Language policy in Central Asia

The lan­guage policies of the Cent­ral Asi­an repub­lics since their inde­pend­ence have needed to respond to lin­guist­ic com­plex­it­ies that emerged dur­ing the peri­od of col­on­isa­tion by Rus­sia. These issues include the devel­op­ment of loc­al lan­guages as lan­guages of admin­is­tra­tion and edu­ca­tion, the eth­no­lin­guist­ic pro­file of the region, the impact of the Rus­si­an lan­guage on loc­al lan­guage eco­lo­gies, and the impact of Eng­lish as a lan­guage of glob­al­isa­tion.

At the time of their col­on­isa­tion by Rus­sia in the 18th and 19th cen­tur­ies, Cent­ral Asia was pre­dom­in­antly Muslim in reli­gion and lin­guist­ic­ally Turkic, with the excep­tion of Per­sian-speak­ing Tajikistan. These lan­guages were writ­ten in the Arab­ic script, where they were writ­ten at all, and edu­ca­tion was provided by Islam­ic schools, which taught Arab­ic, mainly for the pur­poses for Qu’ranic recit­a­tion. Fol­low­ing the Rus­si­an annex­a­tion, apart from immig­ra­tion of Rus­si­an speak­ers into the region, there was lim­ited inter­ven­tion into the loc­al lan­guage eco­lo­gies until 1864 when the Tsar­ist gov­ern­ment enacted an edu­ca­tion stat­ute requir­ing all teach­ing to be con­duc­ted in Rus­si­an. How­ever, access to such edu­ca­tion was lim­ited and­lit­er­acy rates in Rus­si­an were around 1% by the time of the 1917 Revolu­tion.

Chil­dren wear­ing tra­di­tion­al clothes in Cent­ral Asia, pos­sibly in Kaza­kh­stan Source — Uni­ver­sity of Vir­gin­ia Cen­ter for Rus­si­an, East European, and Euras­i­an Stud­ies

Fol­low­ing the Revolu­tion, the Com­mun­ist gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally estab­lished five repub­lics in Cent­ral Asia based a policy of estab­lish­ing nation­al eth­no­lin­guist­ic groups. Although each repub­lic was assigned to a tit­u­lar nation­al­ity, this masked a much more com­plex dis­tri­bu­tion of eth­nic groups in the region. While the tit­u­lar nation­al­ity was the major­ity in each repub­lic, there were siz­able minor­it­ies of oth­er eth­nic groups in each repub­lic. Moreover, each tit­u­lar eth­nic group was spread over more than one repub­lic.

In the new repub­lics, tit­u­lar lan­guages were giv­en a role as offi­cial lan­guages and lan­guages of edu­ca­tion along­side Rus­si­an. As the loc­al lan­guages had not been used for such func­tions under the Empire, and lit­er­acy levels were low, early lan­guage policy focused on the devel­op­ment of lit­er­acy and this went along with devel­op­ment of writ­ing sys­tems for the lan­guages. Script devel­op­ment under­went changes dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, begin­ning with pro­pos­als to devel­op writ­ing in Arab­ic script, fol­lowed by a phase of devel­op­ment of Lat­in scripts, and finally the entrench­ment of the Cyril­lic script. These changes were mainly driv­en by polit­ic­al and iden­tity related con­sid­er­a­tions; Arab­ic being asso­ci­ated with Islam­ic reli­gious iden­tity and with his­tor­ic­al lit­er­ate prac­tice, Lat­in script link­ing to pan-Turkic iden­tity, espe­cially after the adop­tion of the Lat­in script by the Turk­ish repub­lic in the 1920s, and Cyril­lic being asso­ci­ated with a social­ist and Soviet iden­tity and sep­ar­a­tion from eth­nic and lin­guist­ic groups out­side the Soviet Uni­on. These fre­quent changes had neg­at­ive con­sequences for lit­er­acy devel­op­ment as lit­er­ate people were required to relearn lit­er­acy skills with each change.

Man wear­ing tra­di­tion­al clothes in Cent­ral Asia, pos­sibly in Kaza­kh­stan — Source: Uni­ver­sity of Vir­gin­ia Cen­ter for Rus­si­an, East European, and Euras­i­an Stud­ies

After the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on, the repub­lics declared inde­pend­ence in 1991. They con­tin­ued their inher­ited ethno-nation­al­ist iden­tit­ies and adop­ted policies to pro­mote the status of the tit­u­lar eth­nic group and its lan­guage as a mark­er of nation­al iden­tity. In the Soviet peri­od, the tit­u­lar lan­guages of the repub­lics were co-offi­cial along­side Rus­si­an, although usu­al­ly­with an inferi­or status. Just pri­or to inde­pend­ence, all repub­lics sought to change this bal­ance and declared the tit­u­lar lan­guage to be the offi­cial lan­guage, with Rus­si­an giv­en sec­ond­ary status as an intereth­nic lin­gua franca. Sim­il­ar policies con­tin­ued after inde­pend­ence, although in Kaza­kh­stan both lan­guages were give­nequal status, while Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan adop­ted mono­lin­gual policies with no form­al role for Rus­si­an. In all repub­lics how­ever, Rus­si­an was well entrenched with large Rus­si­an speak­ing minor­it­ies in all coun­tries and Rus­si­an con­tin­ued to play an import­ant role on their soci­o­lin­guist­ic pro­file.

