“People here need art to be fun, that’s the first step. Then maybe when they start understanding more, it can also be conceptual. But to attract them, it must be fun,” explains Murodjon Sharifov, one of a handful of contemporary artists working in Tajikistan, a post-Soviet Muslim country struggling with the aftermath of a devastating civil war, religious radicalization, and extreme poverty. The country’s dictatorship—President Emomali Rahmon has been in power over 20 years—is seen by many as a stabilizing force in what would otherwise be utter chaos or a Taliban-style takeover.
Murodjon is referring to his work, Wish them luck!, an outdoor installation that took place within the frame of Spaces on the Run, a project that included workshops, a multi-site public art exhibition and events in various locations of the capital, as well as a tour of other Central Asian countries for the participating artists, themselves originating from these countries and Tajikistan. The project's aims are “to analyze the processes behind recent transformations of public spaces in the post-socialist context and to investigate the status of public spaces in Central Asia by challenging the hegemonic narratives, consumerist and private interests by re-appropriating/re-thinking and re-activating the public space trough contemporary art and social practices.”
(above) Stefan Rusu and the author listening to Sabzali Sharifov's accounts of the civil war.
(below) Jamshed Kholikov at the office of Dushanbe Art Ground. Photos: Vlad Petri, 2015
Spaces on the Run was initiated in 2014 by Stefan Rusu, an expat curator from Moldova currently working at Dushanbe Art Ground, the only contemporary art space in Tajikistan, founded in 2012 by artist and curator Jamshed Kholikov. Jamshed is a pioneer of the small contemporary art scene in Tajikistan. He was initiator and participant in some of the first contemporary art projects that took place in the country starting in 2004, before co-founding the Dushanbe Art Ground with the support of the Swiss Cooperation Office that has funded contemporary art activities in Dushanbe for more than a decade.
Wish them luck! is composed of around two dozen watering cans arranged in lines radiating from a central point, placed near a water faucet on the grounds of a private amusement park. The visitor is intended to fill the cans with water but gets trapped by the rules of the game: only one unmarked can is empty, the rest are filled with sand. It is the artist’s comment on the profound systems of corruption eating away at his country, where nothing can be achieved without bribing some official or agent. Bribery is the only way to create something, to act, while those who don’t are stuck with cans filled with sand, immobile and inactive.
Murodjon Sharifov, Wish them luck!, 2015, Public performance at Pаrk Poytaht. Courtesy of the artist and Dushanbe Art Ground
This more profound social criticism is lost on the audience, who prefer to play with water. And who can blame them? Tajikistan is also a country facing severe water shortages with its glaciers rapidly retreating, and more than 1.5 million of its 8 million people are food-insecure. Experts believe that this extreme climate change in Central Asia might result in regional warfare, and that it should be a top geo-political priority. But it is not, because here politicians are focused on enriching themselves and their families.
While “contemporary art,” a term that in any case needs some analysis, is considered by many in the west as a dominant cultural form, and believed accurately or not to have transformative powers, its role in Tajik society is almost entirely inexistent. It is something practiced by about ten artists within a closed circle. When asked what contemporary art means to them, many artists with whom I spoke told me that for them it is video art. Not installation, painting, or even performance. Not a specific language or a critical approach. Rather it is something medium specific: namely, video. This might be due to the complex socio-cultural situation in Tajikistan, torn between the present resurgence of Islam, a religion that for fear of idolatry forbids human representation in art, and a Soviet past that encouraged the idolatry of sanctioned people and images. Or it is due to the lack of funding for production. With only two local funders, the Open Society Institute, a Soros Initiative, and the Swiss Cooperation Office, the former of which is under threat of expulsion, the small budgets that do exist are for implementation exclusively.
But video might also be to some the culmination of contemporaneity, with its ability to record, document, and reflect reality, and also deconstruct it. Video seems to have been the medium of choice also because of its non-materiality; this, in a dictatorship that cracks down violently on any public dissent and criticism, is an asset. It can be easily distributed anonymously on the internet, it leaves almost no traces, and yet can reach people all over the world instantaneously. It can be screened surreptitiously and due to its temporality, has a much higher chance of not attracting the attention of the censors, while an object-based exhibition with critical material would much more likely be shut down.
