”In the artistic world, Central Asian artists are still listed as “Others.”
Ulan Djaparov, exhibition notes for “…and Others,” 2004.
Within the last three decades, the international art system has seen the inclusion of contemporary art from regions of the world, which once seemed remote. The newest region to enter the international art system is Central Asia. The consequences of international art exchanges for this region differ from nation to nation, and in Kyrgyzstan, the art community has benefited and grown. Increasing international interest in the region’s contemporary art has provided support for artists, which was, and still is, lacking from the state. With extensive grants from international organizations, artists have created self-organized educational institutions for future artists, curators, and managers.
These institutions are characterized by a central focus on society, through inspiring social change or interacting with communities without access to the arts or art education. Without state support or influence, the art community of Kyrgyzstan has been shaped by its own artists and is providing a future for the next generation of artists. This initiative towards preservation and promotion of the arts has roots in Soviet ideology, which shaped, and even created, fine arts in Kyrgyzstan before it was an independent country.
I. Soviet Influences
When did an art community begin to develop in Kyrgyzstan, and why is it important at present? The nation presently known as Kyrgyzstan has only existed since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The area which is now Kyrgyzstan was formed out of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR), which was established in 1926. Prior to its inclusion within the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan did not exist, but Kyrgyz identity did. Not until the inclusion of Kyrgyz tribes into the Soviet Union did their identity transform into a national identity, confined to a specified region. Nomadic tribes, which existed as a wedge between competing empires for centuries, were numerous in the region. Familial heritage, linguistics, geography, and cultural developments defined each tribe’s identity. With the creation of the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe, some tribes became more sedentary and built oasis cities to support caravans and traders. Evidence of this can be seen in the historical architecture of modern day Uzbekistan. Other tribes, such as the Kyrgyz tribes, remained nomadic in the region up until the twentieth century, their geographical locations fluid.
It is important to keep in mind that Kyrgyz art developed independent of Western or Eastern art movements. Kyrgyz people were nomadic for centuries, thus their art and literature were limited to its usefulness and how easily it could be transported . Kyrgyz tribes lived in yurts, which could be quickly assembled or disassembled. Art was a focal point of the home and personal identity within the community. Felt rugs, wall-hangings, bedding, and cushions were embroidered with symbols of nature and animals. Clothing and weaponry were also very ornamental and represented wealth. Kyrgyz tribes did not have a written language, which stereotyped them as ignorant or “backward” in the eyes of more sedentary societies, but within Kyrgyz society, oral literature was an intellectual vocation. Oral literature was a representation of one’s mental capabilities, as it required extensive memorization. Ancient oral literature, usually accompanied by the komuz (a three-stringed musical instrument), felt-work designs, and hand-embroidery, were hallmarks of Kyrgyz art. 
The Soviet Union did not destroy Kyrgyz arts but radically transformed them through social interactions. In the early 1920’s, the Soviet state established “clubs” across Kyrgyzstan to act as cultural education centers for adults. Nadezhda Krupskaia, the wife of Vladimir Lenin, described the role of these clubs as centers for “improving amateur talents, teaching Marxist ideology, and collectivizing the institution.” This began with establishing literacy. Civilized behavior required both knowledge and interest in fine arts and literature.
Alluding to traditional, nomadic dwellings, these clubs were officially named “Red Yurts” in the Kyrgyz ASSR. In 1929, there were 26 clubs, and by the 1940s, there existed 574 Red Yurts. Rather than develop Soviet, revolutionary ideology, Red Yurts focused on defining Kyrgyz-ness within Soviet culture through art and literature. Kyrgyz identity was strengthened and transformed, as more people were forced into sedentary vocations, such as agriculture and industry.
The settlement of Kyrgyz tribes is an important base from which to analyze the current art community, because settlements involved cultural development, i.e. Soviet cultural development. Even as Kyrgyz-ness was defined, the standards by which culture was expressed were based on sedentary forms of expression, such as written literature, painting, and sculpture. Red Yurts introduced European fine art practices into Kyrgyz culture through their educational programs. Those who showed potential in the arts were sent to schools in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to study painting, printmaking, architecture, and monumental sculpture, all sedentary art forms and not formerly a part of Kyrgyz culture.