Script reform has been an issue in all coun­tries­and is basic­ally a polit­ic­al issue related to estab­lish­ing a new iden­tity and reject­ing the impos­i­tions of the Soviet peri­od. In Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan, the Arab­ic script was con­sidered but was not adop­ted, Tajikistan has con­tin­uedto use Cyril­lic, and Uzbek­istan is mov­ing to Lat­in script. Script reform has not yet been fully imple­men­ted, with the adop­tion of Lat­in script being most com­plete in Turk­menistan.

In edu­ca­tion policy, there has been a con­cern in lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy to strengthen the pos­i­tion of the tit­u­lar lan­guages. Theyare the nor­mal medi­um of instruc­tion in schools, although the policy on medi­um of instruc­tion var­ies across the coun­tries, with Rus­si­an and some eth­nic lan­guages being recog­nised­in most repub­lics. Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan have adop­ted highly mul­ti­lin­gual approaches. Uzbek­istan recog­nises a right to use any eth­nic lan­guage in education,althoughcurrently only Kaza­kh, Kyrgyz, Rus­si­an, Tajik and Turk­men have been approved as medi­ums of instruc­tion, with Karakalpak being used in the autonom­ous Karakalpak­stan­Re­pub­lic. Tajikistan also allows eth­nic lan­guages to be used in school­ing but guar­an­tees only the use of Tajik, Rus­si­an and Uzbek, with Kyrgyz and Turk­men per­mit­ted in areas with large num­bers of speak­ers. Kaza­kh­stan has both Kaza­kh and Rus­si­an medi­um schools. Only in Turk­menistan is the tit­u­lar lan­guage the sole medi­um of instruc­tion in gov­ern­ment schools and oth­er lan­guages are expli­citly excluded. All policies, except for in Turkmenistan’s, have thus respon­ded to some degree to the intern­al eth­no­lin­guist­ic diversity of the coun­tries. Learn­ing the tit­u­lar lan­guage is, how­ever, required regard­less of the medi­um of instruc­tion in schools as a sub­ject for all stu­dents. Edu­ca­tion policies also require the learn­ing of addi­tion­al lan­guages bey­ond the nation­al lan­guage and moth­er tongues; Rus­si­an is required from primary school level, except in Turk­menistan where policy regard­ing Rus­si­an has been ambigu­ous, andEng­lish is also a required sub­ject in all coun­tries begin­ning in primary school. This means that most sys­tems have a tri­lin­gual policy with the tit­u­lar lan­guage, Rus­si­an and Eng­lish.

Fur­ther read­ing

Lid­di­coat, A. J. (2019). Lan­guage-in-edu­ca­tion policy in the Cent­ral Asi­an repub­lics of Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy in Asia (pp. 452 – 470). New York: Rout­ledge.

Regan, T. (2019). Lan­guage plan­ning and lan­guage policy in Kaza­kh­stan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy in Asia (pp. 442 – 451). New York: Rout­ledge.

Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

A story of mass move­ments through­out Cent­ral Asia, by Nikolai Klassen.

Not only is Rus­sia a riddle, wrapped in a mys­tery, inside an enigma: frag­ments of the puzzle are also rep­lic­ated and recapit­u­lated through­out Cent­ral Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bear­ing idio­syn­crasies that point to a past as rich and unpre­dict­able as the present. Let me address one such mys­tery: why, like myself, are there so many Ger­man-Kaza­khs? Nowadays, Ger­mans rep­res­ent a size­able minor­ity in each Cent­ral Asi­an coun­try, for example, there are still 179,476 eth­nic Ger­mans dwell­ing in Kaza­kh­stan. How­ever, eth­nic Ger­mans only began to form a size­able chunk of Kazakhstan’s demo­graphy shortly after 1941. So, why did so many Ger­mans go to Cent­ral Asia? And what does my grand­moth­er have to do with this story?

Ger­man set­tle­ments through­out the globe, notice the con­cetra­tion around north­ern Kaza­kh­stan.

