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Central Asia in art from Soviet Orientalism to the new republics

Central Asian Survey
ISSN: 0263-4937 (Print) 1465-3354 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccas20
Central Asia in art: from Soviet Orientalism to the
new republics
Diana T. Kudaibergenova
To cite this article: Diana T. Kudaibergenova (2018) Central Asia in art: from Soviet Orientalism to
the new republics, Central Asian Survey, 37:2, 333-336, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2018.1433190
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2018.1433190
Published online: 09 Feb 2018.
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truth claims. For instance, his assessment of ‘Begaim, a woman in her mid-forties who looks
worn and prematurely old’ (60) – is his own and should be indexed as such and not as a statement of fact. The author’s self-reflexivity would help the reader understand why all the epigraphs in the manuscript come from male scholars/philosophers, who, all but one, are far
removed historically and geographically from Central Asia in the second decade of the
twenty-first century. While the author succeeds in portraying Kyrgyzstanis as not limited to
one identity, in the book the participants do not speak, but are observed and described by
the researcher. Thus the reader has no choice but to rely on the author’s explanation and
interpretation of the participants’ knowledges, words and actions. Local peoples’ voices, animated in their own words, and detailed field notes about their messy daily lives could have
made this informative manuscript more engaging, effective and affective.
Barth, F. 2002. “An Anthropology of Knowledge.” Sidney W. Mitz Lecture for 2000. Cultural Anthropology 43 (1): 1–18.
Svetlana Peshkova
University of New Hampshire
© 2018 Svetlana Peshkova
Central Asia in art: from Soviet Orientalism to the new republics, by Aliya
Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen, London, IB Tauris, 2016, 289 pp., US$50.00 (Hardback), ISBN
Central Asia in Art is an in-depth historical and cultural study of Soviet art in Central Asia. Written
by the well-known art historian Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen, the book provides a unique
comprehensive overview of art development in Central Asia, a region rich of art history that
is not yet fully discovered. Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen obtained her PhD in art history from the
Courtauld Institute of Art and is uniquely positioned as an indigenous scholar but also as an
international art historian. She opens up the discussion about the power of art and power in
art by dwelling on the theoretical consideration of art as a medium of communication and
state propaganda but also the source of Soviet Orientalism about Central Asia as a cohesive
The book focuses on the artistic production in and of Central Asia during the Soviet period
from the 1930s to 1950s and analyses how Socialist Realism, which was the prevalent art production framework at the time, influenced the ways in which ‘local art’ was produced. Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen mentions that ‘the establishment of Socialist Realism as the only
acceptable form of art diminished or destroyed national traditions in the Central Asian republics’ and contributed more to Sovietization than to ‘national identification’ at the time (20). The
author’s argument about how ‘Central Asia’ was envisioned and produced in art as a unified
and cohesive geographical, social, cultural and historical region is thought-provoking. Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen demonstrates how this production and depiction of the region was an
Orientalizing experience that continuously influences the regional perception from within
and until the present. She considers the examples of Soviet artists who travel to Central Asia
for the first time and depict the uniqueness of the local surroundings by placing Uzbek girls in
traditional dresses in an exotic position of ‘Asian’ aborigines.
The depiction of Asian bazaars, deserts with camels, abundant and colourful tables with
local delicacies (watermelons, melons, grapes), becomes the dominant frame of this outsider
view on the discovered exoticism. There are clear distinctions of locals versus outsiders in
these paintings, even if both are dressed similarly in European-style dress instead of the
local traditional dress. Artists still found ways to separate the outsiders, European-looking
Slavs, from Central Asians by depicting them as the darker skinned, narrow-eyed and darkhaired Other. Various explanations for these differences are noted in the book; one of them
is the strict following of the Soviet ‘nationalities policy’, which demarcated ethnicities and
required a clear representation of each group. The development of Socialist Realism and Stalinism only cemented this rather distinct and Orientalizing framework for the production of
Central Asian art. Even local artists started following similar practices, depicting the ethnic
difference and stereotyping their own native land in the form of traditionalist perspectives
of nomadic or settled lives, colourful bazaars, and young women in traditional dress sowing
or working in the cotton fields. But is Central Asia indeed a unified region, and can we
define its art as some sort of refined and unified ‘regional art’? Or is it time to consider local
art and art production in its uniqueness through connection to the specific place where it is
produced, say Uzbek art or contemporary Kyrgyz art?