Red Yurts appeared across the Kyrgyz landscape just before the 1930s, when socialist realism became the official art form of Soviet culture. By this time, all artistic forms of expression of the earlier twentieth century were condemned as decadent for their lack of social concern. Avant-garde artists were forced to flee the Soviet Union or were imprisoned. Socialist realist art had to be realistic in style and glorious in content, as it represented either the working class or the ideals of socialism and communism. For Kyrgyz artists, isolation from “decadent” art forms was not a hindrance to their artistic growth, as fine art was a completely new form of expression within their culture.
Also new was the idea of the artist as an elite figure in society. Artists were revered in the Soviet Union as long as they worked for the betterment of society, as defined by the state, and not for their own individual gain. The life of an artist was well-defined, for their art had to be deemed acceptable by the state. Upon graduation, artists joined “artist unions,” which provided salaries, public commissions, studio space, and exhibition opportunities throughout the Soviet Union. These strict guidelines may be responsible for the current focus in Kyrgyzstan’s art community on social issues as well as the sense of urgency for self-preservation of the arts.
II. Educational Setbacks and the Rise of Self-Organization
Kyrgyz art is attracting increasingly more foreign critics and curators of contemporary art. The paradox is that thecontemporary art institutions have been almost nonexistent in Bishkek until recently. An artist himself had played a role of a curator, critic, and manager at the same time.
-Ulan Djaparov, exhibitions notes for “…and Others,” 2004.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan experienced extensive hardship from an economic downfall. Cut off from the economic support of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan had to rebuild its economy to support an infrastructure created by the Soviet Union. There was large-scale unemployment and a drastic reduction of living standards. Professionals were forced to find menial jobs to survive. The art system also collapsed as art was no longer was in demand. Art professionals, such as managers, curators, and collectors ceased to exist. Artists no longer had the state to depend on economically or ideologically. They were essentially free, but the meaning of their existence was in question and remained in question for a decade.
As many changes took place to modernize society and transition towards a market economy during the 1990s, the development of the art system was left behind. Education remained underdeveloped, which was a setback for obtaining a successful, professional career in the international art system. The most an artist could hope to accomplish was a few local exhibitions in one of the few private art galleries, which began to open towards the end of the 1990s. Without a system of art dealers, collectors, critics, or curators with ties to the international art system, the local art community was isolated, and local options were scarce.
Additionally, educational facilities were in poor condition..In 2013, renovations began at the Kyrgyz State College of Arts, named for Semyon Chuikov. Efforts were finally made to “replace windows and the heating system… [because] students [were] forced to paint, sculpt, and weave with frozen fingers.” Despite working in an atmosphere of neglect, a few artists took the initiative to provide better learning conditions, a contemporary education, professional opportunities, and insight into social responsibility.
The search for cultural identity is in crisis. Somewhere within us, we experience an unwavering sense that what is most important has been left behind, beyond limits of public attention, in the shadow of ‘heroes.’
–Marat Djumaliev, exhibition notes for “In the Shadow of Heroes,” 2005.
The professional careers of Gulnara Kasmalieva and Maratbek Djumaliev were temporarily cut short by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both were graduates of the Kyrgyz State Art College. Kasmalieva then graduated from the Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow with a degree in graphic design, while Djumaliev studied sculpture at St. Petersburg’s Vera Mukhina Academy of Fine Art. Their first project together was in 1997 for the first Biennale of Contemporary art held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After a few more international exhibitions, the duo came back to Bishkek in 2002 to open ArtEast, a multi-disciplinary art center, to support the neglected art community of Kyrgyzstan.
