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The stage for Almagul Menlibaeva's video performance SteppenBaroque (2003) is a bare, open steppe - the archetypal 'national landscape' of the Central Asian nomad culture. In this natural setting, exact information about the time and location becomes irrelevant; the place is beyond written history. Only the ancient burial vaults, mazars, which appear in the background, link the scene to Kazakhstan. In this landscape a group of seven women appear like mythical spirits of nature, clothed in flowing colourful fabrics or then completely naked, holding skulls of totem animals in their hands as offerings to gods. Menlibaeva has dedicated the work to her seven ancestors, thus referring to the nomad tradition of knowing by heart seven generations of one's ancestors: memory creates history and continuity.
The title of the work juxtaposes contradictory elements in a metaphorical way: the desolateness of landscape in contrast to the fullness of the Baroque style, the Western art historical style as a representative of 'civilisation' meets wild and pure nature. The stylistic elements of Baroque art are introduced in the form of capricious gestures of twisting decorated fabrics, as materialised movements of the wind. Also the presence of visual spectacle, presented here through the ritualistic performance, is characteristic for Baroque style. By using the mirror effect, Menlibaeva adapts another iconographic element of the Baroque, creating decorative beauty through perfect symmetry, which is always artificial, man-made. The divided image creates both real and symbolic visual perfection, always changing its form, like an organic whole never finding its final state. The image becomes a site for an unknown rite with its hypnotic rhythm and exuberant visuality.
An important part that strengthens Menlibaeva's visual narration is the soundtrack created by DJ German Popov, aka O.M.F.O. He combines various elements from folk music with contemporary club music, thus assimilating - in the same manner as Menlibaeva - different layers of time and traditions. This is a way to bring history, legend and tradition to our time.
Menlibaeva describes herself as a 'punk shaman', who revives the values of nature, spirituality and mysticism in today's age of worshipping reason and technology. Her works can also be seen as a form of feministic polemics within a tradition swarming with famous warriors and other male heroes. As a representative of post-Soviet Central Asian contemporary art, Menlibaeva is brave and unique in her way of presenting woman as the heroine of the action. In SteppenBaroque, the female figures are connected to the spiritual world, but they are bound to earth and soil with slow and meditative movements, in contrast to the male heroes of the ancient past, who rode wildly on horseback across the steppes. No wonder these masculine actions stained with blood were recorded in histories and legends, as the women were left silent and non-existent.
Menlibaeva says that she wants to give a face to Central Asian women, because they are rather unknown and obscure for the contemporary world. In the turmoil of history, female identity in Central Asia has been an instrument for politics: the communists transformed the Central Asian woman into a symbol of their civilizing mission, promoting as the ideal woman a strong and self-disciplined worker. Today this strength and discipline are indeed needed in the new circumstances, when the transition to a market economy has brought sweeping changes to everyday life and social roles in Central Asia. In Menlibaeva's art, woman appears as a strong matriarch of the nomadic period, independent and free from patriarchal control and oppression. SteppenBaroque also proclaims the new potential individual freedom in its open celebration of traditional shamanism and female nudity, which were among the forbidden subjects during the Soviet era, when the communist regime tried to 'tame' the cultural and religious heritage of Central Asia and assimilate it into the Soviet ideology.
Today, with the existence of original and talented contemporary artists like Almagul Menlibaeva, a contemporary renaissance for central Asian culture is possible. However, it can happen only if it is not directed from above and used for political or new ideological purposes. If the richness of traditions is forced into the form of a souvenir and used as an instrument of nation-making, contemporary culture will be handicapped and its normal development impossible. The culture cannot be paused in a 'stand-by' position and certainly it cannot be simply resurrected from death. A 'zombie culture' will never last more than overnight.
In her works, Almagul Menlibaeva is not attempting to make radical political gestures to shock people or the system. She is more interested in showing in her personal way how rich and diverse the possibilities are to create a contemporary Kazakh culture, without giving up your integrity, without assimilating completely to 'East' or 'West'. The 'mythopoetic narration' of SteppenBaroque presents a form for a 'spiritual renaissance', not through conflict but through harmony.
Art historian, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art KIASMA, Helsinki, Finland.
Video, 11 min.