2019 Curator's choice
29th January 2020
NB: This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute/conflict. The author is responsible for the terms used.
What was happening in the art world in 2019 besides Bauhaus, Venice and Istanbul Biennials? Quite a lot if we turn our gaze to the east. Central Asia, in particular, was a hot zone. Kazakhstan made headlines not only with demonstrations around the new presidential elections but also with the shattered dream of being represented in Venice with its own pavilion. in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, the first major feminist exhibition caused a scandal. We asked curators from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan to sum up for us the developments and highlights in the art scene of their home countries.
Curator Anna Kamay
2019 was a busy year full of art events and happenings most of which naturally took place in the capital city of Yerevan. In an attempt to promote street art and make the capital more colourful, the year started off with the first Urban Art Fest, sponsored by Goethe Institut among others, resulting in some controversial works, proving that institutionalized graffiti art is always problematic.
The second edition of Armenia Art Fair had a rich event program(including some designed for children) alongside the exhibition and the represented artworks were fresh and diverse, hosting 35 galleries from different countries including Armenia, Belarus, Iran, Ukraine, UK and USA. Notably, 4Plus collective exhibited some breathtaking images, such as Anahit Hayrapetyan’s Grandmother with Cabbage. Curators Lizzy Vartanian(Gallery Girl) exhibited a fresh display of collages by Luska and Ripsy May, while curator Tereza Davtyan showcased a selection of impressive artworks by Kamee Abrahamian, Vanane Borian and Gohar Sargsyan among others.
While the local art world is known for being mostly visual, 2019 was the year where everything turned audio, including podcasts about feminism such as Ականջօղ/ Akanjogh and online radios broadcasting experimental music from the region like Bohemnots Radio. This year also saw an abundance of electronic music events in town. The flourishing scene has been flourishing with new venues such as Poligraf and commercial festivals like Urvakan and Synthposium. Seems like after Tbilisi and Baku, Yerevan is slowly becoming a hotspot for emerging electronic and experimental music such as Symptom and Teenage Error.
While the public debates over the meaning and direction of the “Velvet Revolution” were getting heated in 2019, dividing the population into pro and counter-revolutionaries, it was the public performance “Հուզանք ու Զանք” that became the climax of the clash, when a group of far-right activists attacked the artists during the performance. The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports also has come under fire from self-proclaimed defenders of national values for funding this project.
Curator and researcher Antonina Stebur
There are several trends in Belarus contemporary art. The first of them was to analysis of artistic practice and understanding of working conditions. The project STATUS: The Role of the Artist in the Changing of Society was collective research in which artists, critics, curators and other cultural workers reflected on their working conditions, cultural policy, precarious labour and etc. An important result of the project was the STATUS book, which included analytical articles about these issues.
The second tendency was the series exhibition, articles and researches dedicated to inclusion excluded topic. The most important and the largest event was the Biazmezhniki (People Without Limits) exhibition (curated by Anna Karpenko and Sophia Sadovskaya). The exhibition worked with the theme of outsider art, showing how certain areas of art are excluded, thrown out of the boundaries of the official history of art.
Among the most interesting exhibitions and events in the art field was the Alesia Zhitkevich solo-exhibition Closer than paradise, traditional week of events Work Ward! Play Hard!, the Month of Photography in Minsk that has become a truly contemporary art statement.
As before, the two most active cities on the contemporary art’s map were Minsk and Brest. The main activity in Brest took place around the KH gallery, as well as a new Olga Maslovskaya’s project. She created the exhibition space right in the shed.
Art historian Saltanat Shoshanova
2019 was expected to be a groundbreaking year for the art scene of Kazakhstan but turned out to be full of international faux pas and corruption scandals. In March, just two months before the opening of the Biennale the National Museum of Kazakhstan has cancelled what supposed to be a first-ever Kazakhstani pavilion. The reason that was named behind the cancellation was “a lack of money and procedural issues”. As a result, a curatorial team that worked on the pavilion for half a year was not paid, artists who have been involved sustain losses, and Rosa Abenova, head of contemporary art department at the National Museum, resigned which led to the complete shut-down of the department.