Over the years, ArtEast has provided lectures, presentations, exhibitions of contemporary art, and educational programs. They have been funded by Hivos, an international development organization in the Netherlands, the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary, and most recently the Christensen Foundation in the United States. These international organizations push for democratic, socially-engaged initiatives, but ArtEast has not imposed a foreign presence. ArtEast engages with the local community, both urban and rural, and strives to connect them with the rest of the world through dialogue and collaboration.
ArtEast collaborated with other artists and organizations to host the second, third, and fourth Bishkek International Exhibition of Contemporary Art. These innovative, complex exhibitions played an important role in the development of the contemporary art scene because they required international cooperation. Artists had the opportunity to manage, coordinate, and curate large-scale exhibitions. Each exhibition focused on issues pertaining to Central Asia as a region, such as identity and globalization. Catalogues including photos of the artists’ works as well as artist statements gave regional artists a wider audience.
Rural interaction has only just begun for ArtEast. In 2013, ArtEast initiated the long-term project “Art of Interaction,” which was designed to stimulate cultural collaboration between urban artists and locals of the village Bulan Sogottu, located on the northern shore of Issyk Kul Lake about four hours from Bishkek. Themes of exploration include “cultural heritage, rethinking of traditional eco-architecture, and sustainable uses of energies and water.” ArtEast is using art to inspire discussion of regional issues between the urban and rural population. In this way, ArtEast is revealing the role of the artist as an interactive member of the community.
IV. Shaarbek Amankul’s Art Initiatives
When I was young I was very ambitious, as well as very romantic. I have been almost everywhere searching for adventures and what I called “inspiration and self-perfection,” but I calmed down and understood that I should help people, not just myself.
-Shaarbek Amankul, artist and founder of B’Art: Bishkek Art Center 
The Artists’ Union of Kyrgyzstan is the oldest art organization in Kyrgyzstan and is still active today. The Union was established in 1934 under the strict, ideological control of the Communist Party. Today, this non-profit, self-governing organization is still based on membership and acts in accordance with the original charter. The Union was financially crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but came to life in the late 1990s and early 2000s with limited exhibitions. In 2002, the Union created “The City of Artists,” which was an art center located in central Bishkek. Though focused on regaining financial stability for the art system, the center was very exclusive. The center hosted 30 public exhibitions, which were attended by state officials, internationals, and Union members. A few seminars and classes were also held for locals, but Swiss funding expired in 2006.
Later that year, one of the local members of the Union Shaarbek Amankul opened B’Art: Bishkek Art Center at the former location of “The City of Artists.” The new center consists of seven buildings filled with studios and galleries. During exhibitions, visitors can explore studios, walking into the world of the artist. On designated “open studio days,” visitors can see work in progress. B’Art also holds public art competitions and weekly art classes for children free of charge.
Since 2009, B’Art has hosted the Nomadic Art Camp along the shores of Issyk Kul. Following the camp, an exhibition takes place at the Kyrgyz National Museum of Art. In 2013, participants included children, youth, and adults from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and even Switzerland. The theme was sustainable management and bio-culture in mountain landscapes. Similar to ArtEast, this camp provides a forum for discussinggissues through art.
In 2014, the Nomadic Art Camp will take place in the Jalalabad region near a local village by Lake Sary-Chelek, which is about eight hours from Bishkek. The Camp will be exploring the same themes for 2014 as in 2013 but with the inclusion of a local population living in the south. This particular initiative stands out as the most unique social interaction of any art organization in Bishkek. The reason is the location. In Kyrgyzstan, there exists a conflict of culture between the Southern and Northern regions of the country. This conflict has many repercussions for the country, both culturally and politically. B’Art’s effort to establish a dialogue through artistic means allows artists to play a powerful role as diplomats through the “promotion of the idea of cultural diversity,” as stated on the invitation to the Camp.