Spaces on the Run, for example, was carried out both officially, with due permits, and unofficially, assuming the risks. The project is critical of current urbanization policies that favor the demolition of soviet era buildings, while supporting the construction of new, stylistically hybrid structures that may aspire to reflect a modern autochthonic architectural identity but are embroiled in corruption and money-laundering. The governmental policies of eliminating the past while privatizing and commercializing all public space echoes the trend in many post-socialist countries, where a violent form of capitalism has usurped most social preoccupations.
But here, in Dushanbe, it’s not a question only of eradicating the past by razing entire neighborhoods and important architecture from before 1989, an issue that historian and journalist Gafur Shermatov addresses in his writings. The more egregious problems are the absolute opacity in awarding building contracts, the totalitarian decision-making in city development lacking any civic input, the corrupt spending of European funds on megalomaniacal construction projects, and the absurd amount of money-laundering that occurs in the construction industry, the most profitable in the country. These issues, however, are less likely to be addressed openly and directly because while general social problems, like gender inequality, the environment, the changing urban landscape, the dependence of Tajikistan’s economy on remittances from Russia, are vaguely touched upon in the public sphere, once specific individuals are named culpable or some civic action taken, there is immediate censorship and retaliation.
Gafur Shermatov's guided tour of destroyed parks of Dushanbe, within the frame of Spaces on the Run. Photo: Stefan Rusu
The grey zone in which Spaces on the Run managed to function is characteristic of how any critical public discourse can exist in this country. There are protected spaces, few, where a certain indirect critique is allowed, and where to garner permission to act, one must hide the true nature of the activity or engage in bribery. So it was with a series of presentations on transformations in public space in post-socialist countries that took place in the Children’s Park of Dushanbe. The park is managed by an office associated with the municipality that focuses on children and youth with disabilities. To get the necessary permits for these events, Dushanbe Art Ground co-opted the office by inviting it to present its civic activities, all the while obfuscating the criticisms expressed by Gafur Shermatov in his lecture about the destroyed parks of Dushanbe. However, other projects within Spaces on the Run needed to take place in private spheres: Murodjon’s Wish them luck! and Kazakh artist Bakytzhan Salikhov’s The Best Citizens, a work composed of mirrors reflecting onlookers’ countenance, thus reminding them of their civic responsibilities, were installed on the private land of an amusement park where Murodjon’s mother works. Other lectures about this transformation were scheduled in a former state cinema turned private restaurant, where the group was allowed to gather semi-privately in exchange for food and drink purchases, thus highlighting the very phenomenon addressed by the speakers.
Bakytzhan Salikhov, The Best Citizens, Installation view at Pаrk Poytaht. Courtesy of the artist and Dushanbe Art Ground
Many in Dushanbe who lived under the Soviet regime are nostalgic for that past: it was a time when roads and cities were built (it was then that Dushanbe was developed from a small village into the country’s capital, with unique architecture and excellent infrastructure); education and health care was universal and free; cultural institutions like opera, museums and theater were funded; and people had jobs. Russian is still the language of culture, business, and interethnic communication, but the young generation brought up in a post-civil war reality, when nationalistic tendencies also manifest themselves in the battle for the Tajik alphabet, a Persian language, is losing its literacy in Russian and is not yet gaining it in Tajik either.
“Some of my students don’t know how to write their own names neither in Tajik nor in Russian, and we expect them to understand and take an interest in contemporary art,” says Murodjon, who also teaches painting and drawing at the Institute of Art. The conflict over the script of Tajik, which is now the official language, embodies the political conflict within the Tajik people themselves: some want to Latinize it and thus get closer to Uzbekistan who also adopted this alphabet. Others, the devoutly religious, prefer the Persian alphabet to align themselves to Iran and their Persian heritage, while a final group prefers to leave it in Cyrillic and not distance themselves from Russia on which Tajikistan heavily depends economically and militarily.
