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Interview with Maria Zhumagulova about Akzhana Abdalieva’s oeuvre

Мария Жумагулова

Here is what a well-known fine art expert of Republic of Kazakhstan, Member of Kazakhstan Artists' Union Maria Zhumagulova says about Akzhana Abdalieva’s oeuvre.






Akzhana has just arrived from Turkey, where she got her doctoral degree and now she makes her first exhibition in Kazakhstan. Do you think what it would be for the cultural life of Kazakhstan?



I think that to speak about the level of entire cultural life of Kazakhstan still somewhat premature. Akzhana is a native of Kazakhstan, she has got Kazakh roots, and in this context I would like to recall what our President speaks of Eurasianism, we are Eurasians, and Akzhana came from Turkey which also Eurasia, but closer to Europe. Turkey is more influenceв by Europe that we are here . Unfortunately, we have only a few professional European art education specialists. And, to some extent, Akzhana who got education in Turkey can be attributed to one of a few such specialists who contribute their oeuvre, figuratively speaking, as "infusion of fresh blood" in our art that lives according to its already traditional laws.



It’s an interesting thought, in fact, she turns out to be a living example of the embodiment of Eurasianism, even two of its branches, Kazakhstan and Turkey, which is closer to Europe. How do you think people accept her in Kazakhstan? In Europe her art works are well-known, some of them are in private collections.



I suppose in Kazakhstan people’s opinion about her will be ambiguous. Why? I've seen her art works – one can feel inner freedom in them... You see, we have a different mentality. Let's just say that our artists, representatives of the older generation, who have passed the stage of development of Soviet society, they have a different perception of life in general. For artists who have Soviet experience, it is very difficult to fit into the contemporary reality, because in Soviet times it was completely different, but there have been dramatic changes in the last 20 years: in psychology, perception, and so on. Why is our artists’ life is so difficult? Why is the art market always slow, why did it not move? Mainly because they (artists) are screwed-up, they believe that looking at the picture as a commodity is generally blasphemous. But the paintings with their artistic value can be in commercial demand.

And Akzhana just turned out not to have lived in the Soviet era, she is not burdened by these complexes, she has come here, and she has this inner freedom and expresses it. So when she exhibits her art works, they are hardly smoothly fit in here.

Her art works of the first period is distinguished by tendency to the hedonistic themes, they express feelings of a young girl who enjoys life and she slops out all her joy to the canvas, cheerfully and relaxed. There are some erotic moments in her pictures, but without vulgarity, without any extremes. That is, she is an artist who enjoys life and expresses it in her works. On the other hand, in second period works we see some change. We should remember one very important mission of art in general - it should influence mindset of the society. While in Soviet times, we complained that ideology "presses" on freedom of a creative person to express himself, but today, we can say we are in a spiritual "vacuum". It became unpopular to talk about any moral values, criteria of spirituality are absolutely vague - and hence, while material well-being is increasing, we are witnessing dramatic upheavals taking place in the society. This includes break in continuity of generations, breakdown of family ties (divorce, abandoned children, "free love", etc.). Normal human relationships are disrupted ... and in this sense, Akzhana is one of a few artists who in her work addresses these issues virtually undiscovered in modern art. In her compositions, she exposes these themes. Her oeuvre, its facets - this is a slight degree of irony, grotesque, skepticism, empathy and affection ... Despite the fact that she is quite young, Akzhana is able to see the psychological nuances in relationship of her characters. It should be noted that there is something extraordinary in her oeuvre.

I must say that contemporary artists have become more advanced, globalization has expanded their capabilities, they monitor everything that happens in the world of art. They are not confused with innovations, they take it properly. But the older generation is more suspicious to it.



All is quite clear with the older generation of artists. Do you see difference in works of art by Akzhana and Kazakhstan artists of new generation, which in this case did not study in Europe?



In fact, our advanced young artists somehow believe that painting is obsolete, that it is difficult to express contemporary problems in painting. Therefore, today's young artists have gone into conceptual art, so-called contemporary art, i.e. art that does not involve recourse to painting, working with colors. There may be objects of the real world, anything but painting. Therefore, we have many young talented artists, but they practically do not reflect modern reality through painting with canvas and oil. These artists can be counted on fingers.



So, it means that Akzhana joined the ranks of this small number of painters, didn’t she?



There are artists who are looking for new forms and approaches. But here is another thing. I myself arranged quite a lot of exhibitions sponsored by the Foundation of the first President, there are many good, talented artists, a lot of interesting art-making and flexible solutions- but all of them stop, slow down to express modern trends, modern life with painterly means. They anyhow get stuck on traditional genres: landscape, still life but they are afraid to approach a thematic picture.