Artists also play a role by teaching younger generations to be critical and creative thinkers.. Even before opening B’Art, Amankul was engaged in this process. In 2006, he designed the visual project “The Ring.” Artists from Kyrgyzstan, the United States and Austria participated along with local art students from the National Academy of Arts, Kyrgyz Russian-Slavic University, and Kyrgyz Conservatoire, all three schools located in Bishkek. The theme of the project was poverty and marginalization within society. The title of the project, “The Ring,” refers to what are locally known as novostroiki or “new settlements,” which surround Bishkek. To date, there are 53 settlements, ranging in size from 900 to 15,000 people. Due to lack of adequate urban housing and rural economic instability, rural migrants and low-income families settled these areas, mostly after 2005. Some of the settlements are illegal and remain a contested issue. Each settlement lacks in infrastructure, education, and healthcare, some even lacking water, gas, and electricity.
Artists focused on the “new settlements” in their created objects, installations, videos, photography, performances, and interactive pieces. “The Ring” culminated in an exhibition at an educational center in downtown Bishkek. The project was an amazing opportunity for local students to work alongside experienced international art professionals. As educational institutions in Bishkek still lack contemporary art education, the opportunity was also in discovering new methodologies for artistic expression, as well as realizing the power of art as social commentary.
V. School of Theory and Activism—Bishkek (STAB)
Today, when due to the economic crisis the global capitalist system takes more and more cynical moves in its pursuit to preserve the status quo and to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer; when the countries and regions like Central Asia are doomed for the eternal position of the Third World and the peoples of these countries are exclusively seen as oppressed and almost free labor force, it is obvious that the language common and familiar to us- the language of theory and art cannot [sic] be longer our private and personal language.
The international art system is a landscape of chance and opportunity. As the contemporary art community of Kyrgyzstan began to develop into a self-sustaining and self-empowering mechanism of insight, others took notice. In 2005, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan formed the first Central Asia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is the most prestigious international art festival in the world. Kyrgyz art critic Gamal Bokonbaev wrote that the event was so momentous that it forged a “before and after” effect, implying a strong impact on the art community of Kyrgyzstan, the strongest being the opportunity for international recognition. In the artistic world, Central Asian artists would no longer be listed as “Others.”
Since that time, Kyrgyzstan has taken part in the Venice Biennale up to the present. The Central Asian Pavilion is funded by international NGOs, which is unique, since many artists are often state-sponsored in the Venice Biennale. The responsibility of finding this funding is placed on the curators for the given year. In 2011, art manager Georgy Mamedov Dushanbe, Tajikistan and artist Oksana Shatalov from Rudny, Kazakhstan assisted in curating the Central Asia Pavilion through the support of Hivos. Less than a year later, the duo opened STAB in Bishkek. Their presence has brought a unique, perhaps controversial, element to the arts of Kyrgyzstan.
Art community members share a sense of social responsibility for their initiatives, which allows them to form lasting partnerships within their community. STAB founders stand apart, because they are not Kygryz. It isimportant to remember that Soviet ideology developed throughout the Soviet Union in much the same manner. The legacy of the arts as a tool for social development, enlightenment, and enrichment was much the same for all the Central Asian republics.
It is clear from the STAB Manifesto that their participation in the Venice Biennale had a considerable effect on their perception of the international art system. “Art has been exclusively private,” they write, due to the “focus on the promotion of personal achievements,” rather than on “private experiences of emancipation and critical thinking.” The accessibility of art is under scrutiny, but even more is the accessibility of ideas. In the “Agenda” section of their website, their criticism of the current art world as “elite” becomes even clearer. The goal for STAB is to develop art practices, which are political and “civil-minded,” rather than focused on some “lucrative career within the bounds of the conventional art system.”  In an interview, Shatalova said that their “target audience is those who want to think.”
In this context, STAB acts as a school and center for research. Similar to ArtEast, STAB’s funding comes from international organizations, such as Hivos, the Open Society Institute, and the Swiss Cooperation for Development and Cooperation (SDC). These funds have sponsored multiple educational programs for people from all occupations. A background in art is not a requirement, only the desire to think critically and creatively about society. Every year, STAB provides a fellowship for Kyrgyz citizens, which includes lectures and seminars, space for research and production, and opportunities for publication on their website. The seminar series involve heavy-duty studies of philosophy and modern critical thought on (post)colonialism, sexuality, gender, and aesthetics.