The author and Larisa Dodkhudoeva at the office of Dushanbe Art Ground. Photo: Vlad Petri, 2015
Women's rights and gender inequality are also serious issues here. Larisa Dodkhudoeva, the only art history professor at the University in Dushanbe, explains:
In the Soviet times, the gender gap was not nearly as wide. Women were educated, had good jobs and social standing in society. Now it seems we have regressed with this resurgence of religion and traditionalism. Women are now pushed back into the home and their presence in public is diminishing more and more. They are becoming invisible.
These subjects are taken up by two female artists in Reimagining the New Man, another project initiated by the Dushanbe Art Ground in 2014 and curated by Stefan Rusu. In one part of the project participants were involved in a video production workshop taught by two American filmmakers and were given access to film archives from the Soviet period from which to work. This event was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in collaboration with the local funders previously mentioned and was an extension of an initiative on civic engagement proposed by the U.S. Embassy.
Alla Rumyantseva, I Met a Girl, 2014, Video still. Photo: Stefan Rusu
Alla Rumyantseva’s I Met a Girl is based on a famous Tajik film from 1957 in which the patriarchal structure of society is criticized and questioned in favor of women’s emancipation. After a long period during the Soviet era when women could, within a limited frame, “follow their dreams,” a return to the patriarchy of old is taking root in modern Tajikistan. Using fragments of the 1957 film juxtaposed with new interviews with women, this video criticizes the religious values that are taking over society and making it nearly impossible for women to self-actualize.
Surayo Tuychieva, Generation Next, 2014, Video stills. Photos: Stefan Rusu
Generation Next, the work of Surayo Tuychieva who is the only professor of art theory in Tajikistan and Larisa Dodkhudoeva’s daughter, reveals the transformation of political ideology in Tajikistan through the prism of changing accessories worn by women. During the Soviet era schoolgirls, like boys, wore red kerchiefs around their necks. They were all Pioneers, members of the Soviet youth. A new religious ideology has replaced the former atheist one, and has instead relegated women to an inferior position, hiding them behind hijabs. The red scarf has morphed along with the ideology, from a sign of atheism and equality between the sexes to a sign of religiosity and oppression.
In today’s Tajikistan there are only few who criticize publicly, and those that do tend to do it in general terms, using a masked language of metaphor, or without pointing the finger to individual culprits. In this oppressive and potentially explosive context, where the people are forced to choose between a secular corrupt dictatorship that keeps the country semi-stable or a collapse into yet another civil war, only small, primarily private events that try to bring awareness to various social problems can take place. But with no public debate and only a few who take an interest in these issues, transformation will be very slow. For the most part people want to be businessmen, artists included. The struggle to make a living in Central Asia’s poorest country supplants all other preoccupations.
Murodjon and his father Sabzali Sharipov at Sabzali's studio in Dushanbe. Photo: Vlad Petri, 2015
Sabzali Sharipov, Murodjon’s father, and one of the most famous artists from the Soviet era, sums up the perspective of some in this way:
What our president did for our country after five years of bloody civil war is very good—he united us, he made us a nation. We fear Islamization, religious fanaticism—it happens very fast regardless of the education at home. Art and science are our only hopes.
But how can art offer hope when it exists for so few and is constantly at risk of being silenced by this same president’s government? Stefan Rusu looks ahead:
I hope and want to believe that Dushanbe Art Ground and its team will survive the increased restrictions which will continue to impose themselves following the examples in Russia and Uzbekistan, where the independent sector was stifled on all levels.
Tajikistan sits at the crossroads of ideologies—it is here that the battle between east and west, modern and traditional, past and future, secularism and religion is taking place. And if art will have any role in the country’s future, it must be brought out from the private realm into the public.
Olga Stefan is an independent curator, writer, and lecturer born in Bucharest, raised in Chicago and since 2009, based in Zurich. She contributes regularly to ArtReview, Frieze Magazine, Art in America,Flash Art, Sculpture Magazine, ArtSlant, and Artmargins. Her upcoming exhibition, Laughter and Forgetting, takes place October 9-16, 2015 in the frame of Bucharest Art Week.
(Image at top: Murodjon Sharifov, Wish them luck!, 2015, Public performance at Pаrk Poytaht. Courtesy of the artist and Dushanbe Art Ground)