The other international project that ended up with a corruption scandal was Focus Kazakhstan, which took place from September 2018 to March 2019 in four cities of London, Berlin, Suwon, and Jersey City and showcased more than 90 artists and 400 artworks. The art shows went great and received praise from the international public. However, the company that was hired by the National Museum to manage the organizing of the exhibitions and handle the payments to curators, artists and transportation companies is reportedly in debt of nearly 50.000 Euro. As a result, hundreds of artworks were confiscated by unpaid contractors, among them artworks by the prominent Kazakh art collective Kyzyl Tractor. To this date, the problem has not been solved yet.
Curator Julia Sorokina
The year 2018 was marked by the state program Focus Kazakhstan, which was held in London, Berlin, New Jersey (near New York) and Suvon (near Seoul). The exhibitions, which represented Kazakhstan's contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries, were held at an appropriate level, showed much unfamiliar art and aroused interest among the international public. Unfortunately, due to the incompetence of Kazakhstani culture officials, the projects could not be completed correctly - some works by contemporary artists and even several paintings from the collection of the National Museum of Kazakhstan were detained at the customs due to non-payment to logistics companies.
In 2019, the Art Visit Agency managed to convince the Department of Culture of the need to promote contemporary art in the country's regional centres and as a result, a travelling exhibition Stories of the Great Steppe was held in the cities of Shymkent, Taraz and Taldykorgan. The exhibitions gathered about 35 thousand visitors in each city and were the first modern art shows in the capital cities.
Against the background of the re-election of the President of the country and the illegitimate conditions of the election procedures in 2019, young representatives of the art community of Kazakhstan held several activist actions, which ended in short-term arrests of participants. The most high-profile action was the demonstration of a collective statement - the slogan "You can't run away from the truth", deployed during an international running marathon in the streets of Almaty.
Curator Anna Kamay
In October 2019 the 2nd edition of international contemporary art festival Artsakh Fest dubbed Nakhshun Baji took place inside the abandoned drama theatre building in Stepanakert, the capital of the internationally unrecognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region has been afflicted by a war for decades, and as a result of negligence, the theatre building was abandoned for more than eight years now.
For the second year in a row the building was transformed by artists' interventions into space, installations, performances, and workshops, all in an attempt to bring the theatre which used to be the heart of the community, not only back to life, but tackle the region’s wartime trauma. The presented artworks included Anush Ghukasyan’s ceramic sculptures resembling phallic symbols and Davit Kochunts’ series of pornographic paintings depicting the phallocentrism of the society.
Cultural Manager Lolisanam Ulug
2019 went smoothly in compare to 2018 in Tajikistan, when a provocative exhibition of Marifat Davlatova, a visual artist resonated a huge rage for depicting half-naked figures, that the Minister of Culture in 2019 reacted it as “a breach of national traditions.”
Last year also was marked with the state festival-contest Chakomai Gesu (Song of the Curl), that celebrated feminine beauties; the ethno-jazz festival, the against Torture Campaign, and the release of the first audiobook of folk tales in Tajik and Pamir languages. The Bob Music Prize produced a hero named Chorshanbe Alovatov, who led a list of Central Asia’s Got Talent show in December in Almaty. The next edition of the Didor festival changed its trajectory providing a contest among Tajik documentary filmmakers, and it was a first time when the state educational the institution (State College of Culture named after Buidokov) finally look at the problem of melting glaciers by producing a performance to highlight the issue. One more festival was born in Tajikistan: Golden Tulip Tajik Film Festival and the EU Delegation to Tajikistan initiated the exhibition Colliding Worlds: Escapism + Futurism in Central Asia’s- Rising Artists giving voice to young talents from the country to self-expression.
Artist Alla Rumyantseva
In 2019 the project Gender Inequality Through the Prism of Contemporary Art was launched in Tajikistan. The objective of the project was to enable young artists, activists, and everyone to speak out on gender inequality. This topic is very important and relevant to Tajikistan. It is symptomatic that in parallel with Tajikistan similar projects have been launched in neighbouring countries like To be a Woman in Baku and Feminnale in Bishkek (both projects caused a strong public outcry).
Compared with the art-works presented at exhibitions in Baku and Bishkek, the works of Tajikistan’s participants were not provocative and veiled. It is completely natural for Tajik and for Persian art, in general, to hide messages in ornate forms. Moreover, there is a high level of censorship in the country.
Besides that, more than 350 people took part in the meetings, discussions, and debates resulting in the formation of a creative group of 12 artists, activists, students, journalists and researchers.