The first Fellows program was established in 2012 and hosted four students with backgrounds in journalism, architecture, and linguistics. Spring of 2014, STAB is hosting six students between the ages of 20-25. Again, they have a wide range of interests. One student volunteers with a local organization that helps families with disabled children, another is studying journalism at the American University of Central Asia, another is involved with a local, alternative theatre group, and another is an activist for children’s rights against violence. Fellows will be working together to contribute to the “Critical Animation Workshop,” which began with the first round of fellows in 2012. The Critical Animation Workshop is the production of animation with a focus on social issues, primarily gay rights and homophobia within Kyrgyzstan.
In this regard, STAB has become the most politically engaged of all the art institutes in Bishkek. One of STAB’s first projects was in collaboration with the Bishkek-based LGBT organization, Labrys. The “Workshop of Unalienating Protest” was a two-week event of “devising and implementing anti-homophobic images and slogans.” The event culminated in the creation of t-shirts, stickers, posters, and a “propaganda” cartoon. STAB’s stance on homophobia has entered into a number of other programs, including the present fellows program.
At the same time that STAB’s spring fellowship program began, Kyrgyzstan’s national parliament began drafting a bill banning the propaganda of homosexuality. In mid-April, the parliament approved amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s Criminal Code to “criminalize the spread of false information through the media.” The term “media” is ill defined, making the law easy to manipulate. Media outlets or individuals could face a fine up to $4000 or a jail sentence up to five years.
STAB has joined a public initiative against this bill known as the “Coalition for Justice and Non-Discrimination.” On April 18, 2014, members of the coalition met to discuss the draft law and formalize a letter of petition, which was signed by 60 organizations and 391 individuals from all over the world. These events and activities provide their local fellows with present examples of national activism. If the law passes, STAB may be held under scrutiny for its Facebook page and website, which are both currently promoting queer studies.
In STAB, it is clear that social activism depends on critical thought and artistic expression. The only disadvantage STAB is currently facing is funding and space. Its programs are limited in terms of number, thus its educational programs are not as far-reaching as ArtEast or B’Art. Rather than working on a method that brings artists to the people, they seek to bring people to art.
VI. The Future
Over the years since its independence, our country has tried a diversity of economic models and political architectures, and, so what?
-Shailoo Djekshenbaev, Kyrgyz photographer, artistic notes for “Roads We Chose,” 2008.
In the last decade, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed an explosive amount of activity in the arts. Art exhibitions, collaborative projects, self-organized educational institutions of art have all brought critical and creative engagement with social issues to the Kyrgyz population. These initiatives have come from professionals in the international art system, who endeavor to provide a future for the next generation of artists in Kyrgyzstan. They have developed an art community where one was dwindling due to lack of financial and educational support.
Esteemed artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Maratbek Djumaliev, who receive private requests to exhibit in galleries around the world, have chosen to focus their energies on the future generation of artists and thinkers of Kyrgyzstan. Shaarbek Amankul has spent most of his artistic career engaged in the teaching and support of the arts. STAB’s founders, Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalova were at the height of their careers when they chose to settle in Bishkek to provide free education in art and activism.
Recalling the Kyrgyz tribes in this current arena of globalization and urbanization is difficult, but looking back helps clarify how the present came to be. Prior to absorption of the Kyrgyz society into the Soviet Union, art was mobile and useful, a domestic and personal ornamentation, as well as a form of expressing one’s identity and heritage. Under Soviet rule, Kyrgyz culture was radically transformed to embrace a sedentary society, in which art played a major role in the development, enlightenment, and enrichment of people. Thus, artists were, at least ideologically, advocates for the needs of society. This advocacy is still taking place today, but as a choice, free from pressure or influence from the state.
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