Like my grandmother’s fam­ily, many Ger­man speak­ing set­tlers moved east in search of oppor­tun­it­ies off the back of Russia’s devel­op­ment­al efforts. Under Ivan II (1462−1505) some experts, such as doc­tors, archi­tects, and mil­it­ary officers migrated to Rus­sia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682−1725), Ger­mans increas­ingly began set­tling along the Volga River in sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers. Anoth­er fig­ure driv­ing Ger­man Migra­tion in Rus­sia was Kath­rine the Great. In 1762, she invited Ger­man farm­ers and craftspeople to Rus­sia to help mod­ern­ize her coun­try, giv­ing them land, reli­gious free­dom, excep­tion from mil­it­ary ser­vice and tax exemp­tions. Escap­ing high taxes and polit­ic­al ten­sions in the Holy Roman Empire and later Prus­sia, most came to lay the found­a­tions for new set­tle­ments. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a pro­found impact on improv­ing Russia’s agri­cul­tur­al out­put. More star­ted com­ing after 1789 and they kept com­ing until 1863. Most of them were Cath­ol­ics or Men­non­ites seek­ing reli­gious free­dom, a new place to settle and polit­ic­al sta­bil­ity. As they swept down to Russia’s east­ern and south­ern bor­ders, the first Ger­man set­tlers arrived in mod­ern-day Kaza­kh­stan by the end of the 18th cen­tury. In due course, Ger­mans foun­ded their first per­man­ent set­tle­ment in 1785, called Friedens­feld. Dur­ing the peri­od of the Sto­li­an reforms in 1905 — 1911, Ger­mans had already formed towns such as Alex­an­der­tal, Altenau, Königs­gof, and Pug­ger­hof. The migra­tion did not stop there though: Ger­man set­tlers even tried to reach as far as Azerbaijan in the 1930s. The reas­on: increas­ing hos­til­ity and dis­trust dir­ec­ted against the set­tlers due to the polit­ic­al cli­mate in Ger­many at that time. This time, Men­non­ites have been sus­pec­ted not because of their reli­gion but because of their nation­al­ity.

His­tory is rarely kind, and World War II is known for its force­ful relo­ca­tions with­in the Soviet Uni­on. Most of the Ger­mans were off­spring of Volga Ger­mans, who lived in the Volga Ger­man Autonom­ous Soviet Social­ist Repub­lic loc­ated in Rus­sia, or the Black Sea Ger­mans, who lived in Ukraine and Crimea. This demo­graph­ic spread reached an abrupt end­ing dur­ing the early 1940s; with forced relo­ca­tion to Kaza­kh­stan being ini­ti­ated in July 1941, after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Uni­on. Moreover, Stal­in ini­ti­ated a state of emer­gency: Ger­mans were declared spies a pri­ori, a decision which res­ul­ted in all work­ing-age men (15−85) being con­fined to Soviet Labour camps – the so-called gulags. Accord­ing the Soviet Gov­ern­ment, a decree to relo­cate the Ger­mans was imposed because:

Among the Ger­man inhab­it­ants, who live in the Volga Region, are thou­sands and ten thou­sand of saboteurs and spies who are await­ing a sig­nal from Ger­many to execute explo­sions in oth­er regions, but also against their own people.“


In the course of the deport­a­tion, my grand­uncle and my great-grand­fath­er were sent to two dif­fer­ent gulags nearby Archangel­sk to work in a forestry sta­tion in pitch-black win­ters and all-day sum­mers. For­tu­nately, they were work­ing as doc­tors and were import­ant for the camps’ over­seers. They were able to sur­vive the extreme tem­per­at­ures and harsh labour con­di­tions, and were lucky not to have been sent to an even-more pun­it­ive camp, where their med­ic­al skills may not have been called upon.

Pho­tos from Crimea, taken before my family’s re-loc­a­tion.

Offi­cially, people were nev­er depor­ted: they were brought to safe towns, away from the front­lines. The areas to “spread” the Ger­mans across the coun­tries were areas, such as the Altai region (650,000 re-loc­ated), the Qaraghandy region (500,000), Kyrgyz­stan and Tajikistan (both home for 70,000 Ger­mans). The regions where Ger­mans were spread gen­er­ally had a low pop­u­la­tion dens­ity and a demand for work­ers in agri­cul­ture and min­ing. The labour short­age arose from the huge demand for troops to send to the Soviet front­line, leav­ing many Cent­ral Asi­an towns stripped of their male pop­u­la­tions. As Ger­man set­tlers were sus­pec­ted to be spies and saboteurs, the author­it­ies saw fit to keep an eye on them and extract their pro­duct­ive energy through keep­ing them in tightly-con­trolled labour camps. In addi­tion to forced labour, Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on were sub­ject to forced assim­il­a­tion, such as through the pro­hib­i­tion of pub­lic use of the Ger­man lan­guage and edu­ca­tion in Ger­man, the abol­i­tion of Ger­man eth­nic hol­i­days and a pro­hib­i­tion on their observ­ance in pub­lic. Not only were Ger­mans stripped of their lan­guage and cul­ture, they were often openly dis­crim­in­ated against and pub­licly mocked. At around this part in our story, my Grand­moth­er, then a young girl, was mak­ing her way across the frozen mid­winter Steppe in a cattle wag­on. In 1941, she, her moth­er, and oth­er 38 people put into the wag­on were for­cibly relo­cated to Ser­enda (Зеренда, nowadays in Kaza­kh­stan).

My Great-grand­par­ents at their house in Найман with their dog друг, who once sur­vived being shot on the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that he was a wolf.

