Monday, June 15, 2020

Can a Beloved Tashkent Theatre Resist the Wrecking Ball?

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
It is alarming that Tashkent's legendary Ilkhom Theatre - the first independent and experimental theatre in the USSR -  could be the latest victim of Uzbekistan's unbridled urban redevelopment. 

Housed in the basement of a building designed by prominent Soviet modernist architect, Richard Vladimirovich Bleze, on prime real estate in the centre of the city, the theatre is under threat.

Many Uzbek Journeys clients attended theatre performances, concerts, film screenings and exhibitions here. They were surprised and delighted by the innovative performances, staging and atmosphere. 

The theatre company tours abroad to rave reviews, garnering international awards including the prestigious Prince Claus award for its achievements in the field of culture. Ilkhom has been described as "a tiny, bright and incredibly unlikely beacon of light". 

Actor Tyler Polumsky reflected "It’s hard to imagine how the theatre would continue without that space".  But there is also something deeper. Actors believe that the squeaky, time-worn planks of the Ilkhom stage are as integral to the theatre as its repertoire, its audience, and its school. "The Ilkhom is years of psychological, spiritual energy swallowed up in that space, in the atmosphere of that building," says Polumsky. "Moving it elsewhere is out of the question, something irreplaceable would be lost". 

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
Scene from "Happy are the Poor"

During Tashkent's lockdown, Ilkhom has demonstrated its creativity organizing high standard online plays, concerts, book readings all with the aim of defending the theatre as a cultural icon of the city.  Despite the harsh impact of quarantine on actors and theatre staff, these performances have been witty, professional and at times profound.

The talk of demolition has been brewing since February. In the article below, managing editor of Global Voices, Filip Noubel, describes the situation in an article published in February 2020. At the end of this article are some suggestions how you can help.

An iconic independent theatre in Uzbekistan's capital is threatened with expulsion, revealing tensions among political and economic elites as Central Asia's most populous country engages in bumpy reforms. As Tashkent changes rapidly, a public campaign is underway to save one of the country's most beloved independent cultural spaces.

From its very beginning, the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent distinguished itself as an unusual place. The theatre's name means “inspiration” in Uzbek, and it was founded in 1976 by Mark Weil, an artistic director who managed something quite astonishing: to some extent, he was able to avoid the pervasive censorship of the time.

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
Mark Weil - actor, director and founder of the Ilkhom theatre.
This photo greets the audience as you walk down the stairs to the theatre.

Under Soviet rule, culture was considered another domain of communist ideology, and its purpose was to support the ruling party's line. In a system without a market economy, operating without state subsidies was close to impossible, but Weil found a way — all while retaining a remarkable degree of independence as an avant-garde art director.

The situation changed significantly when Uzbekistan declared independence in 1991: unfettered capitalism, along with unprecedented freedom of expression, swept the country. Many state supported cultural institutions went out of business. Weil once again worked his magic and was able to raise the profile of the Ilkhom Theatre as an renowned space for experimental drama. The theatre was awarded international prizes and managed to survive economically thanks to a mix of grants, devoted theatregoers, its own café and drama school, and support from overseas.

As Uzbekistan changed its language policy and promoted the use of Uzbek against the previously privileged Russian language, the Ilkhom Theatre also became a rallying point for intellectual Russian speakers, regardless of their ethnicity.

The relative freedom of expression experienced by most post-Soviet states in the 1990s ground to a halt in Uzbekistan after a series of bombings in 1999, and was further curtailed after the 2005 Andijan unrest.

While the Ilkhom Theatre managed to preserve some freedom, a huge blow came on September 7, 2007 when Weil was assassinated. The circumstances of his murder remain murky to this day. While his killers were apprehended, some observers situate their motives in the context of a conservative, predominantly Muslim society. For example Weil's play Imitation of the Koran, based on a poem by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, provoked controversy in Uzbek society— as did Weil's own homosexuality.

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
Poster for Imitation of the Koran

Remarkably, the actors of the Ilkhom Theatre decided to perform on the day after Weil's murder. They argued that “the show must go on,” contributing to yet another legend surrounding the name Ilkhom.

Enter the Bulldozers

A new chapter commenced in Uzbekistan's history when President Islam Karimov, who had ruled uncontested for nearly three decades, died in September 2016 and was succeeded by former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The country rapidly embarked on a programme of political and economic reforms with mixed results. While there has been liberalisation in some areas, corruption, lack of access to justice, and censorship still affect Uzbek society deeply.

