Where the roses grow
Interview with Almagul Menlibaeva
by Victoria Kravtsova
29th October 2019
The Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibaeva is known for her photo- and video-works where model-like, fit and conventionally beautiful female protagonists are placed into different settings of (quasi-)traditional Kazakhstan. The steppe, a wall of a mosque or ruins of the Soviet industrial buildings combined with female nakedness and such objects as goat’s horns, dead foxes or police uniforms are tellings the reader the stories of totalitarianism, post-Soviet (de)colonization and feminism. Victoria Kravtsova talked with Almagul about her art, feminism and the Kazakh art world.
Almagul, please tell me about your background - where did you grow up, where did you study?
I was born in Alma-Ata and studied at the Kazakh National Academy of Arts. I was always interested in the nomadic culture, it was always a great puzzle to me – I was interested in understanding what is image and why it needs to be controlled. And only recently, when I began to do performances and make videos, I understood that there are so many men in this sphere and men have a different eye for things, they are taught to see differently. Men are taught to see women as objects, it was clear to me when I began my career. There were a couple of cases when my work was stolen from me. Then I simply began to do everything myself, filming included.
Would you consider this as a emancipatory act and do you consider yourself as a feminist?
Sure, I call myself a feminist, I use that word now. However, I did not come to this term immediately. I was a feminist long before I started using the word. I was born in a rather traditional patriarchal family, there are many of them in Kazakhstan. In fact, I would argue, that the whole USSR is patriarchal. And we should really invest time into researching it - what we did, under which premises we lived back then. I had personal problems at home, in the family, at school, at university and also when I decided to become an artist. It was always clear to me that these problems were related to the fact that I was a woman. I always have to work twice as much as men to get something.
Sure, I do call myself a feminist, I use this word. The terms themselves though, they always come later – I have for quite a long time never used the word, but actually was a feminist.
I had personal problems at home, in the family, at school, at the university and when I was choosing to become an artist. It was always clear to me that these problems are related to the fact that I am a woman. I always have to work two times more than men to get something.
How would you define YOUR feminism?
I read a lot, I do, but I won’t tell you concrete names, concrete theorists. Feminism has a lot of clichés, no one can do everything perfectly, so we really need a lot, agiant load of opinions and descriptions for feminism to develop into something that anyone can be happy with the term. MY feminism should correspond exactly to my ideas. As I already said I won’t give you names of theorists, but I can think of some female artists from different places – how they colonize or liberate the image. I love Marina Abramović, I love non-white feminists from Africa, from Cuba. We can’t let feminist be that “clean” elitist version of it, it must be different and have something for everyone. We need to broaden the agenda so that as much men and women as possible could get it, we need to get the reflection of this word to be everywhere.
Is there a specific feminism for Central Asia?
It seems weird to me talking about Central Asia as a whole – it is a very diverse group of countries and nations. All in all, I am against separating a particular geographical area, highlighting the specificity of a region, a country or a group of countries, because it leads to generalizations. I am rather for individual strategies in each concrete case: whom am I talking to, will I be understood right now?
Since your artworks refer to the themes of coloniality and gender, you must be aware of a thin line between empowerment and objectification and exoticization. Where is this line? Are you aware of any objections to your own work?
I can imagine, that for some it's exoticization, for me it never was. For me it was a search for my own identity. For many years I didn't know who I was - I grew up in a Russian-speaking family, I knew Russian culture, but nothing about my own. And one day, I began to look for it. There was this one moment - when I was about 4 years old, I got a doll as a present and my grandmother burned it. Why did she do it? She thought the doll was inappropriate. Why was it so important to preserve the image?
During my studies of ornaments and decorative crafts I understood how ideas travel and transform within different cultures - and now I continue to explore how identity is reflected in visual images. For example, this pattern that we know today as Turkish or Oriental cucumber - it actually comes from the North, from the drawings of Siberian tribes. From there it went through the East to the royal courts. Each empire takes something from the colonized to reconstruct itself - we can see how knowledge migrates, but usually people don't notice it. And much of what is taken up by colonization belongs mostly to women, because women are the ones who deal with crafts. And the areas in which women are most active are also the areas in which coloniality is sometimes less present, that is why a new perspective on history can be found here. There might be populism in these discourses, but the time will put everything back into place. In the post-Soviet areas, everything "national" is treated with a lot of attention because it has been a taboo subject for so long. In the USSR “national” was only a reconstruction created by the state – like before you had 30-40 national costumes, and the Soviets made them into one which was now supposed to symbolize “authenticity”. We all work with stereotypes, because stereotypes are what is left to us.
