A casino located along the cultural mile in Central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 2008. Photo by ArtAsiaPacific.

MUSEUMstan: Central Asia’s Contemporary Art Revolution

Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan

The debut of the Central Asia Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale brought a rush of international attention to contemporary art from the region. Many of the pavilion participants, working in photography, video and installation, were quickly seized upon as new stars. The follow-up Central Asia Pavilion in 2007, which grouped together young artists affected by the spread of music television and karaoke culture under the theme, “Muzykstan,” also earned accolades. Despite these outward successes, the legacy of Soviet rule in Central Asia continues to afflict cultural institutions, whose entrenched bureaucracies have been reluctant to support experimental art practice. With a spirited DIY attitude, a pair of enterprising Kazakh curators are taking up the challenge of reinventing these moribund museums, fostering progressive art and creative solutions to the shared problems facing art professionals in these former Soviet states.

Larissa Pletnikova and Guldana Safarova, who met at the Karaganda Art Museum in central Kazakhstan, are the brains behind MUSEUMstan, an interdisciplinary, multi-national project launched in 2007. Incredibly, the culture ministries of all five participating republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—backed the project, as the region moves toward substantial multilateral economic and cultural unity.

In Karaganda, both women realized that “the only way to do something for a museum is to be its director, but we did not have such a possibility.” Frustrated with the impervious glass ceiling and nepotistic Soviet policies based on “old boy networks,” the pair went independent, establishing the Desht-i-Art Center in 1999. There, they curated several exhibitions of young Kazakh and Central Asian artists including the acclaimed 2002 group show “New Reality: Contemporary Art of Kazakhstan,” which featured the outlandish political performance artist Erbosyn Meldibekov.

Their work at Desht-i-Art earned them a special diploma from Russia’s prestigious Open Museum Forum: “Arch of the Future” in 2004, but Pletnikova and Safarova felt stymied by a lack of additional support in Kazakhstan. Arguing the case for cultural reform, the pair observed, “There are very few specialists in Central Asia who have worked to introduce experimental practices into the institutional framework. We are not satisfied with the stagnation and backwardness of the ‘museum’ as it exists in Central Asia, and it has been very difficult to change the situation.”

Pletnikova and Safarova decided that reform could be achieved by building a network of like-minded professionals, who could modernize curatorial practice from within. They launched a pilot public program in 2005 at museums in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with the support of Budapest’s Open Society Institute. The seminars were welcomed with enthusiasm by both curators and local artists who used the platform to voice their expectations for the future role of museums in the region. Encouraged, the pair continued to develop programs for exchanging expertise and hit upon the idea of a formalized “MUSEUMstan,” an institutional “federation” crossing the region’s borders. They courted additional support from the Kazakh government, the Dutch NGO Hivos and a number of private patrons who, according to Pletnikova and Safarova, were slow to recognize the crucial role that museums play in cultural and social development, but were enticed by the mutual benefits of dynamic art and commerce.

Targeted at museum staff and curators with limited possibilities for professional growth within their current institutions’ hierarchies, MUSEUMstan officially launched in January 2007 at Desht-i-Art with a series of seminars, conferences and workshops on contemporary art, a curriculum repeated in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, Pletnikova and Safarova timed their seminars to coincide with the 4th Tashkent Biennale, which for the first time focused on contemporary art under the theme “New: Illusions and Reality.”

Along the way, Pletnikova and Safarova built up their grass-roots network by seeking out small museums in remote areas, donating computers and installing internet connections to further communication. An unexpected triumph occurred at an open-air museum near tourist favorite Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, run by the 71-year-old Keneshkan Ysmanova. Pletnikova and Safarova fondly reflect, “In spite of her age, she has been able to preserve clarity and vividness of mind and, more importantly, is still driven by the desire to improve her museum.”

Turkmenistan was a surprise addition to the pair’s itinerary. Under the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov, the country was isolated, its artists and curators prohibited from collaborating with their neighbors. However, the present leader, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, has relaxed Niyazov’s vice-like grip and is keen to reinstate cultural relationships in the region. Although Turkmen officials have not committed fully to MUSEUMstan, Pletnikova and Safarova were invited to participate in two conferences in the capital, Ashgabat, in 2007 and plan on returning to conduct seminars this year.

Having laid the groundwork for MUSEUMstan, Pletnikova and Safarova are now realizing the next phase of the project. In late 2008, they plan to host the first “Central Asian Museum Festival” in Karaganda, which will also provide potential investors an opportunity to support MUSEUMstan’s ongoing mission.

How establishing communication among Central Asia’s arts professionals will translate into actual works of art remains to be seen. Independent curators and artists alike are actively investigating the legacy of Soviet rule, which continues to impact the region’s cultural and political landscape. The shamanistic Kazakh performance artist, Almagul Menlibayeva, has just completed a video work, Kissing Totems (2008), in which she stages interventions into abandoned post-Soviet buildings in Almaty. Her interest in reclaiming derelict spaces echoes other initiatives such as the Bishkek International Art Exhibition, which in 2005 held its second edition underground beneath the city’s Ala-Too Central Square, the former headquarters of the local KGB. Despite much of the works’ conventional installation, Taskhkent-based Kyrgyz artist Vyacheslav Akhunov’s poignant intervention, Prison Appointment (2005), featured plastic hands jutting out from the rows of ventilation grilles lining a narrow corridor.

As Central Asian arts professionals begin to collaborate thanks to their MUSEUMstan contacts, Pletnikova and Safarova are pressing ahead with two new programs in 2008: “Grant Competition for Museums,” enabling local museums to initiate and direct low-budget projects; and “Contemporary Art in the Contemporary Museum,” which Pletnikova and Safarova supervise directly, and will provide artists funds to produce works for exhibition at the Central Asian Museum Festival. MUSEUMstan’s lasting impact on Central Asian arts may not be evident in the region’s obdurate museums for several years, but it is already proving that contemporary art can flourish by building peer networks and a groundswell of enthusiasm.