And Akzhana crossed that line. And she works precisely in the thematic pictures.

Artists who raise contemporary themes by means of painting tools are quite rare, and therefore Akzhana’s oeuvre is timely. And she boldly addresses this topic. Modern reality is quite contradictory - first, it has a lot of positive things: know-how, technological revolution, just note what kind of life we have now, what technologies we possess, everything changes almost every minute, and everything is “okay”. On the other hand – there are many dramatic moments that occur in society. To take up this theme an artist should have a very active social position, he should be observant enough to capture some important points, and it is rather complicated for young people to look at the modern phenomenon. You need to analyze, you need to pick things out. Another thing is when time passes, and we're looking at everything as if from a distance as they say: "Great things are seen at a distance." Things that were changed and great things are seen at a distance as well as deficiencies. And when you live in it, it is quite difficult to abstract, step back from it and see it with an outside look, a person must have some philosophical mindset, this is not for everyone. Or it should be a person mature enough, an aged person with more life experience, creative, professional, philosophical baggage - all this to assess adequately convey. Therefore, these themes are rather deep, it is not given to everyone.

Akzhana is making these first steps, the fact she has already made her first step is very positive in itself.


It turns out that either a person gifted with philosophical worldview or mature and experienced person is able to successfully investigate complex social realm. And Akzhana who explores surrounding reality by means of painting, stands out from still so small group of artists, doesn’t she?


Many articles were written on this subject, including me, two years ago a forum of Artists’ Union of Kazakhstan took place, last year we held the art symposium of Kazakhstan artists, there were a lot of serious, global art projects. And all the time we – fine art experts and critics - appealed to artists to penetrate into contemporary reality. But progress is still very little, the steps are a few.





It turns out that artists who explore their surrounding reality by means of painting are very rare, aren’t they? But Salvador Dali in his time said: "Artist, paint!"


But they do not work in painting. They explore their surrounding reality, they show these positives and negatives - but it seems to them that it is not possible to do in picturesque boarders, so they go into another realm of creativity. That's fine by itself, this is modern means of art, but to express these universal ideas in traditional painting - it is worth it!

Imagine that contemporary artists do not work with art materials, they can work with garbage from dumps, with some thrown objects, with everything - but not with art materials!


You see something original in the style of Akzhana, don’t you? How would you describe her style?


Akzhana is in the process of seeking things and she changes her angle of view in this search. In the first stage of her oeuvre, she has some echoes of Modigliani. And that's all right because any artist refers to that which he was impressed with at his early stage.

And then let’s go back to what I have said about Eurasianism. It feels in her style. First, we can perceive that she was an artist from the East. What characterizes the East? It's always exoticism, bright local colors. She almost does not mix paints, she works in pure color. Then oriental art is not marked by appeal to volume of view, to perspective. Oriental art is mainly planar, it is mostly decorative – and Akzhana has these issues. And this linearity which she used especially in the first stage is very active. All this is typical for the stylistic manners of the East. And then, of course, characters themselves - purely oriental type, they are not Europeans. But at the same time she often uses a planar composition not because she can not handle volume. It is felt that she is at home with complex perspective, she is able to work in volume especially in her last art works. At the same canvas she can have stylized and flat lines, while volume may appear, and it appears in some places, sometimes it disappears. Three-quarter turn, full face, profile – she has all this, it all is very free to present, she artistically owns these techniques. Then, I would say she has got quite complex compositions because her background is always very complicated. You know, both her background and foreground are active. But there is some danger in it - not everyone copes with it. Because when you start to step one, it begins to suppress the other. Therefore, one must be able to comply with this harmony. But she is capable to stop in a place where necessary. It is on the one hand.

On the other hand, she especially in the later works has complex meditations, philosophy, even dramatism - and again, she can do it with the use of pure color but at the same time somewhere she blotches cold tones. She is able to save connection of color palette with a frame of mind, with her spirits.

In her initial works hedonic motives prevail.

Her works are very positive, very cheerful, they would generally look great in any interior, which is also important. Because you know, in the Soviet period there didn’t have such culture - as if the painting was purely for artists. Painters paint, draw, and they think that at best their works, if successful, will be hung in a museum, or they will stay somewhere in an artist’s studio.

