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

Aida Sulova is a Kyrgyz artist and curator who developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay. Additionally, she has helped produce public art in the Kyrgyz capital and has been involved in art education in the city. She is currently working in New York.

Aida Sulova

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.

After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an additional entrance fee, they started to listen


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

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


Asanbay

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

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

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

Bishkek is becoming the Berlin of Central Asia


Asanbay

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

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

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


Asanbay

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

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

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

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


Asanbay

What other projects have you been working on recently?

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

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.

Aida Sulova

Find out more about Aida Sulova on her website: https://www.aidasulova.com/

*These answers have been lightly edited for readability

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


Maksat Sydykov

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

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.

‘Hopefully one day more people will initiate small creative spaces in Bishkek and will spark a creative shift in the city’

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.

‘One of my motivations in returning to Kyrgyzstan was to try to encourage young dancers to (…) try something new.’

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.

‘ I am trying to bring the world here. ‘


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.

‘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’

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.

‘We have staged some more classic productions, like Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcracker’

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.

‘I am currently the only modern choreographer in the city and modern dance does not really exist in Kyrgyzstan’


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.

‘If you return to Kyrgyzstan you tend to do so because of passion’


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. 

‘The youth here is hungry, people want to learn and become part of the global society.’

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