The Ilkhom Theatre may have survived censorship and economic upheaval, but now it faces another foe: massive urban redevelopment. The unbridled urbanisation of recent years has destroyed many of the Uzbek capital's landmark buildings from the Soviet period. One example was the demolition of the House of Cinema (Дом Кино) in January 2018, a Soviet-era building which hosted international film festivals. The government justifies these moves as progress, part of a move to transform the capital under the banner of  Tashkent City, a US$3 billion mega project that has turned large parts of city centre into a building site.

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
Tashkent's famous House of Cinema, designed by Rafael Khairutdinov, was demolished in 2018

The Ilkhom Theatre occupies part of the ground floor and the basement of a larger building which also houses the Shodlik Palace hotel. On February 7, the new owners of the building, the Olefos Plaza company, sent a letter to the Ilkhom Theatre, informing them to vacate the premises due to reconstruction works.

The theatre had a special agreement with the previous owner guaranteeing a rent free lease until 2023, with an automatic extension of the contract for another ten years. However, that contract was superseded in 2017 when the government took over the building and sold it to the Ofelos Plaza company. Following this announcement, supporters of the theatre as well as its staff launched several online campaigns, including the hashtag #saveilkhom on Facebook and Twitter.

A bilingual website has also been launched to garner local and international support and host petitions. But it seems this is not just an opposition movement. Unusually, one of the voices calling for the preservation of the theatre is that of Saida Mirziyoyeva, daughter of the current president. Mirziyoyeva, who serves as deputy director of the government's foundation for mass media development, wrote the following on February 11:

"I'd like to comment on the situation around the Ilkhom Theater. I myself am a fan of the theater and want to assure everyone that we won't forsake it! Ilkhom is the pride of our cultural life!"

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
Exterior view of the complex - the Ilkhom theatre is in the smaller building on the left. On the right is a hotel.

While it seems that Mirziyoyeva's statement might have given the theatre a chance to stay where it has existed since 1976, staff at the theatre remain cautious. According to Deputy Director Irina Bharat, the new plan of the building's owners is to reconstruct the whole premises over a period of two years and add new floors, meaning that: "As we understand, that they will need to dig a pit, meaning that our theatre will be destroyed".

Uzbek documentary photographer and filmmaker Timur Karpov told GlobalVoices that the story was far from over: "She [Mirziyoyeva] as well as her father, are image makers, they need a positive image among the public. Now all depends on how far both sides can go. There is a real chance that Ilkhom can survive, but if the authorities start pressuring the management of the theatre, they will have to give in. They'll need to come to a compromise and find a new building. That whole process will take years".

Ashot Danielyan, a poet and rock musician who organises events at the theatre, believes that the theatre requires formal protection from the state, rather than depending on the whims of the building's owners:

"The only way to save the theatre is to make it untouchable, as a place of historical and cultural significance. “Ilkhom” means inspiration. For me, it's one of the most inspirational places in Tashkent. Since 2007, it's where we've been organising the country's only festival of rock music. Without this theatre, the entire alternative music scene could disappear; for many young bands, it's the only available venue for performances".

tashkent ilkhom theatre, mark weil founder tashkent ilkhom theatre, save ilkhom theatre tashkent uzbekistan
At a rally to try to save Ilkhom, this young girl holds a poster"Tashkent Needs the Ilkhom Theatre".
Image: Rustam Khusanov

How can you support Ilkhom?

Many prominent directors, actors and singers from around the world have written to the Uzbek government urging it to bestow the status of cultural and intangible heritage on the theatre.  Embassies in Tashkent continue to provide support for Ilkhom's online activities during lockdwon.

At the time of writing - June 2020 - it is unclear what will happen.

As ordinary people we can show our support by adding our names to the #SaveIlkhom website, by reposting this article and, if there is an Uzbek embassy or consulate where you live (see list) writing and urging the government to save this cultural heritage. Without the Ilkhom theatre, Tashkent will lose its soul.

Related posts:
Tashkent: A Night at the Opera
Uzbekistan as Film Location
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent

Monday, June 1, 2020

Central Asian Art Bazaar - Supporting Contemporary Artists

Three Bishkek-based artists/activists have started a remarkable online marketplace for Central Asian contemporary art. The article below, written by the initiators, was first published on TransitoryWhite on 14 May 2020. Through this marketplace I have been able to buy pieces by some of Central Asia's best known artists as well as by emerging artists. 

At the bottom I explain how, with little Russian, I have been able to do so. Do please read the article, perhaps over a cup of green tea, to understand the aims of this innovative bazaar.

By Meder Akhmetov, Darina Manasbek, Philipp Reichmuth 

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Valery Ruppel, "New Forms of Tulips or Political Botanic, dedicated to the 2005 Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution.

