Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Propaganda Posters of the Soviet East: 1918 -1940

Workers and Peasants: Don’t let them destroy what was created over 10 years
Who doesn’t work doesn’t eat - Tashkent, 1920
Although this exhibition was held in Moscow over a year ago, it is fascinating to browse these marvellous propaganda posters.

The exhibition was organised by the Mardjani Foundation, which focuses on Islamic studies and Muslim culture in Russia and Eurasia, and the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, which holds over 70,000 posters in its collection.

Posters created for the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus had a special style: they were bright, imaginative, and often in the avant-garde style. Artists were based in Tashkent and Baku, far from the Soviet centre.

Curator Maria Filatova, in an interview with Eurasianet's David Trilling, views the  "colorful posters from the 1920s and early 1930s, with their longer texts and multiple figurines, as direct descendants of local calligraphy and miniature traditions. Filatova feels the relative freedom of the 1920s makes the work from that decade artistically more interesting compared to what followed".

According to Filatova, the work is also revealing about that period in early Soviet history, when "socialist ideas coexisted with Islamic ideology. It was quite wise for the new Soviet power not to crush the old traditions, not to anger the region’s Muslim population. There are several posters from the 1920s where you can see the Soviet red star and the Muslim crescent together."

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Workers and Peasants: Don’t let them destroy what was created over 10 years – Tashkent, 1927

The posters, pasted in railway stations, streets, squares and in clubs, use Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic scripts - reflecting the alphabets and languages of the time. However, most people were illiterate and artists quickly focused on strong, bold design and simple messages to educate and mobilise the masses.

Given the shortage of paper in the early days of the USSR, it is miraculous that these posters have survived.

You can read David Trilling's article about the exhibition and see further examples of these remarkable posters. His article also includes an excellent overview of the history of the various alphabet experiments (including the Latin alphabet) in Central Asia during the early Soviet period - by 1940 Cyrillic had become the universal alphabet.

Related posts: Paul Nadar's Images of Turkestan 1890
Kyrgyzstan's Quest for Historical Photographs
A Glimpse of Khivan Woodcarving 1937

Images: sourced from the Mardjani Foundation, Moscow, and the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia

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Strengthen working discipline in collective farms, Tashkent, 1933
central asian soviet posters, uzbekistan art craft tours
Central Asians reading the village notice board

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pink Floyd, the Aral Sea - Louder than Words

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
Cult British group Pink Floyd released its first album in 20 years this month - The Endless River. It entered the Official UK Album Chart at number one.

The album is instrumental except the last track Louder Than Words. The video clip produced to accompany that song includes footage of the Aral Sea.

British production company Hipgnosis, which has worked with Pink Floyd for more than 40 years, filmed in and around Aralsk, Kazakhstan, a former bustling fishing village.

Music video director Aubrey Powell was assisted by Kochegary Studio in Kazakhstan. Powell said that the message of the video is that human actions speak louder than words. "It is more important what you do than what you say...The message of the video concerns the Aral Sea. We touched on environmental issues. We shot wonderful, beautiful shots of the sea, ships at a pier. In the video we want to say: "Let's bring back the sea”. That is we hope that it will come back".

Powell noted that he was familiar with the problems of the Aral Sea. When he suggested using this theme to the members of Pink Floyd, they supported it. "When we talked with David Gilmour, we decided that the video had to draw attention to these issues, but not only from a negative perspective. We wanted to show that maybe we can help bring back the sea.

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
When bad things happen in our lives, one can find something good in them too. It is not necessary to see everything in a bad light. The message of the video is primarily positive. (...)"

"Like all Pink Floyd songs, this composition is also filled with deep meaning and philosophy, he said. The video will deal with two generations – the young and the old. The ones who have never seen the Aral Sea and the ones who told stories about the Aral Sea to their grandchildren". The main characters in the video are local villagers, young and old, who dream of a revival of the sea.

Bruce Pannier of RFE/RFL writes that "the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world until a devastating Soviet experiment led to its drying out. In the 1960s the Soviet Union decided to divert waters from the two big rivers of Central Asia - Amu Darya and Syr Darya - to irrigate fields in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

The diversion of water during Soviet times from Central Asia's two great rivers -- the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya -- into the cotton fields of the region have shrunk the lake to some 10 percent of its original size in less than 100 years.

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
Fishing boats that once plied the Aral Sea are now rusting hulls lying in the desert many kilometers from where the shores of the lake are now.

It was that surreal quality of ships stranded in the emptiness of the desert that appealed to Powell; but as he said, he also wanted to bring an environmental message to people".

Powell said the video is "not so much about the disaster -- that's been written about endlessly -- but more about a generational thing, more about what it means to the younger generation, the children of the impoverished and disenfranchised communities around the Aral Sea that have lost fishing and culture."

Watch Louder Than Words [4:40 mins] and hope that efforts to restore the Aral Sea may bear fruit. (If the clip does not appear on your device, go directly to: ).

Related posts:
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania
Uzbek Jazz is Alive and Well in Tashkent 

Materials source: Rolling Stone magazine
Tengri News Kazakhstan
Bruce Pannier, Central Asia Specialist on RFE/RL

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project

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Lenin Is With Us, 1978. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Readers of this website will know that I have a special interest in Central Asian monumental art, particularly mosaic architectural panels on private and public buildings.

Imagine then my delight in coming across a map of Bishkek's mosaics produced by STAB - School of Theory and Activism Bishkek. This map is the result of a two-year research project which included the attribution and interpretation of the city's Soviet monumental art.

