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