For Central Asian artists, the coronavirus lockdowns promised to be a time of dread and survival. However, the time of lockdowns and isolation turned out to be a time charged with emergent power, giving birth to a unique emerging situation.

This is Art Bazaar, a social media experiment with 1000+ participants launched in mid-April and currently run by architect/artist Meder Akhmetov, artist Darina Manasbek, and consultant/activist Philipp Reichmuth. Apart from a social media experiment, it is also a successful informal art market and a means for artists to survive the crisis.

Technically, Art Bazaar is just a closed Facebook group (Художественный базар), modelled on a similar group that emerged two weeks earlier in Moscow. In its function, Art Bazaar is a platform for artists to sell their artworks for low prices.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Saule Suleimenova, “Three Brides”. Plastic bags on a polyethylene base,

However, what is more important than the pure commerce is the community-building and networking aspect. The crisis threatens to drive many artists into depression and destitution, and for us as moderators of Art Bazaar - in particular for Meder as the original initiator - the plight of our friends and colleagues was a strong personal reason to experiment with new formats.

Art Bazaar operates with a few simple rules, that can be summarized as follows:

1. "Sell three - buy one": if you sold three works, you buy one for yourself from another artist.

2. "Bought one - sell two": make sure that you contribute to the market yourself, and if you have nothing to sell - contribute in some other way. 

3. "Sell ten - donate one": if you sold ten works, you donate one of your choice to a joint Art Bazaar collection.

These simple rules encourage participation and redistribution. Young members as well as established artists with international names are contributing, and experimental and conceptual works are sold alongside more traditional fine art. Sometimes coveted works suddenly become accessible for collectors and fellow artists, while sometimes established artists post rare, unusual and experimental works that shows their own exploration of their subjects.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Said Atabekov, Photo “The Veteran of the Ogedei Front

But the major transformative impact of Art Bazaar comes from its low-price policies. This makes art accessible not only from western passers-by and local elite, but also for the fellow artists and people with moderate income. There are price thresholds of 1000 som ($13) for digital works, 5000 som ($65) for works on paper and 20.000 som ($250) for all other works.

It is very common that artwork is sold for 500 som ($6). Bishkek-based curator Ulan Djaparov contributed a text, reflecting on how this sum represents the crisis management aspect of the group, seeing how it is approximately the sum that a Bishkek family needs to feed itself for a day or two; the manuscript promptly was sold for 500 som.

A new format inevitably raises many questions. For example, the initial participants were all from Kyrgyzstan, but soon Kazakh and Uzbek artists joined, raising questions of money transfer, logistics and currencies - sales are mostly still denominated in Kyrgyz som, even by artists from other countries. The low-price policy has also challenged established notions of how art should be priced and sold.

Apart from traditional formats, such as limited series, artists are experimenting with digital reproductions and selling very large series of up to 500 copies for very low prices to make them accessible. Sometimes this puts artists at odds with the international art market that operates on scarcity, and also with buyers with larger purchasing power, calling for emergent solutions.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Dilyara Kaipova untitled soft pastel on paper

The "sell ten - donate one" rule has led to a slowly growing Art Bazaar collection. It now includes works by significant artists such as Valery Ruppel and Marat Raiymkulov (Kyrgyzstan), Elena and Viktor Vorobyev, Said Atabekov and Saule Suleimenova (Kazakhstan) or Dilyara Kaipova (Uzbekistan), as well as many others.

From simple beginnings, the collection has begun to turn to reflect the processes and formats of Central Asian contemporary art since the 2000s. Valery Ruppel donated two sheets from his seminal 2006 "Political Botany of Kyrgyzstan" after the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Saule Suleimenova, contribution was originally intended as her 2016 entry into the annual Bishkek First of April Competition of Contemporary Art, while Marat Rayimkulov’s autobiographical notebooks reflect upon his own trajectory as an artist. As soon as the current COVID-19 restrictions make it possible, it is planned to show the Art Bazaar as an exhibition of its own, at least in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Dinara Nuger's felted work "Astana"

The discussions that have begun to emerge within and around Art Bazaar suggest that there is a demand for accessible spaces for discussing art. We see that the community can create self-organized, inclusive art markets for and by artists, whose dynamic does not depend on external actors and gatekeepers. Barriers to participation are deliberately low, moderation is very light, and there are no fees for participation or sales.

