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0 – Now: Traversing West Asia

Shifting borders, cultural interactions and transforming landscapes. Exhibition part of the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia.
By November Paynter | Jan 2013

This year’s Asia Pacific Triennial has expanded its perspective to include a significant presentation of works by artists from West Asia, an area that spans the landmass stretching from Xinjiang province in western China to the European shore of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. This expansion is appropriate, since West Asia is a region that has throughout history performed as the passage for exchange from East and Central Asia across to the borders of Europe. Some of the earliest human migrations moved from Africa through the Middle East to Asia, and the three related monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — were born and first shared within this geography. Later, the transfer of trade and cultural relations along various pathways accumulatively came to be known as the Silk Route. Referring to these strong historical connections, contemporary artistic practices from Central Asia have begun to be investigated in dialogue with those from the Caucasus and the Middle East in recent exhibitions such as the 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009) and the 1st Kiev Biennial (2012), a dialogue that now extends into the broader regional focus of the APT.

While current political and territorial tensions in this region tend to eclipse the long-lasting impact of religious upheavals and periods spent under Ottoman, communist or colonial rule, these historical eras also formed a sense of shared heritage. Distinct populations are united by language, with a majority of those in central Asia speaking one of the Turkic languages. In the Middle East, alongside Arabic, a Turkic influx also brought with it Türkmen, Azeri and Turkish. [1] It is an area of environmental extremes, where the Fertile Crescent arcs from the Levantine coast across Iraq and Iran, buffered by hot arid desert. This lush belt of land lured human settlement, and the earliest urban civilisation in the world sprung to life in Mesopotamia. Conquests, crusades and imperial expansions later brought new people and ideas, each episode dramatically rewriting history.

These centuries of invasion, migration and trade have enabled the development of complex and continually evolving cultural practices. Contemporary artists have continued this process, breaking away from traditional techniques and media, as well as from appropriating Western styles and representational aesthetics, to offer unique positions and approaches. In the last two decades, the region has generated several major contemporary art platforms, such as the Istanbul and Sharjah biennials and the Art Dubai art fair, which have linked artists to broader international networks. Many artists are global citizens, living both in their native country as well as abroad.

Focusing on this region, 0 – Now: Traversing West Asia brings together photography, video, sculpture and multimedia installations by seven artists who share an interest in the historical and current movements of people, and the shifts in power and compositions of landscape in West Asia. Included are works that refer to previous acts and ongoing proposals to redefine national borders; the military crusades initiated in the 11th century that sought to reintroduce Christianity to the Muslim world; and the effects of repression and economic turmoil caused by the comings and goings of the Ottoman Empire and Soviet Union intervention and rule.

Slavs and Tatars "is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to the area known as Eurasia". [2] In APT7, their work PrayWay (2012) creates a central pivot of interaction in the exhibition. Combining the forms of the rahlé (stands used for holy books, including the Qu’ran) and the traditional carpet-draped riverbeds found across West Asia, visitors are invited to gather and interact with the work as a community. Part of a series of works entitled The Faculty of Substitution, it aims to "probe what it means to adopt the innermost thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and sensations of something, someone, or somewhere else, as one’s own, in a drive towards self-discovery." [3]

Slavs and Tatars’ research encompasses the entire region of West Asia, as do, in a more minimal form, some of the time-related rulers of Cevdet Erek, one of which provides the title for 0 – Now. While many are abstract, with their references to time and positioning left open for interpretation, a few hint at specific moments — such as one ruler that relates to Erek’s own life span, or another that marks the dates of the coups d’état that took place in Turkey in the twentieth century. All indicating separate but, for Erek, related events, his rulers play with rhythm and the representation of time to condense such moments into short, penned lines that can be continually drawn and redrawn.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Hrair Sarkissian and Yerbossyn Meldibekov each focus on a specific site or historical moment in countries that were formerly part of the USSR. Menlibayeva’s five-channel video installation expresses the devastation left by Soviet nuclear weapons testing at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. On the central screen, individuals relate horrific memories of the period and its continued effects. On the other four channels, Menlibayeva’s film manipulates the bare landscape via choreographed interventions, in which the actors’ faces are obliterated by images of nuclear clouds, evoking the official disregard for the local people. Sarkissian’s photographs share his encounter with the reality of Armenia’s landscape following first Ottoman and, later, Soviet rule. Shocked by the consequences of this period on the people and the physical landscape, as well as by the state of Armenia’s economic situation, Sarkissian shrouds the extremes he encountered by shooting in heavy snow. Meldibekov also explores the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Central Asia after the collapse of the former USSR. His sculptures of mountains in Afghanistan, created from battered kitchenware, reference the constant renaming of these impressive locations as leaders come and go. Likewise, his work Family album (2011, a collaboration with his brother, Nurbossyn Oris) traces the renewal of public sculptures, as conflicting positions — from Leninism to Stalinism to independence — warrant a different memorial. It seems that neither a natural nor a man-made monument is overlooked as power changes hands and new statements of authority are made.

Looking back to a much earlier period in history is Wael Shawky’s work Telematch Crusades (2009), the prequel to his major video project Cabaret Crusades, a chronicle of the crusades that lasted from 1095 until 1291 CE. As in his previous Telematch works, Shawky works with children, and here they are cast in the role of a gang laying siege to a castle. [4] While the boys each ride a donkey to circumnavigate the castle, their intentions are unclear. The last frame is set against a vivid blue sea; as one boy descends from his donkey, his mind could easily be focused on running and jumping into the waves to break free from the game’s structure and the impact of historical legacy. The landscape again comes to the fore and the conclusion to this film – which could allude to the far-reaching social and political effects of the Crusades – melts into the sand and sea.

Oraib Toukan’s work The Equity is in the Circle (2007-09) explores the area of West Asia commonly referred to as the Middle East. This term is considered Eurocentric by many due to its geopolitical application and attempts by the West to be involved in and restructure the region’s composition of nations. Toukan redirects this recent history by proposing a corporate auctioning off of Middle East nation states under hundred-year leaseholds. The scheme is supported by details on how to 'cost' a nation, video interviews with auctioneers and market consultants, an auction catalogue and a branded advertising campaign. One of its advertising catchphrases, "Own this view and everything in it", reverberates throughout 0 – Now. Despite the entertaining edge to Toukan’s investigation, the impending privatisation of public and national territory, as well as an individual’s and a community’s relationship to their surroundings, are constantly being redefined by those in power.


  1. Carter Vaughn Findley, The Turks in World History, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, p.17.
  2. See www.slavsandtatars.com
  3. Ibid.
  4. The term 'Telematch' was borrowed by Shawky from the name of a television game show originally broadcast in Germany in the 1970s, in which teams from different towns would come together and compete in various contests

November Paynter

Associate Director of Programs and Research at SALT, Istanbul, Turkey.

(Abbreviated version of the catalogue text.
Courtesy of APT, Queensland Art Gallery)

0 – Now: Traversing West Asia

Exhibition part of:
The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of
Contemporary Art (APT7)

8 December 2012 - 14 April 2013

Queensland Art Gallery

Stanley Place, South Bank
Queensland 4101
Website Email

Co-curator: November Paynter

Cevdet Erek
Yerbossyn Meldibekov
Almagul Menlibayeva
Hrair Sarkissian
Wael Shawky
Slavs & Tatars
Oraib Toukan

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