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This is how Central Asian video art evolved during three decades of independence

On the occasion of the exhibition Saodat Ismailova: 18,000 Worlds, Eye invited research collective Davra to put together a program for the Eye Film Player. Curator and Davra member Dilda Ramazan speaks about the evolution of Central Asian video art.

By Marian Cousijn23 March 2023

Hi Dilda! Could you share something about your background? How did you get into curating?

"I am from Kazakhstan, but I went to Strasbourg to study art history. I mainly learned about historical European art like the Renaissance or Modern art. Curiously, it was only in Strasbourg that I got acquainted with contemporary art from my own country, because the local museum of Modern and Contemporary Art happened to organize an exhibition with Kazakhstani artists. It was a small community with no visibility: if you didn’t look for them, you would not find them. Meeting these artists had a huge impact on me, and I realized it made sense to start working with contemporary Central Asian art."

How did you become part of Davra, the collective that Saodat founded?

"When Saodat was invited to be part of documenta fifteen, she decided to not only participate as an individual artist, but also to initiate a research collective. That way, she created space for younger artists, something she was always interested in. She had already worked with young artists in Uzbekistan and she asked me because I know a lot of young artists from the region, especially in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan."

Intizor Otaniyozova at documenta fifteen (in Museum Fredericianum, Kassel). Photo by Martha Friedel.
Daria Kim at documenta fifteen (in Museum Fridericianum, Kassel). Photo by Nicolas Wefers.

Saodat mentioned how ‘Davra is about reuniting a region that the younger generation sees as being made up of detached countries, languages and cultures’. Is this notion of a shared Central Asia new, or did you always feel a kinship to people from the neighboring countries?

"I did know the Bishkek art scene quite well – it is only about 100 km from Almaty. With Uzbekistan it was different. Us Kazakhs come from a nomadic culture, whereas the Uzbeks have a sedentary culture. You can really feel the difference. We are pretty dynamic and open – if there is an opportunity, we’re like: ok, let’s do this! Uzbeks need more time. After spending some time in Tashkent, I realized that the difference might also have to do with dictatorship. In Kazakhstan, we had an authoritative regime as well, but the country was quite open compared to Uzbekistan."

‘Davra’ means ‘A circle of people that are united for a certain period of time’. Can you tell more about the collective?

"We are eighteen young women from Central Asia, we all have our own artistic practices. In the lead-up to documenta, we met regularly to discuss the concept of chilltans, a subject that Saodat was doing research into. In the summer of 2022, we came together and organized a program at documenta fifteen. We are now thinking about an afterlife with more autonomy – this program is part of that."

Nazilya Nagimova at documenta fifteen (in Museum Fredericianum, Kassel). Photo by Nicolas Wefers.

What are you going to show on the Eye Film Player?

"The idea is pretty simple. In 2021, all Central Asian republics celebrated 30 years of independence. It was a moment of reflection: how far have we come, where do we need to go? Looking at these decades, there is a clear evolution in the way Central Asian artists approach the medium video. You can distinguish three generations, and each month of the program we will dedicate to each generation.

The first generation, whose work we will show in March, are the pioneers. They had a classical Soviet art training, but during the last years of the Soviet Union they discovered new art practices, media and ways of expression, such as video and performance. Their work was about identity: what does it mean to be Kazakh, to be Uzbek? You can really feel the mood of that time – as if they are drunk on the spirit of freedom, capturing the moment on VHS. The style is very direct and spontaneous: they would just grab a camera and film performances, manifestations, and quite often on the streets."

Can you give an example?

"I’m very excited that, for the first time, we can show work from the archives of Shai-Ziya, a very important Kazakh pioneer from that time. His life and death are surrounded by mystery and his daughters have over 5.000 video tapes. He has almost zero visibility now, but in older texts from the nineties or early 2000s he is mentioned a lot, so it is great that we can show his work now. He was incredibly important for the artistic community."

And what can we expect in April?

"The next generation are the artists who were born under the Soviet regime, but came of age in the Post-Soviet era. They experienced the arrival of capitalism and the emergence of the new authoritative regimes in Central Asia. These artists were less interested in identity and paid more attention to form, working with multi-channel installations for example. They know what they want in terms of quality of image and sound, and deploy varying artistic tactics. They are also aware of the generation who paved the way. Some of those artists, like Chingiz Aidarov, for example, went to the art school in Bishkek, which was founded by Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, whose work is shown among the pioneers."

This is the generation that Saodat is also part of. And how about the artists from your own generation, whose work we can see in May?

"Born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we cannot really relate to the struggles of the Soviet experience of our parents. In Kazakhstan, we are sometimes called the Nazarbayev generation, after the dictator under whose regime we lived most of our lives, but we are also very much influenced by the openness that the Internet brought. The Central Asian background is still present, but these artists work with global themes such as LGBTQ-related questions and ecology. Many of them work with digital animation and technologies. Compared with the generation before them, who were more careful, they are very political and clear about what they want to say. Unfortunately, many of these artists are not aware of the generations who came before them."

How come?

"Many art schools and institutions were closed again – nothing is permanent in the region. What we need is continuity, and that is also what Saodat is trying to build with Davra: wholeness. We are all here, and there were others before us. But the artistic community has become more open and visible since I started my studies. There are new institutions in the region, you can contact artists through social media. A lot has changed in 10 years."

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