In February 2020, a large exhibition will open in which artists will participate to discuss the topic of gender inequality.
Curator Daria Prydybailo
A long-running war that is still going on in Eastern Ukraine and economic instability make society feel insecure. Turbulence is still strong and it is therefore hard to plan or build long-term strategies, also in the cultural field.
Many artists and curators create projects that reflect on the memory of the Revolution in 2014 and reopen cultural phenomena from the past. The last couple of years the Ukrainian society in general and cultural sector, in particular, became more proactive and since the new government started supporting culture, more independent and experimental projects became possible.
In 2019 Ukraine became more visible on the international art scene thanks to the Ukrainian Institute that was founded in 2018 and started to work in 2019. The bilateral Cultural Year #AustriaUkraine2019 brought together the creative potential of both countries and thereby facilitated stronger cultural and scientific cooperation between Austria and Ukraine. Besides literature and music program, a large-scale exhibition of contemporary art Between Fire and Fire was opened at the gallery Semperdepot in Vienna.
The National Pavilion of Ukraine at the 58th Venice Biennale A shadow of “Dream” cast upon Giardini della Biennale had a really impressive concept, but unfortunately weak implementation. The Ukrainian aeroplane AN-225 called Mriya, the biggest aeroplane in the world, had to fly over Venice and overshadow for a minute the gardens of Giardini. Instead the curators Open Group just made the story of the flight, closing the myth. The shadow couldn’t be seen because there was no Mriya, as promised, so the project didn’t live up to expectations and became a post-truth farce.
In 2019 the Permanent Revolution about the last 100 years of Ukrainian art by author Alisa Lozhkina was published in Ukrainian (and soon in French).
A couple of years ago, the Ukrainian government started investing money into contemporary culture. The biggest state-owned institution, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, aims to facilitate the development of culture and arts in Ukraine. The UCF supports projects within the framework of international cooperation, so international organisations and their partners are welcome in Ukraine and receive support from UCF.
The biggest cultural institution Mystetskyi Arsenal continues to make personal exhibitions of iconic Ukrainian contemporary artists and in 2019 it was Oleg Golosiy. Non-stop painting, curated by Oleksandr Soloviov who worked with Golosiy in 1980-90s personally.
The second Biennale of Young Art Looks Like I’m Entering our Garden took place in Kharkiv showing the perspective of the new generation in the Ukrainian visual artists.
Definitely not only cultural institutions in Kyiv but in other Ukrainian cities and villages should be mentioned. Ukraine always had strong and original art schools in Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa. Especially interesting nowadays are the photography schools in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. But the most resonating independent project was Museum is Closed for the Renovation at the Kmytiv Museum of Soviet Art. An art museum housed in a Brutalist building in the village of Kmytiv that is located 100 kilometres West of Kyiv and has a collection of Socialist Realism. A series of exhibitions were organized by Yevgeniya Molyar and Leo Trotsenko from the DENEDE collective, and curated by Nikita Kadan.
Curator and artist Alexey Ulko
The international exhibition Die Grenze supported by the Goethe Institute and curated by Thibaut de Ruyter and Inke Arns opened the year in Uzbekistan. The show addressed the issue of cultural and physical borders between Europe and Asia, quite controversial and ambiguous in the post-Soviet space.
In March, the multidisciplinary project Man on a Stool brought together musicians, poets and performers from four cities of Uzbekistan to the Youth Theatre in Tashkent. It summed up the six-months’ training and creative work run by Ashot Danielyan and his team supported by the Swiss Embassy.
In April, the Arts and Culture Development Fund held a pre-opening of the Centre for Contemporary Art and a large video exhibition Lamp on a Hill by Saodat Ismailova dedicated to different aspects of the history of Central Asian culture.
ZERO Line Gallery continued its series of small but thought-provoking exhibitions and educational events while the gallery Bonum Factum hosted a week-long seminar on Central Asian identities involving a number of top curators and art critics from the region in October.
One of the most interesting exhibitions held at the Central Exhibition Hall was the show featuring paintings by Uzbek graduates of different Russian art schools during the Soviet time. Some of these pieces were never or seldom exhibited due to their openly Soviet message after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But with times changing, they found their way back to the public.
Finally, the British Council supported a series of seminars and workshops for art and culture managers from Central Asian countries which marked an important step in the integration of the regional art world.