Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Soviet policy of industrial cotton production in Central Asia led to the draining of the Aral Sea, the immobilizing and impoverishing of an entire sub-continent of people and to the destruction of vast terrains of brilliantly balanced domesticated land. For previous historical eons these fertile plains, these great expanses circled by ragged white mountains, delivered-up an abundance of apples, pears, apricots, plumbs, wheat, corn, almonds, pistachio, and a veritable cornucopia of vegetables, spices and herbs - edible and medicinal. This rich and varied production emerged within a system that engaged and supported the seasonal needs of livestock and communities. A balanced and richly productive ecosystem meshing culture, agriculture, humans, animals and plants with a geological, ecological and seasonal base so that for thousands of years the complex and portable cultures of the Central Asian steppe grew and continued, presenting to the world some of the greatest glories of human/planet joint efforts: glories such as the development of the horse and the refinement of the apple, each of which are globally held mythic icons of nature's perfection and abundance. But orchards were razed and pastures and gardens plowed under to make room for the monopoly of King Cotton and his endless thirst for not just water, but grueling physical labor. In a desperate and clearly hopeless attempt to secure an independent and sufficient source of cotton for the Soviet Union, policies were implemented that literally drained an inland sea for irrigation and closed schools for months at a time to procure a pliant labor force with small fingers - thought to be so well suited for cotton picking. The legacy of this insanity lingers today as cotton is still an immediate cash crop for these cash-strapped countries, and re-establishing the diversity of an agricultural system of self-sufficient food production would take decades. There are water shortages through-out the region and even today schools close during the cotton harvest.
At dusk we took a brief detour to Uzgen to catch a view of its famous 11th Century minaret and magically we encountered a wedding party wandering through the fields around the tower, amply serenaded by a singer and accordion player. As the wedding party disappeared in the dropping deep blue evening the silhouette of the tower merged with the sky and in the formless indigo night music continued, celebrating a happy couple. The weeks after Ramadan are the prime wedding season; the fasting is over, the crops are in and it is time to bundle down for winter...
In Osh we found our 5 room European chalet-styled hotel, the dream-child of visiting members of assistance groups such as Medecins sans Frontieres and others.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Posted by Susan Katz
After arriving at 6 am, Gordon courageously joined me in 5 incredible meetings with a wide variety of arts people in Bishkek. We began our day with a visit to the U.S. Embassy where we met with the Cultural Attache and his program assistant Camilla. It was heartening to hear that they are involved in so many cultural projects in Kyrgyzstan and we hope that it will be possible to collaborate with them. We then met with the amazing Dinara Chochumbaeva, director of the Central Asian Crafts Network Asosciation at her home where she served us a wonderful lunch under difficult circumstances. She is in mourning for her mother and according to custom she must stay home for 40 days and greet visitors. Dinara was excited about our project and we discussed several ways to collaborate and create art projects related to pressing social issues, including water, housing, immigration. We next visited the Kurama Art Gallery where we met with its director Asel, a couple of artists, and an imaginative businessman who is trying to create Kyrgyzstan's first artist residency. Our conversation then turned to traditional music during a meeting with Raizya Syrdybaeva, who offered some new ideas and possible collaborations. We concluded our very long day with a lovely, relaxing dinner with Muratbek and Gulnara at our favorite Chaikhana. Although it was wonderful to be back at Jalalabad, we were surprised to see a new sign -- "it is forbidden to bring your own alcohol." The first time I asked the waitress if we could drink the wine we had brought, she said no. The second time she also said no. But, the third time she said that we could as long as noone noticed and pointed out that the table of women sitting next to us were quietly pouring vodka into their juice. If we got caught she said, we would be fined 50 som (less than $2). We decided to take the risk. So, our evening with Muratbek and Gulnara continued happily and we had a wonderful conversation about their work, ideas, projects. They were very excited about our trip and even considered joining us. We left Bishkek the next morning stimulated by all the people we had met and full of new ideas.
Road trip: Bishkek to Jalalabad
Posted by Susan Katz
The city of Jalal-Abad was dark upon arrival because as is the case in most of Kyrgyzstan, the electricity is regularly turned off. It seems that there is a shortage of electricity because the government has been selling its water to neighboring countries, thus depleting the water supply needed for their hydro-electric plants. Since in the dark we couldn't find the small homestay where we had planned to stay, we headed for the center of Jalal-Abad where there seemed to be some light. We stopped at an immense building in the center with large neon lights on its roof reading H tel. The Hotel Naruz turned out to be a very nice, Soviet type place, complete with 2 restaurants and a disco in its basement.
