There’s a problem with developing contemporary art in any former Soviet country. If the West is trying to democratize the role of the artist and audiences and develop art as a medium for social observation… in Central Asia art is being turned into a weapon for inventing or re-establishing state national identity.
For 70 years the Communist Party spun the lie that “art belongs to the people”. It didn’t. Art belonged to the Communist Party, which controlled the commissioning, distribution and sale of art. Artists were just producers in the value chain. Culture is therefore not perceived with suspicion, and monthly family expenditure on culture is low.
In the last 25 years little money has gone into reforming Ministries of Culture. The Arts are too far down the international development priority list. Central Asian administrations have continued the Communist Party role as being Ministries OF Culture, rather than Ministries FOR Culture. So, culture has become a government instrument rather than an enabler of people’s self-expression. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, Islamic madrassas now outnumber state schools, so money for culture has been diverted into developing state school folk orchestras. In Uzbekistan the new regime sees art as a potential tourism revenue earner. A new contemporary arts hub has been rapidly created with state money, but no Uzbek artist has been advising on the needs of local artists, and the exhibitions are all of international cultural institutions.
It has been the international community that has been instrumental in developing a contemporary art scene. The Swiss Development Corporation, the Open Society Institute, the Agha Khan Culture Foundation, and the San Francisco-based Christensen Fund, among others play a key role. This intervention is only 20 years old and the scene includes only 50 artists, but it is a strong regional collective and one that gives voice to young intellectuals. Contemporary art events in the region are as much a gathering place of like-minded people, as a public presentation and sale of artworks. But this external funding makes contemporary artists recipients of funds from “foreign agents”.
The state education system has little space for contemporary arts. Teaching posts are for life and filled with an older generation that controls state art institutions. They were the Soviet dissident painters of the late 1980s early 1990s, and while their style is not Soviet it is distant from conceptual art and contemporary ideas. The students they teach are frustrated with their training, their lack of access to exhibition space, opportunities and their lack of recognition.
Yet in countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan there are small clusters of urbanists, arts researchers, conceptual artists and one or two exhibition spaces in each capital city that feed the minds of local youth. In Kyrgyzstan these beacons of culture include ArtEast, B’Art, Central Asia Arts Management Foundation, Group 705
and the Tolon Museum of Contemporary Art, which was founded in 2012 by a New York-based businessman and philanthropist Tolondu Toichubaev. In Tajikistan there is the Dushanbe Art Ground (DAG) or the Public Foundation “Sanati Muosir”, and the Bactria Culture Centre (BCC). In Uzbekistan the key players are the Bonum Factum Gallery with its project called ART + FACT which is a space for contemporary art and the Bukhara Photo Gallery.
Tim Williams, Director, Projects-Direct.Net Ltd
Tim Williams is a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of the Arts and former Chair of the UK National Commission for UNESCO. He was a team leader of the EU’s Culture and Creativity Program in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine until 2018. More recently his consultancy, Projects-Direct.net, advised the Swiss government’s program for contemporary arts development program in Central Asia.