Sup­pres­sion of eth­nic Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on did not end with the Second World War. Though some Ger­mans were able to live unof­fi­cially in Ger­man com­munit­ies in tows they’ve been sent to, their cul­ture had to remain hid­den: still, they were able to secretly hold holy ser­vices, speak Ger­man, and cel­eb­rate Ger­man hol­i­days. In 1949 most Ger­mans were finally released from the labour army, although no pub­lic apo­logy or excuse was giv­en for the 4-year delay. In August 1964 the Soviet Gov­ern­ment finally began rehab­il­it­at­ing the Ger­mans to their pre-war set­tle­ments. Accord­ing to the newly appoin­ted pres­id­ent Bresh­nev, the accus­a­tions against were not jus­ti­fied, and a ter­rible mis­take had been made. How­ever, most chose to stay on in Cent­ral Asia, and only a few returned to the Volga area. Oth­ers trav­elled around and went where they could find employ­ment. Oth­ers still tried to claim their pre-war homes, even though they lost the right to do so. After 1964, the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion became dis­persed and mobile — find­ing new homes and shap­ing new iden­tit­ies. The num­ber of Ger­mans involved in agri­cul­ture declined while those occu­pied as aca­dem­ics and teach­ers rose, as those liv­ing in the coun­try moved to the cit­ies. In that pro­cess Ger­mans finally man­aged to blend into their milieu, los­ing their cul­tur­al unique­ness as their lan­guage, arts, cus­toms were becom­ing more and more Rus­si­fied. Many Ger­mans moved in among non-Ger­mans and star­ted fam­il­ies with people of oth­er eth­nic des­cents. The trend towards urb­an­iz­a­tion also caused a drop in the birth-rate and the size of Ger­man fam­il­ies, which had been erstwhile char­ac­ter­ized by high birth rates. By 1991 less than half of the Ger­man Rus­si­ans claimed Ger­man as their first lan­guage, and instead regarded Rus­si­an as their moth­er tongue.

The hor­rors of deport­a­tion and the tragedy of Sta­lin­ist cul­tur­al sub­jug­a­tion became far bet­ter known through his­tor­ic­al stud­ies dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, after the Soviet Uni­on fell apart. Most of the remain­ing eth­nic Ger­mans emig­rated to Europe and bey­ond, with a major­ity opt­ing for Ger­many. In 1990, after my Grand­fath­er returned from a vis­it to Canada, he and my grand­moth­er decided to move to Ger­many, where they felt they would be treated as equals. From there they invited oth­er parts of my fam­ily and finally also my fath­er and my moth­er, who was preg­nant with me while mov­ing.

Ger­mans in Rus­si­an Folk­lor­ist out­fits; Taken in Karaganda, 1953.

In 1990, there were around 2.9 mil­lion eth­nic Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on, of which only 41% resided in mod­ern-day Rus­sia. The rest were spread through­out Cent­ral Asia and the Caucuses, with 47% being based in Kaza­kh­stan, 5% in Kyrgyz­stan, and 2% in Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan. As these pop­u­la­tions either blen­ded into their cul­tur­al wood­work, or made their way to Ger­many, these pop­u­la­tions have fallen to about 1/3rd of their ori­gin­al size. Yet their foot­print lingers on in count­less aspects; so, should you ever find your­self North of Astana and notice rock-hard dark breads curi­ously sim­il­ar to Ger­man pum­per­nick­el, please spare a thought for my Grand­moth­er who, like so many oth­er Soviet-born Ger­mans, has left a last­ing mark on Cent­ral Asia’s demo­graphy.

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.

Review of Overcoming a Taboo: Normalizing Sexuality Education in Kazakhstan

Recent reports show the rates of child aban­don­ment as a con­sequence of unwanted teen­age preg­nan­cies are alarm­ingly high in Kaza­kh­stan. This prob­lem along with oth­er sexu­al health prob­lems could be the res­ult of a num­ber of factors, includ­ing the lack of effect­ive sexu­al­ity edu­ca­tion pro­grams in the school cur­riculum that would shape young people’s sexu­al beha­viour and atti­tudes towards sexu­al­ity. The cur­rent review paper aims to ana­lyse an art­icle “Over­com­ing a Taboo: Nor­mal­iz­ing Sexu­al­ity Edu­ca­tion in Kaza­kh­stan” presen­ted as part of the Cent­ral Asia Pro­gram in Janu­ary 2018. 