But now, finally, this culture came here, and we can look at the picture as an element of the interior, it is very important. In recent years it has become fashionable which came to us from the West that we can see pictures in any office, bank and residential interior design. People learn to take a picture, on the one hand, as a decorative piece, on the other hand, they fill the interior with certain mood. But not all paintings can be put into the interior. Here for example, now I remember even works by Van Gogh, his masterpieces – when you look at them, they affect heart and soul, but not many of his paintings can be hung in home interior, they are rather works for a museum. Because they cause a range of complex human emotions, but we still want joy, be positive. I think a lot of Akzhana’s art works are positive, cheerful, and they make a very good effect on the interior with their structure, composition.


That is, in essence Akzhana implements a principle claimed in Soviet times that art serves people. That art can serve people not only in museums, it can really serve us, that is, to raise our spirits in real life.


Yes, it is a democratic principle. Finally, time comes - there was a period when it was believed that the rich have such a "trick", people saw it in movies, they had such a fashion - to show their status. But over time an opinion, after all, appeared that the middle class began to present, to acquire paintings - that is, it's not mere fashion, it is a necessity. This is another level of thinking and perception. Paintings, in fact, begin to serve people.


Akzhana is Doctor of painting, she can teach, even become a Professor. Do you think she is capable to educate artists in Kazakhstan? Does she have anything to teach them?


Here in Kazakhstan, there is no such title "Doctor of Painting," but actually it is equal to Professor of Painting rank in higher education institutions of art.

I would say it is fine that we have teachers with great creative experience, and they can give our students academic knowledge that neither has been canceled nor excluded. Because each artist is in need for this grasp.

But, on the other hand we need to have such young teachers as Akzhana who can provide innovation in addition to academic principles. Because not everyone can be an artistic experimenter and step over a barrier - especially those who are trained in traditional academic painting - and suddenly they need to move beyond themselves, make a total inside change, not everyone is able to do it. And so young people lack such guidance.

I think Akzhana is a person who combines all this in herself, she can be useful for our young and rising generation.


It is interesting to note that it turns out that Akzhana in her persona embodies something new in painting, and she can bring this newness in her to the younger generation of artists, can’t she?


Yes, because an Austrian artist came to take part in our forum, he visited the Academy of Arts named after Zhurgenov, studied the way we teach students.

You know, the Europeans are hang-loose, and he did not hesitate, he honestly said that he thinks about us: "You do teach the same way as 100 years ago!"

We have, unfortunately, a lot of archaism, we are lagging behind somewhat. I do not exclude academic school, I plead for it, but at the same time we live in the twenty-first century - so we need to change, rebuild the whole system of art education. And we need staff to do it, such people like Akzhana are capable to do it, they learned abroad so they have somewhat different perceptions. It is very important that we could have continuity of generations. This will produce new artistic quality.


Do you think our artists have future here in Kazakhstan or they have to turn regard on foreign judges?


You know, real talent is always custom made so we can’t speak about talented people in the global scale. In each generation there were artists worthy to enter the international arena. For example, Shardenov Zhanatay who received international fame only after his death. Or as happened in our country and Elena Obraztsova said about it: "In our country, to become famous it is enough to die or emigrate." It's sad, of course.

In comparison with the Soviet period, when artists were limited in freedom of creativity by reason of ideological barriers imposed by themes that the former regime forced, today the younger generation in this sense is given complete freedom, they just do not have boundaries in anything: abroad is open, they can learn anywhere they want and all is available for them. The whole point is that they can not always take advantage of this opportunity. Often, this occurs due to the fact that they are not trained either professionally or internally.

Of course, it is possible all the more so as people in the West take interest in our art very much. Why? Because even if you look at plots, we are already different - we have different life, different mentality, it is always interesting. But only plot, you know ... It was such a glut when "Iron Curtain" fell down - in the West people were totally interested in all Russian things, all Soviet things, to Central Asia, etc.

But as time passed, and this interest languished, because at first it was exotic, then this was not enough. The interest is necessary to be supported with other aspects: an artist should be innovative, there should be an experiment, constant search.

So I do not think it will be on the global scale, but these talents have been and always will be.


And how can Western art lovers learn about our artists? Are they showing interest in our exhibitions, or are there any representatives of Western art agencies which go to show? Do we have a "warning system" for our talents?


