“I Will Take the Not-Easy Task”: An Interview with Almagul Menlibayeva | Erica X Eisen | The Hypocrite Reader

Erica X Eisen

“I Will Take the Not-Easy Task”: An Interview with Almagul Menlibayeva

ISSUE 100 | HOLES | JUL 2022
Almagul Menlibayeva, Centaur, 2011

Each issue, we highlight an artist whose work is thematically resonant with the written pieces. For HOLES, editor Erica X Eisen spoke with Almagul Menlibayeva, an artist originally from Kazakhstan who now divides herself between Almaty and Berlin. Her work ranges from video art to AI-generated imagery, from examinations of the status of women in Central Asia to reactions to the censorship of Bloody January. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Hypocrite Reader: To begin, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your training: what was it like to be trained at a Soviet art academy, and what kind of lessons do you carry from that time?

Almagul Menlibayeva: Of course it’s influenced me a lot. I chose [to major in] folk art: tapestry, fabric. Everything was connected with nomadic art, so that’s why it was very important for me. We had a way of conceptual thinking, let’s say. That’s probably why for me it’s easy to choose a lot of materials, technology: I don’t have borders.

You know, there was a lot of, “What is good art? What is the purpose?” All kinds of ideas were there [about] what to do. And also what not to do, and people kind of following the rules. If you notice, a lot of people from this post-Soviet era, they’re very good at “consume, consume, consume,” but not critique. Also, of course, [we focused on] what people in Moscow did. Geopolitically and geoculturally you know, Central Asia became, instead of the center of the region, a periphery. We had the Stalinist repressions during the Soviet Union, and also we had the famine in Kazakhstan where about 37% of nomads died―the end of the nomadic culture. And then it became like a kind of dream, you know, people talking about them, how they’re nomads, but in end they’re just post-Soviet people sitting at home and trying to kind of build things up.

The way of thinking now [in Central Asia] is very formal, you know, totalitarian thinking. It’s difficult to live with differences, you know? And I think we have all become a good product for capitalism. [During the Soviet times] we were very critical, you know, old art and everything was so much deep [criticism of] capitalism. I’m shocked how very easily [capitalism came], you know? And then when [people] see problems, they don’t understand where all these problems come from.

HR: I was working at a university in Kyrgyzstan, and I often thought, you know, if I asked one of the 18- or 20-year-old students, “What is communism? What is Marxism?” I don’t think that they could tell me. The American ideology and the capitalist ideology has so thoroughly come in, at least in Kyrgyzstan.

AM: When we talk about Central Asia it’s very, also very important to understand the geopolitics because [unlike Kazakhstan] Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan don’t have a border with Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, they can have many revolutions. But [the revolutions] didn’t improve things: in the end, it became just one group fighting with another group, and then of course Russia influences a lot because all [post-Soviet Central Asian] republics show open Russian TV. It’s all propaganda, a capitalistic TV empire, what we have now. It’s all in Russian.

HR: How has the artistic community responded to the events in Kazakhstan in January?

AM: There is a center of contemporary art, Tselinny, [and] they organized an exhibition, which is going to be this year. Me personally, I did one project with artificial intelligence because of the information war.

It’s not my main work, but for this I used text to image [generation]. During the January [unrest], people didn’t understand what was happening, [the state was] shutting down the internet. They gave only one official view. Russia [gave] a completely different view, like we were all terrorists. So in the end I use this text-to-image [generator] and I made my own online news, making synthetic news. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to make this, but I will put the words of the people who are suffering.” I took [accounts] of torture, all kinds of terrible cases. [These reports] appear, and afterwards they can disappear. The government or the KGB can go and say, “OK, we don’t want to have this, this or this, please take it away.” A lot of content was [lost]. And that’s why I was working with text to image.

It was my way of breaking through and slowly understanding. [The government] still hasn’t revealed what really happened. It’s a game.

[I used posts like,] “I was walking on the street and the police took me,” and then [the program] built up through photographs on Google, some kind of something which could be in Kazakhstan, and then you can use different styles. [My work’s in] a kind of painting style. You can use a photographic style, but people can easily accept [the painting style.] Photography, I think, would be very cruel, you know, [there’s a limit] on how much they can take.

I was working on [a project related to the Kazakh gulag] Karlag, and I saw how people have difficulty expressing what they see, what they saw. Sometimes people don’t remember things because they don’t want to see. So this is why I started to work immediately: I thought to use the synthetic memory of the computer to help people retain this as a memory.

HR: Talking about memory, I wanted to ask you about a phrase that you used on your website, “archaic atavism.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it manifests in your work?

AM: I was raised in this atmosphere where I was divided. What my nationality represented was very bad, barbarian, you know, there was very heavy colonial thinking. There was a lot of inequality among nationalities.

For me decolonization was very connected with archeology. [There was a man] who came to Kazakhstan as a geologist after the Soviet repressions. He went to the west of Kazakhstan and found an amazing historical artifact and changed his profession in the end. He became an archeologist. And he involved a lot of artists, architects, filmmakers—this is how this idea came into art in Kazakhstan. And it became in part connected with nomadism. And of course, nomadism is more complicated than this picture of people going [around] freely. It was a form of economy, but it was also connected with the earth. So this is atavism: something which I have a connection with [that] I still haven’t lost.

HR: How has your work been received in the West versus in Central Asia? Have you noticed a difference between how critics respond or how the public responds to your work in different places?

AM: In 1997, I went to New York, and I was going to the galleries and trying to communicate with curators. And people didn’t really understand who I was. They thought I was Russian, maybe Japanese, Chinese. So I understood there was no space [for me].

So my work at the beginning was about that, you know, about how to explain, and it was of course very different from what artists did inside Kazakhstan. The artists at the end of the ’90s [in Kazakhstan] were busy with what Moscow was doing. But [I wanted to] really, you know, develop and build up [the idea of] “What is Kazakhstan, or Central Asia, what is this area?” I thought, “I will take this, the not-easy task, it’s who I am.”

Because in Russia, for example, you can hear things against Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan like “there is no culture,” “this culture was nothing, it’s a primitive culture.” And then during the Soviet time, everybody spoke Russian, you know. There was misunderstanding even between my great-grandmother and my grandmother. You know, it was very deep. My great-grandmother, she was a person who witnessed and was practicing nomadism. And my grandmother, she was a person who was already settled and was saying, “OK, I’m going to live in the village, you know, in the kolkhoz.” She became a village person. She lost her nomadism. The language remains, but it’s a different language. It’s a settled language, the language of people who worked for the kolkhoz or sovkhoz.

What does it mean to be international, especially for Central Asia? If you speak Russian, you are international. If you don’t, if you speak your own language, you are a nationalist. A lot of work should be done; people have to really rethink [this].