The art­icle is writ­ten in an access­ible and com­pre­hens­ive lan­guage show­ing the author’s know­ledge of sub­ject mat­ter, how­ever, there is no logic­al and coher­ent struc­ture through­out the art­icle. The sec­tions such as the lit­er­at­ure review, meth­od­o­logy, aims, res­ults, dis­cus­sions, con­clu­sions and recom­mend­a­tions are not presen­ted expli­citly and not shown in a chro­no­lo­gic­al order. Whilst the meth­ods and repor­ted res­ults are com­pre­hens­ive and clearly show­case the insuf­fi­cient sexu­al­ity edu­ca­tion prob­lem facing teen­agers, there was no men­tion of the inter­views with the authors as anoth­er meth­od used in the art­icle, as well as the aims and lim­it­a­tions of the research were not clearly stated. The author com­pares Kaza­kh­stan with oth­er devel­op­ing coun­tries where the repro­duct­ive health situ­ation is no bet­ter without men­tion­ing in the Intro­duc­tion sec­tion why these par­tic­u­lar coun­tries were selec­ted for com­par­is­on. This under­mines the value of the study, there­fore, it would have been use­ful to select coun­tries with the bet­ter repro­duct­ive health situ­ation and draw on their exper­i­ences.

The entire art­icle focuses on the factors explain­ing the acute sexu­al health issues affect­ing young people. How­ever, there is a range of oth­er factors that could res­ult in the early sexu­al activ­ity, such as the influ­ence of envir­on­ment, peers, expos­ure to sexu­ally expli­cit mater­i­als in the mass media, yet were not addressed by the author (Nikken & Graaf 2013). The art­icle well-describes the appar­ent neg­lect of the issue by the policy-makers as a res­ult of adopt­ing weak policies or imple­ment­ing inef­fect­ive pro­grams. It high­lights the role of the loc­al gov­ern­ment in increas­ing pub­lic aware­ness of the issue, through either pilot sexu­al­ity pro­jects, tar­get­ing primar­ily women, or lec­tures, and poor res­ults that it delivered. The art­icle iden­ti­fies the under­ly­ing causes for these fail­ures as ste­reo­types, stigma or shame attached to an earli­er sexu­al activ­ity. Such stigma pre­vents par­ents from openly talk­ing about sexu­al­ity with their chil­dren and makes the policy-makers move away from an issue. 

Chil­dren in tra­di­tion­al cos­tume at the interi­or court­yard of the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. — by Dan Lun­d­berg from flickr

The author sug­gests the sexu­al­ity edu­ca­tion as an altern­at­ive that is yet to be put to prac­tice, and iden­ti­fies the lack of inform­a­tion about sexu­al health in Kaza­kh lan­guage for the res­id­ents of cer­tain regions as well as low-qual­ity or inac­cess­ible sexu­al health ser­vices and centres as oth­er con­trib­ut­ing factors influ­en­cing the sexu­al well-being and health of teen­agers. Inter­view answers of vari­ous spe­cial­ists and sur­vey find­ings have been provided to sup­port this inform­a­tion as well as the argu­ments made through­out the art­icle. The author also sug­ges­ted that a range of policy changes such as abor­tion leg­al­iz­a­tion for 16-year-olds, pub­lic aware­ness cam­paigns, increas­ing the qual­ity of sexu­al health ser­vices, mak­ing birth con­trol means more access­ible, etc. would reduce the prob­lem. How­ever, this set of meas­ures in itself would not solve the prob­lem com­pletely, for example, leg­al­isa­tion of teen abor­tions is likely to have ser­i­ous health con­sequences, such as mor­bid­ity and mor­tal­ity (Ger­dts et al. 2016). 

There­fore, solu­tions should be prop­erly developed with all the root causes of the prob­lem in mind. As a way for­ward, sexu­al­ity edu­ca­tion should not be per­ceived as some­thing that encour­ages early sexu­al rela­tion­ships, it should rather be regarded as a tool to increase the public’s know­ledge of sexu­al health (Wight 2005). Inter­na­tion­al com­munity, policy-makers and pub­lic should also unite in their efforts to elim­in­ate stigma and ste­reo­types by rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness and shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion of an issue as well as draw the atten­tion of policy-makers most res­ist­ant to chan­ging the policies, ensure par­ent­al involve­ment in order  to change the ways the par­ents raise their chil­dren through vari­ous inform­a­tion sources and media plat­forms. The more the par­ents are open to talk with their chil­dren about the sexu­al­ity and asso­ci­ated issues, the less likely are chil­dren to choose the wrong path or encounter its harm­ful con­sequences (Krebbekx 2018).

NOTES:

Ger­dts, C., Dob­kin, L., Foster, D. G., & Schwarz, E. B. (2016). Side effects, phys­ic­al health con­sequences, and mor­tal­ity asso­ci­ated with abor­tion and birth after an unwanted preg­nancy. Women’s Health Issues26(1), 55 – 59.

Krebbekx, W. (2018). What else can sexu­al­ity edu­ca­tion do? Logics and effects in classroom prac­tices. Sexu­al­it­ies, 1363460718779967.

Nikken, P., & de Graaf, H. (2013). Recip­roc­al rela­tion­ships between friends’ and par­ent­al medi­ation of adoles­cents’ media use and their sexu­al atti­tudes and beha­vi­or. Journ­al of youth and adoles­cence42(11), 1696 – 1707.

Wight, D. (2005). Sex Edu­ca­tion: The Way Ahead. Avail­able at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/body-mind/health/health-studies/sex-educationthe-way-ahead Accessed: 15 Feb­ru­ary 2019.