The map includes virtually every major mosaic in Bishkek, located both in the city centre and in suburban areas. Of the seventeen mosaics, six are combined into a walking route. The map, in English and Russian, is accompanied by details about the mosaics and cultural commentaries -  a perfect tool for exploring independently.

STAB wants to draw the attention of Bishkek residents and visitors to the artistic heritage of the socialist modernization project of the 1960s -1980s. As well as offering urban exploration, this project helps preserve these mosaics in Bishkek, since many of them, despite having state protection status, are in poor condition.

(By the way, the last monumental panels were created in post-Soviet times. In 2004 Alexey Kamensky, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, decorated two panels of the academy. Students were involved in firing ceramics in the academy's workshops and installing them on the building).

STAB also runs regular walking tours of the mosaics, in English. You can contact the group via its English website. You can buy the map (about $3) directly from STAB's office. Just call in advance to check opening hours.

Here are some examples of Bishkek's mosaics.

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The Path of Enlightenment, 1978. Photo credit: STAB

The Path of Enlightenment, was designed by Kyrgyz painter Satar Aitiev in 1978. It created a stir in Frunze (the Soviet name for Bishkek) at the time: "It was a great event, a shocking event. It was bold, beautiful, new and entirely different from everything else. We all asked each other the question - how was he allowed to do that? How did the Artists' Union accept it?"(Shailoo Djekshenbaev)

Instead of traditional monumental forms, the imagery has given way to a "painting-like haze". It decorates a campus building of the Kyrgyz National University.

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Female Athletes, 1975. Photo credit: STAB

Many mosaic panels were incorporated into residential buildings in quiet neighbourhoods. Several were created by construction workers themselves, such as the example above, not by members of the official Union of Artists.

Sport was a prominent theme and this image of female athletes, which matched one of male athletes, was created to inspire residents to develop healthy athleticism.

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Radio and Nowadays, 1967   Photo credit: STAB
The panel above, "Radio and Nowadays" is connected to the building's function as a radio centre: radio waves emanate from the figure of a giant who has tamed visible and invisible substances.

Science was one of the favourite subjects of monumental art - graphs, charts and scientific instruments were excellent representations of the triumph of rational knowledge.

This mosaic is made of stone - in  the 1960s pebbles and other materials were significantly cheaper than ceramics and glass. (Cobalt glass was imported from Ukraine during the Soviet period).

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
Detail from Welcoming Guests, 1964. Photo credit: STAB
The detail at left is from the first mosaic that was created in Kyrgyzstan, in 1964, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the accession of Kyrgyzstan to Russia. It is done in the spirit of colourful, socialist realism.

Update December 2014: The Soros Foundation has published a 2015 calendar using images of Bishkek's mosaics. It is available at the STAB office, Bishkek, as are postcard sets of the mosaics.

View the images. (The pdf file may be slow to load, but it is worth the wait).

Materials source: STAB

Related posts:
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #1
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #2
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Kyrgyzstan: Monumental Art in the Provinces 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Skateistan: Kabul's Skate School Turns Five

kabul afghanistan skateboarding central asia, girls sports afghanistan
Getting ready for an outdoor skate day. Image courtesy Skateistan
On October 29, 2009, the NGO Skateistan opened Afghanistan's first skateboard park. A group of 40 Afghan children, including girls and street-working kids, had been skateboarding for many months at an empty Soviet fountain in Kabul, and now had somewhere to call their own.

On November 9, 2014, the five year anniversary of Skateistan Kabul will be celebrated by hundreds of students, staff, alumni, families, officials, community members, and supporters.

Built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee, the Skateistan Kabul "skate school" was designed to be much more than a skatepark, also featuring classrooms, offices, a library, and a multi-sport area. Its goal was to provide free educational and recreational programming to some of the most vulnerable Afghan girls and boys. Skateistan Kabul became a rare, safe space for children to play and learn.

Five years later, Skateistan Kabul has registed more than 1500 children into its award-winning sport and educational programming, and has more than 400 children attending each week. Dozens of Afghan youth have graduated from being Skateistan students to volunteers and staff, leading the next generation of Kabul skateboarders. More than 40% of Skateistan students are girls.

afghanistan central asia sport, skateboarding kabul afghanistan
Go Skateboarding Day 2012 - Nawab, kickflipping at left, was killed in a suicide blast in 2012. Image courtesy Skateistan

The 2014 anniversary event will include skateboarding demonstrations by the girls and boys of Skateistan, as well as various student performances (theatre, singing, film, speeches).

The ten most iconic photos from the past five years will also be on exhibition. Skateistan Kabul's success has since inspired replica projects in northern Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa.

A 320-page colour book Skateistan: The Tale of Skateboarding in Afghanistan features stunning, previously unpublished photographs accompanied by essays, interviews and personal stories from Skateistan's founder, Australian Oliver Percovich, and the young people who have gone from being students to teachers in the skate park and classrooms.

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Skateboarding in the former gardens of Kabul's Royal Palace. Image Skateistan
This is such an uplifting story. Consider buying the book for yourself and additional copies for friends and family.  It is not only beautifully produced, the design and contents are very cool. All proceeds go directly back to Skateistan.

Update: Listen to Oliver Perovich's interview on ABC radio about SkateistanIt's 18 minutes and was recorded 5 April 2020.

Related posts: Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Skateistan - Empowering Afghan Youth Through Skateboarding