The next morning we set off for our first meeting with local artists at the university. To our surprise we were greeted not only by artists, but by about 20 female students who were studying to be teachers. We spoke with them for about an hour, presented our project and tried to engage them in a discussion about their interests, social practice art, etc. The students and the artists were generally shy except for an elder artist/professor who was particularly interested in knowing more about Mount Rushmore. They were all shocked when Gordon revealed the size of the presidents' noses. After the meeting we moved on to the sadly, decripit Union of Artists Building. The building and its yard are in complete dissaray and the few artists with studios there all seemed to be working on commercial commissions such as creating signs for local money exchange offices. Despite the difficulties of working in these conditions, the artists seemed committed to their profession and very interested in engaging in an exchange with U.S. artists. We spent the rest of the day with 4 artists -- Almasbek Samtudinov (the former head of the Union of Artists), Tamara Boctonkulova (the new head of the Union of Artists), Sharabidin Orozaliev and Sergei Kazadoev. Almasbek invited us to his lovely home where he treated us to fruit, vegetables and cognac at the early hour of noon. We discussed our project and they immediately expressed a sincere desire to participate and help by hosting artists in their homes. The isolation they felt as artists in a city where few artists remain was soon made clear along with their desire to participate in any project which might bring them opportunities to communicate with other artists.
Our day continued with an unforgettable excursion to the Jalal-Abad Sanatorium. This strange compound of mostly decripit Soviet style buildings on a park filled with statutes of everything from Lenin to turkeys offers a wide range of curative procedures designed to fix whatever may ail you. The local artists introduced us as future foreign clients to the Sanatorium administration and after some negotiating we were taken on a very thorough tour by a kind woman, who showed (and offered) us a wide variety of procedures from massage to acupuncture to mud baths for all parts of the body, including the mysterious "mud tampons." We decided to only try one procedure -- a very strange mechanical back massage contraption. We all laid on beds fitted with a metal pipe that rolled up and down our bodies -- it was not a particularly pleasant experience. At the end of our long excursion, we tried the curative mineral waters and promised our faithful guide that we would certainly return to try all their miraculous procedures.
Our day ended with a wonderful visit to the home of one of the artists, where we were treated to plov and vodka. After many toasts and promises to continue our conversation and collaboration, we set off for Osh.
Posted by Susan Katz
Glaring out at the same plaza we found a 20th century sculpture of the Capitoline she-wolf feeding the hungry pair Romulus and Remus. Strange indeed, in this the city with the largest statue of Lenin in Central Asia (22 meters high) and with a connection to that imagery such that even recently the city fathers refused to sell it to the Japanese for the best possible price for the metal. We were perplexed by the she-wolf, this most roman of all Roman icons in the the second largest city of the only country in Central Asia speaking a Persian dialect.
Our research on Istaravshan, a nearby city and one of the most ancient cities of the Central Asia, provided some insight. Istaravshan was founded in the sixth century B.C. by Cyrus the Great of Persia who fortified the settlement by means of three wall lines and a citadel. From about 550 BC to Alexander's arrival in 329 BC, the ancient settlement Mugteppa, in the territory of Istaravshan, was the residence of a regional aristocracy who built numerous palaces distinguished by unusual and expressive architecture. The nearby settlements of Bundzhikat (Kala and Kakh-Kakh) and Chil'khudzhra evidenced similar influences, also with fortified structures and palaces and cult buildings decorated with paintings and carved panels. In Bundzhikat archaeologists found a painting with the image of a she-wolf feeding two babies and with inscriptions in Latin associated with these images. This ancient and direct link to the heart of the Roman Empire is celebrated here today as proof of this region's continual and ancient engagement with the West. And one must admit, a large Lenin and a glaring she-wolf do cover your bases re Western connections.
While possibly veering from the verified historical record, I tested my own theory on someone familiar with the material; was it possible that the Latin inscriptions read, "Internexus interruptus"? The contemplated response from my informant (our cab driver) was: "I dunno, maybe", powerfully confirming my suspicion: blogging from here has never been easy.