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: Ulan Djaparov

A lead­ing fig­ure of Bishkek’s post-Soviet arts scene: CAF inter­views Ulan Dja­p­arov as the latest instal­ment in the Cre­at­ive Bishkek series.

Ulan Djaparov is seen by some as the godfather of modern and contemporary art in post-Soviet Bishkek.

Along­side found­ing a con­tem­por­ary art and archi­tec­ture space, Stu­dio Museum, he is a driv­ing force of the city’s recent artist­ic boom through his work on social media – primar­ily as the admin­is­trat­or of the influ­en­tial Face­book group Cent­ral Asi­an Pavil­ion of the Con­tem­por­ary Art.

What is Stu­dio Museum and why did you cre­ate it?

The archi­tec­tur­al stu­dio Museum has a long his­tory. In 2018, we cel­eb­rated the 20th anniversary of the studio’s offi­cial status and the thirty-first anniversary of the cre­ation of the group Museum. Dur­ing this time, there have been sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of ‘stu­dioists’.

Nat­ives of the stu­dio are now work­ing in vari­ous cit­ies in the world – from Vla­divos­tok to Cologne, and from Moscow to Auck­land. The spe­ci­al­ity of our stu­dio is that, in addi­tion to archi­tec­tur­al pro­jects, we are also engaged in pro­jects in the field of con­tem­por­ary art, as well as per­son­al artist­ic prac­tices. Anoth­er emphas­is of our stu­dio is seen through our wide net­work with oth­er artists through­out Cent­ral Asia, as well as people from dif­fer­ent fields (non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­isa­tions, busi­ness­men, etc) who are inter­ested in art.

How much has the con­tem­por­ary art scene in the city changed in the last few years and how have you con­trib­uted?

Mod­ern and con­tem­por­ary art as a phe­nomen­on appeared in Kyrgyz­stan rel­at­ively recently — a little more than 20 years ago. Ori­gin­ally, there was not a single art insti­tu­tion or offi­cial centre for con­tem­por­ary art. Everything was done on per­son­al enthu­si­asm. The museum and I, as the cur­at­or of many of the first exhib­i­tions, were among the sev­er­al ini­ti­at­ors of this pro­cess.

Nowadays there are a couple of gen­er­a­tions of young artists and art act­iv­ists, with new ideas and forms of exist­ence. Of course, there are some minor dif­fer­ences between groups – the gen­er­a­tion of 35 to 40-year-olds still remem­ber the Soviet era, the dif­fi­culties of the 90s and so on. The gen­er­a­tion of 20 to 25-year-olds is already very dif­fer­ent – they are more mobile, prac­tic­al, not so tied to ‘old’ val­ues.

Non­ethe­less, everything still depends on the per­son­al drive of artists in Bishkek, inso­far as the com­mer­cial art is itself out of reach, Bishkek’s mod­ern art scene is still led by the artists’ per­son­al interest and desire to put for­ward chal­len­ging ideas.

Do you par­ti­cip­ate in oth­er pro­jects in the city, and if so, which ones?

Our stu­dio Museum is quite spe­cif­ic, and has been since its cre­ation. We mainly cooper­ate with good friends who have inter­est­ing ideas and we help them to design and visu­al­ise them their ideas archi­tec­tur­ally. Ideally, we help them to real­ise what is not always pos­sible. Often, this is the devel­op­ment of archi­tec­tur­al con­cepts. In addi­tion, some­times we organ­ise exhib­i­tions of con­tem­por­ary art.

We cooper­ate with young, but also more exper­i­enced, artists from all over Cent­ral Asia. A few years ago, I was the edit­or-in-chief of the Cent­ral Asi­an alman­ac Kur­ak (art and soci­ety). Recently, we began to cooper­ate with some NGOs. For example, we are devel­op­ing and recom­mend­ing on ‘set­ting mod­els of a safe edu­ca­tion­al envir­on­ment with the help of design in pilot schools of Kyrgyz­stan’.

What is the role of mod­ern cul­ture in the devel­op­ment of Kyrgyz­stan?

The situ­ation is inter­est­ing. Every­one has a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of what mod­ern cul­ture is. Some appeals to some kind of archa­ic or purely nation­al forms and wrap them in mod­ern pack­aging, oth­ers try to relay to us ‘uni­ver­sal cul­tur­al val­ues’ (but often this is the res­ult of work­ing off grants, or for mar­ket­ing pur­poses), while again someone else is look­ing for/creating a cul­ture at the junc­tion between our real situ­ation and spe­cif­ic and mod­ern form.

Mean­while, there is a large lay­er of reli­gious cul­ture in the back­ground, which is becom­ing increas­ingly pro­nounced every year. Mod­ern cul­ture has only really taken form in the urb­an space, as the pop­u­la­tion of the city has greatly changed since the 1990s.

How import­ant is cooper­a­tion between cre­at­ive people in the city?