While the question of unification and regional integration in what is known as Central Asia
has played an important role in political, economic and academic debates for the past quartercentury of post-independence, artistic discussions have rarely reached the point of mass public
attention. Yet this question is even more perplexing when it comes to the understanding (both
historical and contemporary) of local art and of the depiction of this region in art. How is ‘Uzbek
art’ similar to or different from the art in Kazakhstan? Or how is it different from the art scene in
Bishkek, Dushanbe, Nukus, Ashgabat, Karaganda, Shymkent, Samarkand, or Bukhara? Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen opens up these complex discussions of ‘place-ness’ and belonging, categorization, and power of self-identification in local art, a perspective that has long suffered
from top-down categorization and conglomeration.
The book consists of five chapters with discussions of the theoretical and historical context,
discussions of art transformations under different Soviet policies of the turbulent 1930s, and
the establishment of the Socialist Realist canon in local art.
The study provides a well-grounded genealogy of Socialist Realist production, which the
author argues ‘was, possibly, a virtual experiment on a grand scale and it wasn’t a representation of the past, the present or the future. It was equivalent to the future perfect tense,
only this tense does not exist in the Russian language’ (82). Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen proposes
to view Socialist Realism in art as a multidimensional concept. She argues that it was not only a
way to produce art in the Soviet period, nor was it solely a powerful tool of Soviet propaganda,
but it was also a space and framework for creating the powerful stereotypes about ‘backwardness’ and progress that Soviets brought to the peripheral states of Central Asia. The Soviet
modernization project finds its own way through the visual discourse of the oil paintings
about Central Asia. Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen illustrates this with the example of Semion Chuikov’s A Daughter of Soviet Kirgizia (1948), in which a young Kyrgyz girl dressed in a typical Soviet
school uniform walks through the fields carrying her books in one hand. Her eyes are looking
up as she looks into the bright future of Soviet Kyrgyzstan. In another work, Aleksander
Samokhvalov’s Delegates (1939), we see a group of people all dressed in typical Soviet attire
and all looking happy. The Central Asians are depicted here in a manner distinct from their
Slavic counterparts, as narrow-eyed and dark-skinned, significantly different in their ethnic
makeup from other delegates but fairly similar in their overall look and agenda.
Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen unpacks different historical periods and layers of the Orientalizing canon that was established on the Soviet canvas about Central Asia. In this discussion,
art becomes a powerful tool for perceiving and stereotyping the whole region but also homogenizing it in the eyes of the outsider. Depicted on canvas as a set of symbols and visual
stereotypes, Central Asia becomes solidified in the imagination of the viewer, in the eyes of
the audience, which, as Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen mentions, has no right to individual perception but has to follow the collective and powerful acceptance of this discourse. Local artists do
not escape this fate and continue producing art within the framework of Soviet Socialist
Realism. Only rarely and only towards the 1960s and 1980s was there a move towards
‘national’ art and certain alternatives to the dominant canon of artistic production. These
works still focus on common themes of Socialist Realism and depict nature and indigenous
people, but the focus is on the production of the local school of artistic expressions.
Towards the 1980s new artistic movements are formed from this desire to provide distinct
local artistic production. Groups of young artists attempt to create their own aesthetic,
away from Sovietized frameworks of imagining Central Asia as a homogeneous and Orientalized Other and away from Soviet censorship. Their artistic dissent is expressed in a total revolt
against Socialist Realism as a genre and framework of art. Young Central Asian artists start discovering new media for artistic expression, focus on performance and a self-reflexive search
for national identity, and inevitably break away from the dominant forms of conservative
Socialist Realism.