Posted by Gordon Knox
This weekend long conversation turned out to be an exceptionally productive incubator for how the ArtLab could proceed and what its structure should look like. And this conversation took place as we strolled down the Park of Remeberance between the long rows of busts of Tajik academics, or over a breakfast of kielbasa, 'french salad' and eggs in a soon to be bustling "banquet hall" - everyone banquets from early Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, as Naim points out, 'there is no work so what else can one do?' Our conversation continued at the car-parts bazar and in the veritable Khojand stock-exchange, where herds of cows, goats and sheep were gloomily changing hands between super vivacious and noisy stock-exchangers. The mud on the floor of the exchange disturbed Naim's otherwise impeccable outfit of a fine black on black striped suite with a white shirt and a thin tie etched with grey and black diagonal lines. He found it hard to believe that we were actually interested in the animal bazar - he had never been there in his entire life in Khojand - but it all seemed to make sense when he heard that I had started a dairy sheep farm in up-state NY some decades and lives ago.
The long and the short is that Naim could be a key partner in the ArtLab project, prior to our trip everyone suggested he was the go-to guy for cultural projects in northern Tajikistan, and now we know why. Wiley and focussed, Naim, born and raised in Moscow and a scholar of Persian and Turkic languages, is determined to stay in Khujand and invigorate the traditional open culture of the region by countering the outflow of the intelligencia to Moscow, the inflow of fundamentalist Islam from the Taliban regions to the south and the steady acquisition of Tajikistan by the Chinese. Firmly staying put he is building, one program at a time, a broad-based and diverse bulwark of cultural links that encourage the open flow of ideas and greater global connectivity. With the northern, southern and eastern fronts threatening, it makes sense that Naim would look west. It is also an approach supported historically, Tajik is a Persian derived language - Indo-European - and is closer to German than the languages spoken by Tajikistan's Turko-Mongol neighbors. While Alexander the Great's fortress and Rome's she-wolf statue seemed out of place when we arrived, by the time we were picking out a jeep for the arduous drive to Dushanbe, the Tajik - Western European link not only made sense, but seemed a fruitful path forward.
Posted by Gordon Knox
Posted by Susan Katz
The drive into Dushanbe was more than a bit surprising. After gazing for hours at majestic scenary and small rustic houses, we were shocked to see that the suburbs of Dushanbe were filled with large villas with empty swimming pools. Our driver told us that these new houses or dachas were recently built by Tajikistan's newly rich, mostly government officials. The Hotel Mercury was equally astounding -- a large new building with a giant rock/cave and waterfall in its courtyard. Despite its somewhat strange exterior, the hotel proved to be very comfortable because each room was equipped with both a computer and good internet service.
In Dushanbe our visit focused on the wonderful BACTRIA Cultural Center. This educational and cultural center was founded by the French seven years ago and as far as we know, is the only organization supporting contemporary art in Dushanbe. Bactria. They host a wide variety of traditional and contemporary art and cultural programs, including performances, film screenings, exhibitions, lectures, and workshops as well as language classes. We spent most of our time with BACTRIA's excellent staff, Jamshed, Adrienne, and Faruh, discussing future collaboration. It was immediately clear that BACTRIA would be the ideal partner in Dushanbe for the Global Art Lab and that there are many opportunities for collaborating with them. We also spoke at BACTRIA with a group of artists about our plans and were pleased that the audience included artists of all ages. We were very impressed that BACTRIA was working in collaboration with local arts organizations and had initiated and curated a permanent exhibition of contemporary Tajik Art at the National Museum.
My impressions of Dushanbe were rather mixed. Driving through the center, it seems that the city is booming. New buildings are going up everywhere; a huge, Las Vegas style Presidential Palace complete with its own park with large light installations was recently completed. This picture contrasts sharply with last winter's news reports about the dire situation with heating and food in Dushanbe last year. As in Kyrgyzstan, people are expecting that soon they will be without power and heating and that the schools will be closed down for the winter. There are a few new excellent restaurants, which are popular with foreigners, but it quickly becomes clear that these just give the city an illusion of comfort. The airport is still tiny, corruption is rampant, the selection of products is very limited, the infrastructure is a mess, and a large percentage of the population has left the country to find work.
Posted by Susan Katz