I think that the concept of cre­at­ive people is some­what broad and vague, but the pro­cess of cooper­a­tion itself is inter­est­ing and this is almost our only oppor­tun­ity to do some­thing inter­est­ing here in our cur­rent situ­ation. And if earli­er there was some tight­ness in dif­fer­ent social groups and strata, now there is a cer­tain interest in inter­dis­cip­lin­ary pro­jects and cooper­a­tion.

How is Bishkek chan­ging? Are these changes primar­ily pos­it­ive?

Bishkek is chan­ging a lot; some people see this as pos­it­ive, while oth­ers lack the same enthu­si­asm. Out­wardly, Bishkek has turned into a lar­ger city (high-rise build­ings, shop­ping centres, offices, etc.). Some ele­ments have also become more civ­il­ized, which is nice. How­ever, in most cases, there is some neg­li­gence.

For example, there have some rather aggress­ive new devel­op­ments in the city that do not con­sider the cur­rent con­text and primar­ily have money as a motiv­at­ing factor. The prob­lem does not only con­cern short fall­ings in town-plan­ning policies, but also con­cerns a van­ish­ing social con­sensus about com­mon cul­tur­al val­ues; espe­cially with respect to pre­vail­ing urb­an envir­on­ments and their con­nec­tions with private ini­ti­at­ives.

Tengri Capital

What does it take to integ­rate an emer­ging mar­ket to the inter­na­tion­al cir­cu­la­tion? The vast lit­er­at­ure in the top­ic men­tions sev­er­al factors, but most of them agrees on one thing; loc­al, inde­pend­ent invest­ment experts with the pecu­li­ar know­ledge of the region are key play­ers in the pro­cess of mar­ket integ­ra­tion by con­nect­ing loc­al efforts with inter­na­tion­al invest­ments. Ten­gri Cap­it­al is one of these ambi­tious firms and also the main spon­sor of Cent­ral Asia For­um 2019.

History and awards

The com­pany was foun­ded in 2004 in Almaty, Kaza­kh­stan under the name of Visor Cap­it­al. It has changed name in 2016 along with own­er­ship, fol­lowed by a large-scale stra­tegic rebirth. The com­pany is one of the few inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised firms of the region, win­ning sev­er­al awards, includ­ing

  • The best broker­age firm (2011, 2012/13, 2014)
  • Best invest­ment bank in Kaza­kh­stan (2013)
  • Best research team (2009, 2010).

Ten­gri Capital’s impress­ive cli­ent port­fo­lio show­cases part­ners from both the pub­lic and private sec­tor of the region­al eco­nomy. Accord­ing to the firm’s agenda, they would like to fur­ther expand by strength­en­ing the already extens­ively inter­na­tion­al cli­ent base of investors, which would make Ten­gri Cap­it­al the most prom­in­ent fin­an­cial power­house of the region in secur­it­ies trad­ing, invest­ment bank­ing, asset man­age­ment and prin­cip­al invest­ing with inter­na­tion­al interests.

Services

The firm’s dynam­ic sales team is com­prised of seasoned loc­al and West­ern spe­cial­ists, based in Almaty, Lon­don and Stock­holm, with in-depth know­ledge of cap­it­al mar­kets activ­ity and par­tic­u­lar expert­ise in emer­ging mar­kets and the CIS coun­tries.

A mul­ti­cul­tur­al team of pro­fes­sion­als with extens­ive know­ledge of inter­na­tion­al mar­kets and loc­al mar­ket spe­cif­ics, hav­ing the unri­valled under­stand­ing of the loc­al busi­ness envir­on­ment, and excel­lent rela­tion­ships with rel­ev­ant reg­u­lat­ors and author­it­ies.

The strongest cor­por­ate fin­ance team in Kaza­kh­stan with proven track record on loc­al and inter­na­tion­al mar­ket. Pro­fes­sion­als com­bin­ing loc­al know­ledge and inter­na­tion­al exper­i­ence who can ori­gin­ate and execute a wide array of mar­ket trans­ac­tions for loc­al and inter­na­tion­al cor­por­a­tions.

The most recog­nized research team in Cent­ral Asia, cov­er­ing a grow­ing range of industry sec­tors through industry spe­cif­ic ana­lysts and pub­lish­ing a wide range of Research products. They go fur­ther than a reg­u­lar research pro­vider by arran­ging a hol­ist­ic view of factors determ­in­ing invest­ment decisions such as loc­al polit­ics, eco­nom­ic land­scape or tax­a­tion policies.

The most pro­fes­sion­al asset man­age­ment team in Cent­ral Asia, apply­ing the most mod­ern invest­ment ana­lys­is meth­ods and tac­tic­al asset alloc­a­tion styles based on risk factor, and offer­ing a wide choice of port­fo­li­os, cov­er­ing all major tra­di­tion­al asset classes, as well as altern­at­ives.

Firms like Ten­gri Cap­it­al has the poten­tial to kick­start Cent­ral Asia’s fur­ther devel­op­ment by provid­ing cut­ting-edge approach to invest­ment in the region.

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.

