x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Eyes on Kazakhstan's art

Work by the former Soviet republic's artists is increasingly sought after by collectors.

Zhibek, by Shaimardan Sariyev (1937-1988) 1968. Kasteev State Museum of Arts
Zhibek, by Shaimardan Sariyev (1937-1988) 1968. Kasteev State Museum of Arts

When the American art collector Richard Spooner first touched down in Almaty, then capital of Kazakhstan, he was one of the first American bankers there.

It was 1992, and the country, just one year into its independence, was suffering a near total economic breakdown. The city's inhabitants were braving the winter without power and hot water, and scrabbling for jobs and even food. Art was the last thing on anyone's mind.

Spooner, who'd built up a collection of Soviet non-conformist art in his nine years in Soviet-era Moscow, gradually began to make purchases. He found a small gallery on the fourth floor of the country's only western hotel. He was introduced to some local artists.

"They were doing all sorts of stuff: they were painting realism, they were painting impressionism and expressionism. The control over artists was never as strict here as it was in Moscow or Leningrad."

It didn't take long before the Kazakh art world had started to pick itself up, however. By 1995, a new type of contemporary Kazakh artist had already emerged.

Kanat Ibragimov, one of the country's first conceptual artists, made his name in Moscow for nailing the carcass of a chicken to the door of the gallery that had invited him to exhibit, spattering blood onto the floor around.

For Ibragimov, this symbolised his, and perhaps Kazakh Art's, arrival in the capital of their former overlord.

As the Mongol horde swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, brutally sacking city after city, they would begin - or so Ibragimov believed - by nailing a chicken, split exactly in half, on to the city walls.

Now, 15 years after Ibragimov's stunt, and 20 after Spooner first set foot in Kazakhstan, Kazakh art is knocking on the doors of another city. But this time the only chicken in sight is on the capapés passed around the packed rooms of Christie's auctioneers in London's Pall Mall. And rather than suffering, the Kazakhs there are among London's richest people.

Treasures of Kazakhstan, a rare Christie's exhibition held this summer, combined the best works from Almaty's state-owned Kasteev State Museum, with works from the private collection of Nurlan Smugalov, a Kazakh entrepreneur who is Spooner's only significant rival in collecting.

The exhibition featured impressionist works, abstract compositions and a good collection of socialist realist paintings.

The international art world is starting to discover Kazakh art, just like Spooner did way back in the early 1990s.

The most striking painting in the exhibition, and, strangely, the one with the most resonance to Ibragimov's work, was a huge 1960s socialist realist canvas called A Game of Kokpar, featuring the traditional Kazakh horseback contest played with the decapitated torso of a dead goat.

Alexis de Tiesenhausen, the head of Christie's Russian art department, who put the paintings together, says: "The fun of this is for once working without money, without having a product to sell, just turning up at the exhibition and just enjoying art."

But Christie's is clearly eyeing the Kazakh multi-millionaires and billionaires chattering in the room. They're an untapped market, which could potentially do for Kazakh art what Indian and Russian millionaires have done for their own national artists over the past decade.

The profile of Kazakhstan's art is rising with its oil-fuelled economy: in December, Sotheby's hosted an exhibition of 30 works by modern Kazakh artists at its New Bond Street premises as part of Kazakh Art Week; James Butterwick, one of the most prominent London dealers in Russian fine art, hopes to open a gallery in Almaty shortly. Sara Raza, a former curator at Tate Modern, who last year directed BAF Art School in Dubai, is planning to launch a London gallery next year, exclusively focusing on contemporary Central Asian Art.

Spooner has concentrated on buying artists who in the 1960s exploited the cracks in the monolith of socialist realism, experimenting with expressionism, traditional patterns, and other techniques: artists such as Abdrashit Sidhikhanov, Amandos Akanayev, and Salikhatdin Aitbayev.

"There were a whole generation of artists who sort of came of age in the 1960s who were balancing three things: the influence they were getting from Moscow and Leningrad; their own desire to express their Kazkah identity; and the restrictions of socialist realism, which says you're only supposed to paint things that portray Socialist development in a positive light."

When Smugalov and Spooner were buying, art collecting was an affordable hobby. "The paintings were extremely cheap," says Smugalov. "You could find an amazing piece for $200, that now you could find for $20,000-$25,000 [Dh92,000]."