There is an interesting phenomena about many post-soviet countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan. While the official USSR state policy was atheistic with land confiscated from the churches and persecutions on religious leaders, the situation changed dramatically after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Is this connected to the search for identity, for belonging to some other kind of community, ethnic or territorial?
Why did the post-Soviet space become religious? Because there was a lacuna in place of totalitarianism that they tried to get rid of. No one tried to reinvent and rethink the totalitarian consciousness we had. Then, in 1990s, it was a hard time – no surprise that people found resort in religion. And the past was still alive, the materialist past, so in the end some kind of materialist religiosity was what we ended up with – and once again, women suffered the most – religion oppresses women first. And it is not that men are guilty of that – we all are guilty, women as well – in the end, women raise us to be who we are. Women are in a very controversial position, they are both oppressors and oppressed. I try to depict this duality in my work. To reflect what I have observed. I believe that culture is a way to communicate across human suffering, and this communication is a function of art. Art must go into politics,
into journalism, it cannot stay in museums. My art is also what I communicate my ideas with, and I believe that the language I use is appropriate for what I want to express.
The title “Bread and Roses”, the exhibition you curated last year, originates from the poem by James Oppenheim written in 1911, which has foreseen successful strikes of the female workers in the textile fabrics a year later in USA. Thus, the title is inherently political, suggesting the subjects of feminist struggle and working class issues. Which are impossible to analyse without taking into account the colonial politics of the USSR and deprivation of the ethnic and national identity.
The exhibitions was about the USSR as a feudal unit, about slave labor, colonialism and how Soviet modernity made people nationless. I also showed gender issues in it. I interviewed the women who were raped in the camps in Karlag to analyze how it was normalized and to show that a Soviet woman never was free. We tried to explore how the Soviet woman could express herself or not within the system and how repression was connected to gender and sexuality. I have worked with the state - I believe it is our right to demand of the state. You also need the state to reach out to others. We had to make the exhibition only implicitly feminist, not explicitly, though the idea is feminist. There are conditions which make it for some completely impossible to say “I am a feminist”. I spoke with a Yekaterina Kuznetsova who helps people find their roots. She told me an interesting story about Karlag and how Stalin used it as a place to send the wives of his bureaucrats there. By doing so, he created this peculiar man-to-man power dynamics to see who do the men choose: their wives or their leader. Taking a gender perspective is sometimes very useful, it reveals many important narratives.
Almagul Menlibayeva (b. 1969 in Almaty, Kazakh ssr) is a video artist and photographer, and is the co-curator of Focus Kazakhstan Berlin (2018). Almagul Menlibayeva holds an mFa from the Art and Theatre University of Almaty. she works primarily in multi-channel video, photography and mixed media installation and her work addresses such critical issues of post-soviet modernity as social, economic, and political transformations in Central Asia, de-colonial re-imaginings of gender, environmental degradation, and eurasian nomadic and indigenous cosmologies and mythologies. In conjunction with her solo exhibition ‘Transformation’ at the Grand Palais in Paris (France, 2016 – 2017), she was awarded the prestigious ‘Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' by the French minister of culture in 2017. Other awards include the ‘daryn’ state Prize of Kazakhstan (1996), and the ‘tarlan’ national award of the club of Maecenas of Kazakhstan (2003). She was also the winner of the Grand Prix ‘asia art' at the II Biennial of Central Asia, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (1995) and the winner of the main Prize of the International Film Festival ‘Kino der Kunst' (2013) in Munich, Germany.
Victoria Kravtsova has studied International Relations in St. Petersburg and Berlin. In Berlin she is active in NGO projects in Eastern Europe, co-organizing seminars and exchange programs in the fields of environment, human rights, gender equality and civic education. Victoria receives a scholarship from Heinrich Böll Foundation and is engaged in writing her thesis “Between the ‘posts’, out of the void” where she traces the travels of the contemporary feminist discourses to and from Central Asia.
Editing: Kundry Reif & Ira Konyukhova
English correction: Alexandra Vetter