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. 

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 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. 


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.


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.


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