"Back then, I was witness in Moscow to scenes where you'd get to midnight and after and artists would sell a watercolour for a glass of vodka," says Spooner.

They would mostly buy directly from contemporary artists and the families of artists of the previous generation.

There were also extraordinary opportunities to buy art from the previous generations, even some pre-revolutionary art.

"The Soviet Union was falling apart, control was falling apart, the government was out of money, so people started selling all sorts of things, including art," says Spooner.

Kazakhstan had a surprisingly rich collection. Elizaveta Kim, head of the Contemporary Art Centre at the Kasteev Museum, which put on the Christie's exhibition with Smugalov, says that throughout the 1930s, extraordinary paintings from pre-revolutionary Russia were quietly shipped off to Kazakhstan by Moscow galleries in the hope they would be far enough away to survive the predations of Stalin's art policy.

From the mid-1930s, avant-garde artists were themselves shipped to Kazakhstan.

The Russian exiles survived by teaching in various art schools and so inspired a new generation of ethnically Kazakh artists who, from the 1960s onwards, developed a Kazakh school of art, which, according to Christie's, prized "flatness, monumentality of form, unity of colour and drawing, and symbolism."

At the same time, Kazakh artists were seeking to create a sense of nationhood in a republic that had been created by Stalin as recently as 1936. Abilkhan Kasteev, the father of Kazakh art, began painting realist scenes of nomads in yurts, milking horses and making cheese, with the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan mountains as a backdrop.

Many of these, like Moldakhmet Kenbayev's Game of Kokpar, were brilliantly executed but conservative.

But others pushed the boundaries of what was politically acceptable. Salikhitdin Aitbayev's 1966 work Happiness, one of the most famous Kazakh paintings shown at Christie's, departed from classic socialist realism in a way that would have been impossible in Moscow. Even in liberal Almaty, it caused waves.

"It was a very controversial painting at the time, and it was not allowed to be exhibited for several years," says Meruyert Kim, Christies' Kazakh art specialist.

But a lot of the new interest in Kazakh art is not going to the pioneers of the 1960s, but to Ibragimov and his peers.

After his chicken work, Ibragimov's next move, at the 1997 Moscow Art Fair, was to slaughter a sheep in the gallery, and then drink its blood, an act which led to a fight with vegetarian German artists exhibiting, and a petition to have him removed from the fair. He claimed, rather disingenuously, that he was merely following his Kazakh tradition of celebrating an event by slaughtering a sheep and accused his detractors of being cultural imperialists.

Ibragimov then gave up art for most of the past decade, even working at one point as a political propagandist for the Nur Otan party, which supports Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

But last year, he returned to art, staging a series of brazenly political events. In February, he cut the head off a fish in Almaty's Central Square, while reciting the Russian proverb,"A fish rots from its head down". In July, he circumcised himself to celebrate the president's birthday. More recently, he launched a "Virtual Party" with no beliefs or causes.

"Most of his works are directed simply towards shocking people," says Smugalov. "I don't care too much if he's trying to offend people, but I think it's a big mistake for people who don't know anything about Kazakhstan to look at Kanat Ibragimov and think he represents the Kazakh art scene."

Spooner goes further: "A number of people here really went all out jumping on the contemporary art bandwagon over the past 10 years. A lot of them became very dogmatic about how contemporary art is the only thing that matters, and painting is an outdated, backward form of artistic expression. And a lot these were the same people who 30 years ago were saying [he puts on a robot voice] 'socialist realism is the only way'."

But it's this Kazakh contemporary art scene that is exciting Raza. She traces Kazakh art's emergence to the 2005 Venice Biennale, where Kazakhstan was represented by Rustam Khalfin, a successful painter, who had turned to conceptual art. In 2007, Khalfin, who died two years ago, was rewarded with an exhibition at London's White Cube gallery.

"Central Asian artists really found their feet following their debut in the Venice Bienniale in 2005," Raza argues, "and we really do hope to work with some of the best talent in the region with a mix of group and solo shows. "

She likes Ibragimov, describing him as a "spin doctor-stroke-artist who can bring a real catalyst of change to the region through the language of art and culture."

Spooner is hedging his bets on whether the surge in interest is here to stay. "Any time something new appears, it's, "Oh, we haven't seen that before, we haven't shown this before. So attention is paid to it. Then it's a question of whether there's any merit in it. If there's no merit in it, it's not going to take off. I'm not sure if Kazakh art is going to take off. But at least it's being noticed."