­what shy and con­ser­vat­ive. The artists are very tal­en­ted and driv­en, how­ever, and thanks to the inter­net and the region’s inter­na­tion­al­isa­tion, people in the region have star­ted to become a bit more open, as they can see what’s going on in oth­er coun­tries.

I do how­ever think that Kyrgyz young people could do with more inter­na­tion­al exper­i­ences and a more open mind­set. Sadly, due to the region’s eco­nom­ic situ­ation this is not pos­sible as many people can­not afford to travel. As a res­ult, I am try­ing to bring the world here.

Nutcrack­er staged by Pro Art

Will Pro Art con­tin­ue to focus on Bishkek or are you look­ing to expand into oth­er areas?

We will just stay in Bishkek for now. It is a young found­a­tion and so we should focus on turn­ing it into a suc­cess here for now. If the pro­gramme goes well, I think we can and should look into expand­ing, though. I would like to move it into Uzbek­istan, for example, which has an even more con­ser­vat­ive cul­ture than here. The focus for now is on Bishkek though.

How do you fund the found­a­tion?

I stage bal­lets in dif­fer­ent parts of the world and get paid for them. I then use this money to help fund the pro­jects here. I also some­times get sup­port from friends. Sadly, sup­port­ing the arts is not so com­mon in Cent­ral Asia, unlike in the United States or Europe, and so it can be a struggle some­times, but we get by.

What suc­cess has the found­a­tion had so far?

We have staged a lot of pro­duc­tions already and have always used dan­cers from the big bal­let school in Bishkek, which has around 400 stu­dents. We always try to work with people that want to be artists in the future, to help fur­ther their careers and provide fin­an­cial sup­port. We have staged some more clas­sic pro­duc­tions, like Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcrack­er, as well as more con­tem­por­ary pieces. Sadly we have had dif­fi­culties rais­ing money for the pro­ject at times, such as when our ambi­tious char­ity gala, for which we invited 14 of the world’s best dan­cers, was unable to raise any money for future pro­duc­tions. The Swiss embassy really helped a few years ago and thanks to their fund­ing we were able to fund future pro­duc­tions.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, staged by Pro Art

In gen­er­al, is there a lot of sup­port for what you are doing?

I think so, yes. People like what we are doing but we can’t always ask sup­port­ers for money and so we need to work towards becom­ing self-sus­tain­able. That’s why we always try to rein­vest the money we get from tick­et sales into new pro­duc­tions. It will take a few years for major pro­duc­tions to be fin­an­cially viable and so I want Pro Art to work and I want it to be sus­tain­able. I want more fin­an­cial sup­port for the pro­ject but it is work­ing well so far.

How much of an impact has your strategy of ‘bring­ing the world to Bishkek’ had?

It has been cru­cial. I am cur­rently the only mod­ern cho­reo­graph­er in the city and mod­ern dance does not really exist in Kyrgyz­stan. I am also the only Kyrgyz, as far as I’m aware, that has worked in big inter­na­tion­al com­pan­ies, such as the Deutsche Oper, and so nobody else has the required know-how here. It is thus also dif­fi­cult to form loc­al part­ner­ships with oth­er groups, and so most of our loc­al col­lab­or­a­tions have been with loc­al design­ers, cos­tume makers and com­posers, rather than oth­er dance groups.

It was a slight shock for the dan­cers, as well as the audi­ence, when I star­ted to intro­duce con­tem­por­ary dance into the rep­er­toire. In the Soviet Uni­on, the pri­or­ity was always clas­sic­al bal­let and there was nev­er any exper­i­ment­al dance, a leg­acy that has car­ried on. As a res­ult, it was a chal­lenge for dan­cers ini­tially, as you have to move dif­fer­ently in mod­ern and con­tem­por­ary dance. A good case in point was when I invited cho­reo­graph­ers from New York, Switzer­land and Ger­many for a per­form­ance. Their cre­ativ­ity and free­dom in the stu­dio shocked the dan­cers ini­tially. The dan­cers were taught to listen to the music and to use objects to really go into the piece — they were all trained dan­cers but had nev­er done any­thing com­par­able. The effect was remark­able, espe­cially men­tally. Their level improved by 200% after and it has also enabled them to become bet­ter clas­sic­al dan­cers, fun­nily enough.


Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Do you know many oth­er people that have spent many years abroad that have then gone back to launch their own pro­jects in Bishkek?

Not many unfor­tu­nately. Most people that leave Kyrgyz­stan want to stay abroad and don’t want to return. I do love meet­ing the rare excep­tions, how­ever. If you return to Kyrgyz­stan you tend to do so because of pas­sion rather than money, due to the country’s tricky fin­an­cial situ­ation.

My par­ents always ask me why I come back for example. I had a good salary and the free­dom to travel every­where and I worked hard for many years to get to that level. I didn’t come back to Kyrgyz­stan for the money but rather to do some­thing good for my coun­try and the coun­try of my ancest­ors. I want to help it devel­op. I want my chil­dren to be in a pros­per­ous, nice, friendly and open coun­try and I feel that it is partly my respons­ib­il­ity to cre­ate this future Kyrgyz­stan for the next gen­er­a­tion and I wish oth­er Kyrgyz would think about it in the same way.

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Is there a brain drain away from Kyrgyz­stan? How could this situ­ation be improved?

Cer­tainly. In Kyrgyz­stan there is not an equi­val­ent of the Kaza­kh Bolashak pro­gramme, where stu­dents receive fund­ing to study abroad on the con­di­tion that they return to the coun­try for five years after. This could be a good pro­gramme for my coun­try also — if you want pros­per­ous, cre­at­ive and driv­en youth they should explore the world and learn abroad and then return and share this inform­a­tion with every­one else.

Luck­ily I do feel that the coun­try is becom­ing more inter­na­tion­al — more people have star­ted to come and the coun­try is becom­ing more open. The youth here is hungry, people want to learn and become part of the glob­al soci­ety. This is in large part thanks to the inter­net — they want to see what the world is like in oth­er coun­tries and are now also glob­al cit­izens and want to see what hap­pens else­where. 

Mak­sat Sydykov in a con­tem­por­ary bal­let piece

There is also always a dif­fer­ence between urb­an and rur­al areas and so I want Pro Art to start to expand into rur­al areas, as they are often neg­lected. Then youth can also see what hap­pens in cit­ies. In gen­er­al, I have a pos­it­ive out­look for youth in the coun­try though. I work a lot with them and have noticed that they don’t need a lot and are happy — I just think that they need to choose a good pro­fes­sion and focus their atten­tion on this.

How easy is it to run cre­at­ive pro­jects in Bishkek?

I don’t see many bar­ri­ers. There is a very open youth cul­ture, young people just need to get involved in pro­jects — once they get involved in pro­jects they can fol­low their own dream. This approach has been suc­cess­ful at Chick­en Star, a loc­al Bishkek res­taur­ant, where the youth are encour­aged to launch their own pro­jects after Chi­hoon, the own­er, has trained them. This is why he is so pop­u­lar, as he helps a lot of people devel­op through a kind of employ­ee edu­ca­tion­al pro­gramme. People in Cent­ral Asia need an envir­on­ment like Chihoon’s.

*answers have been lightly edited for read­ab­il­ity