This alternative perspective is provided in the final chapter of the book. Here the author proposes to look at the contemporary art of Central Asia as a completely different dimension from
that of the Soviet Orientalizing project in art and its use of art as propaganda. Instead of Socialist Realism, which is fixed in a timeless space of invented, utopian reality, the contemporary art
of late 1980s and 1990s in Central Asia arises as a revolt against the uniformity of Soviet artistic
production. Since independence in 1991, many contemporary artists in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan
and Kyrgyzstan took the Orientalizing framework of Soviet art on Central Asia and turned it
around. Erbossyn Meldibekov, for example, is one of the most notable artistic experts in this
genre when he uses typical ‘Asian’ depictions of indigenous people and turns them into criticism. In one of his works, ‘Alien’, he himself poses as a stereotypical conservative Muslim, with a
beard and a white cap. The viewer can only see his profile, as his enormous and scary artificial
teeth stick out of his mouth, alerting us to danger. In another series of works he uses traditional
Central Asian ceramics but paints tanks and armoury on the colourful plates. Meldibekov’s
works particularly deal with the problem of temporality. He questions the ‘lost’ time of the
Soviet war in Afghanistan through his ‘Peaks of Revolution’, series in which he constructs
‘mountains’ out of used casseroles and sinks, and he focuses on post-Sovietness as a constant
flow of changes and repetitions in his work ‘The Family Album’. There are many more contemporary artists in Central Asia besides Meldibekov who question similar approaches to time and
space and who continue to successfully dismantle the Soviet constructs of the Orientalized
Central Asian subject and the Socialist Realist art framework (see also my article ‘“My Silk
Road to You”: Re-imagining routes, roads, and geography in contemporary art of “Central
Asia”’, Journal of Eurasian Studies 8(1), January 2017, 31–43). Although Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen
does not particularly focus on this newest wave of contemporary art in Central Asia, she nevertheless provides an important discussion of how the canon she is most interested in – Socialist
Realism and Orientalism in art – has mutated since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed,
along with all the institutions that were supposed to hold its ideology in place.
To sum up, the book provides an excellent excursion into the history of Soviet art, and has a
unique perspective, given that the author explores the ‘peripheral’ part of that research. The
illustrations and reprints of the works, both avant-garde and Socialist Realist paintings, are a
great bonus to the highly readable text. It is rare to find this combination of excellent art analysis and the in-depth context of Central Asian perspective along with very rare coloured reprints
from the collections of the best museums and galleries, including Moscow and Nukus. Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen provides an excellent collection of these reprints in high quality,
making her book a very important publication. It is a must-read and must-buy for art-lovers,
experts on Central Asian art and history, and anyone interested in exploring unique and
unknown contexts of this region.
Diana T. Kudaibergenova
University of Lund and University of Cambridge
© 2018 Diana T. Kudaibergenova
Wakhan Quadrangle: exploration and espionage during and after the Great
Game, by Hermann Kreutzmann, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017, 282 pp.,
€58.00, ISBN 978-3-447-10812-6
Wakhan Quadrangle is an extraordinary book about a place, its people, and those who came to
explore it and eventually rule them. The place is the Wakhan, a land situated at the meeting
point of the former Russian and British Empires, Afghanistan, and China. Today, the so-called
Wakhan Corridor often stands as synonym for the legacy of the Cold War and for remoteness
enforced by nation-state boundaries. The book shows that behind this contemporary perspective there is a long history of translocal interactions, imperial competition and exploration
which importantly involved yet little-studied ‘indigenous intermediaries’.
The protagonist of Wakhan Quadrangle, Munshi Abdul Rahim, was such an indigenous intermediary (or ‘native explorer’), whom British authorities sent to the Wakhan and Badakhshan in
1879. Munshi Abdul Rahim’s report from this mission, or rather an English translation of his
now-missing Persian writing, builds the core of the book. Clustered around this central
report – printed in full-length facsimile in the middle of the book – Kreutzmann presents an
extensive discussion of the Wakhan’s history, different stages of its exploration, and its continuous pull into the orbit of twentieth-century geopolitics. While this discussion is centred around
Munshi Abdul Rahim’s report, Wakhan Quadrangle goes far beyond his writing. The book is also
based on extensive archival research in London and Saint Petersburg, as well as Kreutzmann’s
own fieldwork in the Wakhan and surrounding areas. For anybody familiar with Kreutzmann’s
work, it is evident that Wakhan Quadrangle is an original spin-off from his previous book, Pamirian Crossroads (2015), published with the same publisher in compatible style, with an abundance of evocative colour images, maps and illustrations.
While Pamirian Crossroads focused in a much broader sense on the human geography of the
Pamirian knot and its surrounding areas in the long view, Wakhan Quadrangle zooms in on the
particularities of the Great Game, depicts explorers involved in it and discusses the literatures
which emerged in this setting. Read together, the two books constitute Kreutzmann’s masterpiece, culmination of a scholarly and personal engagement, more than three decades long,
with the region which is dissected by the nation-state boundaries of today’s Afghanistan,
China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Both are beautifully designed books, and they will certainly
define the study of this part of High Asia for many years to come, and also – given their