Focus On: Dubai’s Only Central Asian Art Gallery

Almagul Menlibayeva
Almagul Menlibayeva. Butterfly, 2010. C-print. 71 x 107 cm. Edition of five plus two artist's proofs
Dubai’s Andakulova Gallery is paving the way in the Middle East for Central Asian art, from a region rich with cultural production and an anthropological edge that is steadily gaining international traction. Founding director Natalya Andakulova shares why we should be paying attention

Harper’s Bazaar Art: What is Central Asian art?
Natalya Andakulova: What people understand as Central Asian art is the art of five independent states formed at the site of the former Soviet Republic of Central Asia. Broadly speaking, Central Asian art is the visual art that has been and is being created in Central Asia by the largely Turkic peoples broadly encompassing modern Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikstan, Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan and parts of China and Russia. If we talk of contemporary art making, we can see a wide variety of trends and movements, from traditional realism to cutting edge and even futuristic. But this art has a hoary past. It is commonly acknowledged that in recent centuries the region has been mainly influenced by Islamic art, but there are also traces of Chinese, Persian and Greek – “high culture” – art, while the nomadic peoples of the Steppes have also made their “low culture” contributions. Also, the Silk Road transmission, Scythian, Greco-Buddhist, Serindian and Persianate culture are all part of the smorgasbord. The growth of diplomatic and commercial relations with various European countries in the first half of the 17th century in Iran was also transmitted to Central Asia. Finally, in shaping the cultural diversities of Central Asia, the natural environment played its due part and the relationship – both complementary and antagonistic – between the nomadic Steppe communities and the sedentary peoples has given rise to some of the most captivating art.

HBA: How would you describe Central Asian practice?
NA: It may be a surprise that Central Asian artists make use of cutting edge technologies – all and every sort of medium. The debut of the Central Asia Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale brought a rush of international attention to the region. Many of the participants were working in photography, video and installation. Globalisation, ease of travel and the Internet allows Central Asian artists to observe the latest trends and be in the action. Today they are quite at home with installation, video art and graphic art, to give a few examples. They also work in classical mediums like textiles and ceramics. But looking back to the early 20th century establishment of an art scene there, the main approach was canvas and oil paint.

HBA: Are there common threads that run through Central Asian works?
NA: Of course! The continuous movement of Steppe peoples gave rise to a complex exchange of ideas between different areas of the region. The Silk Road, which developed the nomadic trials, provided a further fillip to the transmission of culture. Imperialism, which came in the form of the Great Game between Britain and Russia, brought a different struggle. Later, under the Soviet Union, the countries were brought under one system. This resulted in artists being impacted by the same constellation of events and they responded to it in more or less similar ways. Economic, social and political issues were recognisably treated by artists, as were the cataclysmic changes brought about by shifting systems.

Natalya Andakulova with visitors at Andakulova Gallery


HBA: Given the history of the region, how has art developed there in relation to other parts of the world – did it experience anything that drastically altered its trajectory?
NA: The history of our area is very rich – as noted, there were Achaemenids, Greco – Bactrian, Hellenistic, Islamic, and Russian influences. This immense tract of land, with its varied topography, climate and diversity of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, resulted in the development of hugely diverse artistic styles and traditions among the inhabitants of vastly separated locales. There were also dissimilar religions that had their home there, which in turn encouraged the formation of distinctive schools or traditions of art. Given these factors, there was a cultural time lag; artistic development was, at best, uneven. It formed the cultural baggage of the region. Also to be noted – since the acquisition of independence by Uzbekistan and other states, the art has begun to acquire a retro ethno-cultural identity.

HBA: Who are the key artists?
NA: Noted contemporary Central Asian artists are Vyacheslav Useinov, Alexander Nikolaev, Alexander Barkovsky, Jamol Usmanov, Dilyara Kaipova, Said Atabekov, Saule Suleimenova and Almagul Menlibayeva

HBA: Why open the gallery in Dubai?
NA: The UAE, especially Dubai, is a progressive regional economic and art powerhouse that pays great attention to the development of art and supports new galleries. Elsewhere, platforms for Central Asian art are located in Italy and Singapore. But Andakulova Gallery has developed quite a few methods to present our programmes and exhibitions in the most effective way possible. For example, our curators make use of research material, as well as the many films on Central Asian artists which are also studied, while I personally visit each artist to understand his or her oeuvre. The activity of the gallery includes not only the representation of Central Asian art but also the presentation of different spectra, which will help artistic discourse. One of the ways this is done is to showcase photography projects, modern artists and contemporary artists. We think it is critical to show trends associated with the transformation of traditional techniques into conceptual ideas. One example is Vyacheslav Useinov’s 2015 exhibition Mixed Threads – that brought much attention to our gallery.

Among works by photojournalist Max Penson to be on view at Andakulova Gallery starting 20 September

HBA: How does Central Asian art dialogue with the West and the Middle East?
NA: It was not as though the region was closed off entirely till the new millennium – even during the Soviet period, Central Asian artists lived, worked and learned in cities like Moscow and St Petersburg. The Central Asian region is ideally located, bridging the West and the Middle East, so after countries won independence in the 90s, borders opened. It essentially coincided with the oil discoveries in the Middle East – the 20 or 30 years difference is nothing in historical terms. So there was a political and economic synergy between the regions, and of course, cultural similarities have existed, provided by Islam. Over the past 20 years, artists have been actively participating in various biennials, for example, the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, the Central Asia Pavilion curated by V. Misiano, which received high acclaim. The interest in the region is growing every year. Sotheby’s hosted At the Crossroad in 2013, exhibiting different generations of artists from Central Asia. The show resonated positively, and the project continued in 2014 through At the Crossroad 2: From Istanbul to Kabul. Our artists are being invited for international residencies. Conversely, the Tashkent Biennale has had a continuous run since 2001. In 2012, the Maraya Centre held an exhibition called Migrasophia, with the participation of artists from the region. Abu Dhabi held a residence for Central Asian artists at Art Hub in 2016. But I have to add that since 2012, Andakulova Gallery has been the only player in the Middle East that is actively promoting and introducing Central Asian art – we were the first, but I am sure we won’t be the last!


HBA: Why do you think Central Asian art hasn't garnered as much focus as art from other regions?
NA: Economic and political policies of the past created disconnections. During the Soviet Union era, cultural contacts with foreign countries were limited to the conditions prevailing on two sides of the Iron Curtain. Travel was difficult and overseas contacts were difficult to maintain. This created a cultural gap between Central Asian art and art of other regions. But the best way to make things whole is through art! Artists, as is their wont, are used to deconstructing and constructing things. Breaking things down or seeing them broken down – whether emotions or borders – and putting them back together in a better way. It comes naturally to them.

HBA: Where should we look for more information on Central Asian art?
NA: Look to curators Victor Misiano from Russia and Valeria Ibraeva, Nigora Akhmedova and Yulia Sorokina from Central Asia. Additionally, many artists have websites, works in museums and gallery exhibitions. However, the best way to understand Central Asian art is to visit the region.

Andakulova Gallery is located on Unit 18, P4 Level, Damac Park Towers in Downtown Dubai. Tel: +971 43859897. For more information visit Andakulova.com 


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Almagul Menlibayeva
Almagul Menlibayeva. Butterfly, 2010. C-print. 71 x 107 cm. Edition of five plus two artist's proofs