Uncovering the forgotten female artists of Kazakhstan with an exhibition spotlighting four generations - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Uncovering the forgotten female artists of Kazakhstan with an exhibition spotlighting four generations


“In our research we’ve uncovered a number of women artists who are extremely important to the development of Kazakh art who were invisible: They made work under their husband’s names, their art wasn’t preserved or sold and once their husbands passed away that was it,” says Dr. Rachel Rits-Volloch.

As the founding director of MOMENTUM, a not-for-profit platform dedicated to time-based art, Rits-Volloch is part of the effort to shift this narrative. In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Momentum is organizing the exhibition Bread & Roses, which will showcase four generations of female Kazakh art at Berlin’s Kunstquartier Bethanien. Bread & Roses has been made possible through the cultural initiative Focus Kazakhstan, a four-pronged exhibition format aiming to bring contemporary art from Kazakhstan to an international audience. Incredibly, it’s the first time that the government has ever sponsored a contemporary art project.

The interest in contemporary art has been steadily growing in Kazakhstan since the country was declared a republic in 1991, but for many years forward-thinking artists were largely ignored. This is something that the artist Almagul Menlibayeva knows only too well: “We were in the margins, working underground without support from the government,” she explains. As co-curator of Bread & Roses—alongside Rits-Volloch and David Elliot—Menlibayeva doesn’t just want to find a place for those artists who were forgotten but has her eyes set firmly on the future: “The question now is what are we going to do for the next generation of artists?” she says.

Anar Aubakir showing her prints to the other artists-in-residence
Anar Aubakir
Anar Aubakir

“We were in the margins, working underground without support from the government.”

In an attempt to address this concern, the project in Berlin also includes a residency, which will see a total of seven young Kazakh artists visiting the German capital for a period of two months. At the moment, Anar Aubakir, Aigerim Ospanova, Saule Suleimenova, and Gulmaral Tatibayeva are in residence at Momentum, and they are already noticing differences between how art is seen in the two countries. As Rits-Volloch explains, in Kazakhstan, art students are well trained in traditional techniques; as a result, an important part of the residency is to “encourage them to go outside their normal areas of interest”. This goes beyond learning new skills, though. Early on, the group was taken to meet a collective of female refugees living in Berlin—an experience that inspired new works for a couple of the artists. Gulmaral Tatibayeva, for instance, will update a project she started in Kazakhstan by recreating a yurt made from the clothing of Kazakh women with clothing from female migrants who have settled in Germany. “I’m interested in strong women using their power to integrate here,” she says.

It’s hardly surprising that the diversity of Berlin has resonated with these artists: located in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. There is, however, a dark history behind the heterogeneousness of the Kazakh people: the country was the destination point for many people forcibly relocated from other countries within the Soviet Union. Forced relocation was a technique used by the Soviets to discourage national identity and another aim of Bread & Roses is to bring this history to light. “Amazing ideas came out of this tragedy,” says Rits-Volloch. “The artists in the exhibition are the children of, the friends of, and the students of, people who came to Kazakhstan in this way.”

Gulmaral Tatibayeva
Detail from a work by Saule Suleimenova

“The Soviet Union came and cut the history… they said, ‘Before was nothing and now is happiness.’”

This was just one of the many injustices that the Kazakh people faced at the hands of the Soviet Union. “What the Soviets did was a policy of eradicating local culture and language,” says Rits-Volloch. “The first thing they did was ban the local language in schools; everyone had to speak Russian.” The occupation radically changed the landscape of Kazakhstan: the tradition of pastoral nomadism—Kazakhs lived in yurts and moved according to the seasons—was almost eradicated and religious practices, such as Shamanism, couldn’t be observed under Soviet rule. Many of the artists involved in Bread & Roses are part of a generation who are looking into these almost-forgotten traditions. “The Soviet Union came and cut the history… they said, ‘Before was nothing and now is happiness,’” explains Menlibayeva, who as well as co-curating will present her own work in the exhibition. But while her photographs and videos might focus on this “fragmentary” history, she still acknowledges the results of her Soviet upbringing and education: “It’s impossible to reject something 100%,” she says. “I’m part of the Soviet project in a way.”

Artist Saule Suleimenova (left) with artist and Bread & Roses curator Almagul Menlibayeva (right)
Almagul Menlibayeva
Almagul Menlibayeva, Anar Aubakir, and Aigerim Ospanova

Works from artists included in Bread & Roses

  • Lidya Blinova, Fingerornamen
  • Gulnur Mukazhanov, Iron Women
  • Gulfairus Ismailova, Frame from the movie Qyz Zhibek
  • Bakhit Bubikanova, New Year Postcard

Within the exhibition, these contemporary issues are presented alongside both modern and folk art traditions, in what Rits-Volloch calls “A new paradigm for Kazakhstan.” It’s a unique chance to trace the influence of these “great-grandmothers” of Kazakh art on the younger generations, as well as remember the incredible strength of those who suffered considerably under the regime. Bread & Roses celebrates women like Vera Ermolaeva, for instance, who was sent to the Gulag and eventually shot after her illustrations were declared ‘Anti-Soviet’ in 1934.

Although female artists no longer have to fear such extreme punishment for making art, arguably they still have a way to go to catch up to their male contemporaries. “It’s still a very patriarchal society. It’s very hierarchical, to a surprising degree,” says Rits-Volloch. “Men don’t do the washing-up! It’s unheard of,” she adds. The exhibition’s third curator, David Elliot, who has a long history of working in the region, remains optimistic about gender politics in Kazakhstan: “It’s not alone in being rather patriarchal,” he says, “and remember the origin of the Amazons—who were real!—are found in Iron Age Kazakhstan.”