Skip to content

DAVRA, a collective founded by Saodat Ismailova, looks back on their participation in documenta 15

Cinema from Central Asia is little known worldwide, while the film culture is so rich. Until 4 June 2023, an exhibition can be visited in Eye with work by Saodat Ismailova, an artist and filmmaker from Uzbekistan. She founded DAVRA: a collective dedicated to preserving and enriching the region's film heritage. In this text, DAVRA looks back on their unforgettable participation in documenta 15.

By Aïda Adilbek07 March 2023

“For years we were subjects of outside experiments and research, our material and immaterial knowledge were tweaked and silenced, but today we would like to tell and shape the tales of us ourselves.”

Aïda Adilbek, DAVRA

In October 2021 an artist and filmmaker, Saodat Ismailova and a curator and art critiс, Dilda Ramazan created a chat in the messenger with a few dozen of creative practitioners. Among them young artists, researchers, musicians, poets, photographers, filmmakers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The group was gathered to imagine possibilities of expanding Saodat’s exhibiting space at upcoming at the time documenta fifteen in the basement of the Fridericianum museum. Year and a half later the collective is going through structural changes, however, their research ground is expanding ever more.

Our collective’s first physical gathering happened at documenta fifteen throughout forty hottest days of summer (Summer Chilla) from 25th of June to 4th of August 2022 in Kassel, Germany. Prior to that all our work was attached to online video calls and clouds where we shared files, ideas and created a virtual realm to organise our thoughts. Weekly calls that happened on Saturdays lasted for hours from October up until the last Saturday before the opening of documenta. Our conceptual gathering point at the time were “Chilltans”, forty spiritual, invisible entities that were the main course of artistic research of Saodat for many years.

In our research we read and looked through many books and articles by soviet and modern european ethnographers, we shared our own experiences and observations. For documenta fifteen we decided to produce a publication and prepare forty-one days long public programme. Since it was believed that chilltans were not only a group of fluid, shapeshifting spirits, but were also interchangeable souls, always adding one more in the place of the lost one. Therefore, their circle was eternal, their work would never perish, they lived and continue to live beyond time. Our publication and public programme naturally followed the same conceptual pattern where every page or every day will be presented by one of the chilltans and/or member of a collective and invitees, ever changing the space, the light, the faces and mediums in which we comprehended these notions.

A workshop by a collective Qizlar during Winter Chilla in Tashkent. Photo by Andrey Morozov.
Reading of Bibi Seshanbe text with Saodat Ismailova during Winter Chilla in Tashkent. Photo by Photo by Andrey Morozov.

For some of those 19 cultural practitioners the practice of artistic collective involvement was the first, for some it was one of many. However, what we all agree upon is the unique experience of regional shift that we felt when DAVRA united us. For many years our political and geographical separation numbed our understanding of our strengths and willingness to think beyond falsely created borders. We haven’t only lost touch of ourselves, we lost connections and communications that were historically and culturally significant.

The chance to create new ties to the community inside and outside of four listed countries of the collective gave us an opportunity to reconsider what is modern Central Asia and who are the actors behind its academic, artistic, cultural engines. Consequently, to create a greater circle of involved people and complete our public programme we expanded through invited guests. The invitees of our summer public programme connected us with eastern and western parts of what was known as Central Asia before Soviet Imperialism, like Afghanistan and East Turkestan. We were able to invite and host in our space at documenta fifteen accomplished experts in the field of decoloniality, filmmaking, art and choreography for workshops, lectures, seminars, performances and screenings. We were invested in hearing and witnessing as many stories, methods and approaches as possible.

On top of that, for the first time in years we personally attempted to shift the notion of Russian language as a language of international communication among Central Asians. Many of us were able to overcome a linguistic and mental barrier, and keep the conversation going through indigenous languages of Turkestan, our maternal languages, like Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Uighur, Tatar. We saw our similarities within and beyond the region. The culture of sharing and making friends created by ruangrupa, artistic directors of documenta fifteen and many more collectives from all around the world proved that unity is one of the key elements of the progress.

Later in the year, we were given a chance to continue reflecting on this great journey we’ve made and where it might lead us back at home. We attempted a second chilla, Winter Chilla in Central Asia - a public programme during 40 coldest days of the year. Although, events were scattered around the region (they were taking place in four cities, Tashkent, Almaty, Bishkek, Dushanbe of four countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan simultaneously), there was definite joy and pleasure in circling this path towards its roots. Learning from transdisciplinary approach of documenta fifteen, in Central Asia we felt the need to share the spotlight with as many of our colleagues and peers as possible outside the area of contemporary art.

An artist talk with DAVRA members during Winter Chilla in Bishkek. Photo by Ilya Karimdjanov.

Winter Chilla resulted in proving the need to develop an arts community without field divisions, as our mutual aims and goals lie in creating new local narratives outside of colonial and exoticised perception of the region. The conception of art as more of a mutual space for exchanging knowledge and experience, for questioning the framework we’ve been assigned to together was fruitful to naturally find a vector of our future as a collective, research group, and, hopefully, a platform for raising Central Asian agency in the field of local knowledge research and art making.

A sense of belongingness, not only geographical, but emotional is always about people you think when you think of a certain place. For us, finding each other through DAVRA, meeting in reality or online, sharing not only on the professional level, but on a personal, too, created something greater than art. It led to friendship, to collective loyalty and support, to a unique shared memory. It united us in to finally taking a leap to act and reflect on the history, culture and arts of our region. For years we were subjects of outside experiments and research, our material and immaterial knowledge were tweaked and silenced, but today we would like to tell and shape the tales of us ourselves. Through the laborious and challenging year for both the body and the mind DAVRA achieved to evolve the perception of our past and present. Thus, we would like to contemplate not only on the losses, as we are victims no more. Through art and collective work we are discovering and unraveling the intrinsic power and force within our collective memories and collective future.

A screening of Saodat Ismailova’s film “Bibi Seshanbe” during Winter Chilla in Almaty. Photo by Anastasia Anisimova.

DAVRA films on the Eye Film Player

On the Eye Film Player, you will now find the first of three programmes from the collective DAVRA with films and videos by three generations of Central Asian artists, curated by Dilda Ramazan.

Watch the films