Art Bazaar is part of a broader phenomenon of similar groups that have appeared during the COVID-19 crisis. The original was "The Ball and the Cross" (Шар и Крест, after the Chesterton novel), set up April 4 by gallerist Maxim Boxer. It was a hit from the start, transforming the Moscow art market. We (the team behind Art Bazaar) joined this group early, but it  seemed to us that the Moscow audience was not particularly interested in the Central Asian artists’ contributions, their subjects and techniques. Practically no Central Asian works were sold and, consequently, their visibility was pretty low.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Nadezhda Kononova-Ruppel's bracelet of lapis lazuli, mother of pearl and malachite

Out of this frustration, Meder decided to open Art Bazaar as a separate Central Asian group two weeks later (April 16). A similar example of such emergence is "Salt and Pepper" (Соль и Перец), set up April 24 in Ukraine by collectors and gallerist Marat Guelman and Evgeny Karas. It is now the largest such group, with over 10.000 members, and it is distinguished by a 10% transaction fee that goes to the moderators. Art Bazaar has not professionalized to this extent, and it might never do so, seeing that the informality of the bazaar metaphor does not lend itself well to institutionalization.

In comparison, Art Bazaar with its now 1200 members seems modest, but its impact needs to be seen in context. Firstly, Central Asia is a much poorer region, and the more remarkable it is that suddenly there is at least a temporary solution to some problems of survival. Secondly, we see artists empowering themselves in exploring the concept of an artist-driven market for Central Asian contemporary art.

Unlike Moscow or Kiev, in Central Asia a contemporary art market in the Western sense, with galleries, collectors, curators and museums of contemporary art, has never really taken off. Institutions have been eagerly awaited, always been expected just around the corner, sometimes launched. But in spite of the efforts of different generations of art managers, curators and gallery owners, the effort to establish formal institutions has not yet had a broad impact.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Viktoria Tsoy's oil painting "Yurts"

Maybe this was also because such an art market assumes the power to be in the hand of someone else - gatekeepers, galleries, critics, and other arbiters in the market - and it is a place of formal, sometimes cold relations. Proponents of such an art market often looked with disdain upon the informal artist underground, comparing it with unflattering imagery such as the kitchens of Soviet apartment blocks.

In Art Bazaar, however, the underground has struck back. Social media has allowed turning the market into an informal place, where you can meet, as if for a tea, with established and emerging artists, share artworks without being shy, and earn some money doing it. This informal character seems to matter to the participants, as does the sudden accessibility of the big names; as one participant puts it, "when you’re new, and one of these established artists buys one of your works, you feel like you’re flying" - not a small thing at the times of psychological pressure.

It seems to work - based on what we see and what artists write themselves, we estimate at least 150 transactions over four weeks. This is a small number for an art market, but a revolutionary number in Central Asia.

But Art Bazaar is an emergent phenomenon for us as well, with little theory behind it. We assume that it is precisely this informality that allows Art Bazaar to empower the artists themselves, whom the crisis had put on the edge, forcing them to pull themselves out of the swamp by their own hair. We do not know where this will be going; there is no goal of institutionalization, or even of continued existence after the crisis.

central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Beibit Asemkul's photograph "Infinity"

The Central Asian experience is that institutionalization often leads to establishing control, and the privatization of what used to be a common, shared resource by a few powerful players. In a way, rather than be taken over by institutional players and either privatized or turned into a Western-style surplus-generating instrument, it might be preferable to let the bazaar slow down again when the crisis is over. But the solution to this will emerge as well; we believe that much of the impact has been made already.

How to buy:

1.   Open a Facebook account for free if you don't already have one.
2.   Visit the Facebook site художественный базар
3.   Click the Join the Group button and complete. You will receive a confirmation within 24 hours.
4.   Google Translate is your friend. There should also be a See Translation link within the post.
5.   Scroll through the pieces submitted. Sometimes the price can be confusing. Most are listed in Kyrgyz som, exchange rate 1USD = 70 Kyrgyz som (approximately), some in US$. Works are also divided thematically - look at the Popular Topics in Posts on the right-hand side
6.   Contact the seller using the Message link at the top of the listing to express your interest directly with the artist and check the price. It is fine to write in English. The artist will reply and also advise the cost of packing and postage. I strongly recommend opting for EMS trackable postage rather than regular airmail.
7.   You then pay the artists via Western Union, World Remit, Pay Send etc or direct bank transfer. Once the artist receives the funds, she/he will contact you and advise when the piece is posted.

Note: All images sourced from the Art Bazaar.
central asian art bazaar, kazakh kyrgyz uzbek modern artists, central asian contemporary art
Askhat Akhmediyarov’s sketch book for the Ayan exhibition in Astana.