Re-Meet the Stans: How Post-Soviet countries in Central Asia are redefining their identities.

Although an extern­al observ­er still tends to label the five major coun­tries of Cent­ral Asia’s vast region (Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Afgh­anistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan) as ‘Post-Soviet’, it might just be the wrong prism to use.

The shift away from the ‘Post-Soviet’ and towards the long-hoped-for mod­ern­iz­a­tion, although not a rap­id or uncon­tro­ver­sial one, is seen as a pos­it­ive devel­op­ment by the coun­tries’ young­er gen­er­a­tion.

No one can deny the import­ance of Soviet eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments and our shared cul­ture,’ — says a Kaza­kh stu­dent, who gradu­ated this sum­mer and is cur­rently an assist­ant at a loc­al account­ing com­pany, — ‘and with my grand­par­ents still nos­tal­gic about the Soviet times, all of the young­er people are genu­inely look­ing for­ward.’

Cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the grow­ing emphas­is on nation­al iden­tit­ies, have largely been won by the lat­ter.

Mod­ern Cen­ter of Dush­anbe, Tajikistan — from flickr.com

This has been seen in the demo­graph­ic changes. As the Kaza­kh census shows, ‘the num­ber of Rus­si­ans is on the decline’ (Dr. Mer­lene Laruelle, 2018)[: the per­cent­age of Rus­si­ans in the total pop­u­la­tion has fallen from ’37% in 1989’ to ’20% in 209’. The major­ity of Kaza­kh cit­izens — the over­whelm­ing ’95%’ — now iden­ti­fies with their Pre-Soviet Muslim beliefs, mov­ing away from Rus­si­ans’ Chris­tian­ity or Soviet athe­ism.

In Tajikistan’s cap­it­al — Dush­anbe -, city plan­ners tear down the build­ings that once mani­fes­ted Soviet pres­ence in this trophy city.

In Uzbek­istan, 25 years of Karimov’s dic­tat­or­ship was char­ac­ter­ized by attempts to present all Rus­si­an and Soviet in the most neg­at­ive light, mov­ing towards his own per­son­al cult and nation­al­ism. The new Mirziyoyev’s reforms aim to reshape the infra­struc­ture and eco­nomy, try to pol­ish Tashkent’s repu­ta­tion and make the coun­try more com­pet­it­ive for invest­ment. The gen­er­al polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic trends show re-focus­ing on the future of the coun­try and build­ing on its Pre-Soviet cul­ture, not the Soviet one.

Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, Kaza­kh­stan — from Wiki­pe­dia

While shar­ing the com­mon Soviet cul­ture, the five Stans are very dif­fer­ent. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s land has seen one of the old­est civil­iz­a­tions, but Kaza­kh and Kyrgyz cul­tures are that of nomads. Thus said, the eva­sion of the Soviet her­it­age can, to a cer­tain extent, allow the coun­tries’ his­tor­ic­al iden­tit­ies to prosper and enrich the glob­al under­stand­ing of their diverse cul­tur­al val­ues. How the Cent­ral Asi­an coun­tries’ dif­fer­ences are becom­ing more and more acknow­ledged is also emphas­ized in this art­icle (on the EU’s strategy? The one That Gera wrote?).

How­ever, it is not uncon­tro­ver­sial to sug­gest that all of these devel­op­ments are pos­it­ive: infra­struc­ture pro­jects in Tajikistan, for instance, lack prop­er city plan­ning and con­sid­er­a­tion for the import­ant Soviet era’s influ­ence on the region. One might ques­tion wheth­er it’s right to com­pletely wipe out such a huge and influ­en­tial part of the region’s his­tory as the Soviet era, which did determ­ine people’s lives and cul­tur­al aware­ness.

Moreover, ‘Post-Soviet-ness’ is still present in a few places: Rus­si­an is the most spoken lan­guage in both Almaty and Bishkek, while Stans still look up at Rus­sia for eco­nom­ic sup­port (Kyrgyz­stan, in par­tic­u­lar). Stans have a very long way to go.

Yurt, tra­di­tion­al form of hous­ing in Cent­ral Asia — from US Air Forces Cent­ral Com­mand

It is import­ant that coun­tries change to allow pro­gress, and cul­ture itself iss nev­er a stat­ic concept — it is always in flux. With the Stans’ aspir­a­tions often held down by the fact that their inde­pend­ence has been so short and tur­bu­lent, this vast land of moun­tains, grass­lands, and desert lying on Eurasia’s cross­roads, should attract more for­eign interest as import­ant play­ers with great poten­tial.

More import­antly, one might argue that Stans should no longer be defined by their ‘Post-Soviet-ness’, but by their dis­tinct iden­tit­ies.

Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asan­bay

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

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

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

Asan­bay

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

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

Asan­bay

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

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

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

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

Asan­bay

What oth­er pro­jects have you been work­ing on recently?

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

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated trash can in Bishkek

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

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated bus stop in Bishkek

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

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

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

Urb­an pro­jects: hijack­ing the space

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

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