Genius Loci: Kazakh Almagul Menlibayeva’s Visions Of Post-Soviet Asia

BY Patrick Lichty / Aug 4 2019 / 18:27 PM

Based between Berlin and Almaty, Menlibayeva’s photographs capture social and ecological change in Central Asia

Genius Loci: Kazakh Almagul Menlibayeva’s Visions Of Post-Soviet Asia
Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist
Malevich Tank. 2015. Ink jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 2/5 + 2 A.P

According to Roman legend, a genius loci referred to a guardian spirit, often thought of as the protective “spirit” of a place. In architecture, these “genius loci” were thought to inhabit traditional neighbourhoods, historical sites, or even in the 21st century, what have referred to as possible Martian habitats. In the case of Kazakh photographer Almagul Menlibayeva, genius loci refers to places, both real and mythological, situated along the steppe of Central Asia, throughout the Silk Road and the various caravanserai (old roadside inns throughout North Africa or was a roadside inn to abandoned fishing vessels on drained seas).

Camouflage Centaur. 2015. Ink jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 3/5 + 2 A.P. 

Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist

These “spirits”, per se, manifest themselves as the otherworldliness of remote areas of Central Asia, where, as old pre-Columbian navigational maps once notated, “There be Monsters Here”. In Menlibayeva’s work Shamans, Centaurs, hulks of ships left to rust contrast with powerful imagery of women inspired by the archetypes of silk road architectural backdrops.

Her show at Dubai’s Andakulova Gallery, which marked the first showing of her work in Dubai, contained an encapsulation of her photographs over the past decade and represents shifts in sensibilities of Central Asian contemporary art, feminist discourse, and perceptions of Kazakh culture in Post-Soviet times.

Steppen Baroque III. 2016. I
nk jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 2/5 + 2 A.P. 

Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist

Menlibayeva, born in 1969 in Alma-Ata (now Almaty) Kazakhstan, is a multidisciplinary artist, working in graphic art, painting, video and performance, dealing with the female condition in Post-Soviet times. In her youth, she was part of the noted avant-garde group of Kazakh artists called the “Green Triangle”. 

This group of artists revolutionised the notion of the contemporary in Kazakhstan, creating ad-hoc performances, pop-up exhibitions, and questioning the identity of the “new Kazakh” through art, performance, and discussion. From this she developed a style that has been described as “Romantic Punk Shamanism”. It has a theatricality resulting from a complex set of references ranging from tribal symbolism to images of a communist industrial past. Genius Loci provides a taste of her alluring work as well a glimpse into Central Asia’s rich past.

Solar Eclipse IIV. 
Solar Eclipse IX, 2018. Ink jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 1/5 + 2 A.P. 

Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist

Curated by Nigora Akhmedova, Genius Loci is a series of photographic and video works which play with the notions of Central Asian remoteness, mythologies, the Silk Road, and feminine power.  Her 2011 film, Transoxiana Dreams, mixes these mythologies in a landscape ravaged by 60 years of Soviet occupation. 

Transoxiana is an area spanning southwestern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan,and Uzbekistan.  Sometimes resembling a Central Asian Blair Witch Project, a young daughter of a fisherman on the drained Aral Sea travels further and further through desolation. The land lies bare and stripped in a surreal state of existence with discarded fishing fleets on dusty terrain, cleaved by monstrous metal ruins.

But the spirit of the land – its genius loci – asserts itself in the form of alluring hybrid beings They play with the notion of mythic creatures luring distant travelers into uncertain perils, like sirens on the rocks, but Menlibayeva evokes mermaids and centaurs resembling Post-Soviet guards and nurses, as in Camouflage Centaur. This is combined with sculptural interpretations of the abandoned ships of the Aral Sea with paintings referring to Russian masters like Malevich (Malevich Tank), questioning the regional effects of occupation.

My Silk Road to You 10. 2018. Ink jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 1/5 + 2 A.P

Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist

Other works, like My Silk Road to You, are striking and provocative compositions where she carves a space for her gender within the new cultural framework of post-Soviet Central Asia. Her women are invariably glamorous, well dressed and stylised, strong and powerful. The iconography of Central Asian textile is set against the beauty of traditional architectural façade while foregrounding the female figure’s importance in Central Asian culture.

Menlibayeva’s art making has recently taken a turn to “artivism”, in the sense that, she is working to integrate young and emerging Central Asian artists into the art ecology of the region and the world. Her activity involves mentoring, lecturing and guiding those in search of visions and concepts of work. This has been seen most recently in her efforts during the Berlin exhibition of Focus Kazakhstan.

Focus Kazakhstan  was a series of four exhibitions and symposia in New York, London, Berlin, and Suwon organised by the National Museum of Kazakhstan under the Modern Kazakh Culture in the Global World project. Through her lectures, workshops and exhibitions, Menlibayeva has been paving a way for the next generation of Kazakh artist on the global stage.

Red Butterfly. 2012. I
nk jet on archival paper. 71 x 107 cm. Edition 5/5 + 2 A.P. 

Courtesy of Andakulova Gallery and the artist

Natalya Andakulova, founder and director of Andakulova Gallery says: “We are very proud to present this new body of work by Almagul Menlibayeva, one of the most important  artists of her generation. “Her work straddles tradition and modernity and is also really contemporary in its aesthetic, using different media - which reflects the plurality of our own world”. As critic Yluiya Sorokina has noted, Menlibayeva’s subjects are iverse, but reflect the power of the contemporary Kazakh landscape.

Almagul Menlibayeva lives between Kazakhstan and Germany. Her work is part of the collections of Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE. Her project titled Ride the Caspian, as a collaborative project by Bahar Behbahani and Almagul Menlibayaeva, was part of Sharjah Biennial 10. She was a panellist at the ‘Futurisms’ platform of March Meeting, Sharjah Art Foundation, in 2018. She has also showed her work at Art Dubai, Fifth Edition. She has been exhibited at the Grand Palais, Paris (2016–2017); 56th Venice Biennial (2015) and MoMA PS1, New York (2013), among other centres.

Works by Almagul Menlibayeva are available at Andakulova Gallery in Dubai.