Here in Kazakhstan we almost do not have art market, even the Russians complain of it, it has become difficult with art market generally in the world

The Russians say that they do not have art market although Russia has always been more dynamic than our country. You know, here in Kazakhstan all is going in different ways, unpredictable. For example, in nineteen nineties Richard Spooner, an American collector visited us. In fact, that’s thanks to him a glut in the market occurred - he saw our beautiful artists, though, you see: there is no prophet in his own country. All that we have, we do not value, it should be seen from the opposite side. And then remember the 1990s – at that time people were not interested in art at all. And when he began to watch, go to exhibitions, museums, acquire pictures - he supported our artists financially very well. He bought paintings of young artists, he saw, distinguished some talented people, and by the way, artists who he supported and then they developed because it was both financial and spiritual support for them. Then they started to make new creations, then they started to export their works overseas.

That is, there are a lot of ways, and now we have Internet, a personal initiative of the artist, sometimes a producer helps an artist – everyone finds out his own way. Some receive help from a counselor, some – from a producer, some use Internet - in short, all ways are different.

In recent years we have many different art projects in Kazakhstan, and it has become a very good practice. Where was art exhibited earlier, during the Soviet time? Only in the museum, there was the only site. Now we have a lot of sites, we have many private galleries in Almaty and each of them arranges some projects. Sometimes these galleries are taken abroad, the Foundation of the first President is working, i.e. we have a lot of people who are engaged in this process. Many kinds of competitions are held. So the ways are various, but it all depends on the artist. On his activity. On his awareness.


But though there is still no formed art market, isn’t it?


You see, we have a product. But we don’t have a demand. You see, our people are not used to buy paintings. Most art has always been elite. This is basically a narrow circle of connoisseurs. And when you consider that the population in Kazakhstan is relatively small for such a country - in short, we have a very narrow circle of connoisseurs. In the first period, paintings were mostly purchased by foreigners, then all started to improve, we have only a few true collectors.


Tell me please, besides private galleries and collectors, besides the Foundation of the First President is there any system of promoting our talented people abroad before they died or they were accidentally "come across" by western collectors?


If we talk about public institutions, of course, it is the prerogative of Ministry of Culture. But it is interesting that recently the minister of culture did a report on what has been done on "Cultural Heritage" program, and there was much mentioned in the report, in fact, very much. The minister of culture told about archaeological excavations and restoration, touring abroad, quite a lot of things in all fields: book industry, and monuments are placed, however, only a few. But it is in the field of art that almost nothing has been done of all that the Minister listed. There was nothing to name. That is, for some reason, this area is somehow ignored.

Personally, I myself was a member of OSCE summit in Astana, which was organized by our President in December, there were many participants from abroad there. And I've noticed a significant moment - there was no representative of the creative unions, I was the only one who represented the Union of Kazakhstan Artists. There was nobody from the Union of Composers, writers, no one. In general, in financing culture we see a principle of "leftovers" as in Soviet times (i.e., support out of funds that were left after distribution of funds for all other industries that were considered more important in terms of government – note by Zh.D.) because this situation unfortunately remains the same. Least of all money in the state budget is allocated for culture. Therefore, public support does not count. So private initiative is of much importance.


Mrs. Zhumagulova, a clear failure of fine arts in has been shaped up in our conversation. Do you think it is necessary now?


You know, 100 years ago someone cried out that painting is dead! But it has safely lived for more 100 years. I think that is important, not form, and content. That so called "contemporary art" is probably now in demand, you know why? Even using this unusual material through which they appeal to people, they see what they do. If it wakes up person’s thought, encourages him to think and make a difference in his live, then no matter what material is used. And "contemporary art" have a right to exist, it does raise very profound issues.

And the same is in painting. I think that painting will never get old. Another thing is that "contemporary art" is new anyway, and its technological and material possibilities are unlimited. You can find something new every day. It is more difficult to achieve the goal with traditional material because it seems that all has been done, it’s hard to come up with something new. But this is possible.

So, I think painting is alive and will live. I think it's fun to work with paints, paints themselves always act on a person. It is color, it always affects a person emotionally. There is some aesthetics in painting. But in "contemporary art" one can find a piece of wise sense, but there can be no aesthetic!

Painting has positive effect on a person with its pictorial means, because there is perspective, there is air, has an atmosphere, the play of light and shadow. There is a play of angles, a play of volumes, there are a lot of things - so art is inexhaustible. Anyway, the whole thing in the artist.


Yes, the art - it is not about "what", it is about "how." And not only "contemporary art" can be relevant, but also painting?




What would you wish Akzhana in her oeuvre, on what issues she needs to pay attention?


What can I wish her? I watched her in the beginning, now it is her second stage, and she has already presented some new things, I advise her not to stop and constantly look for something new.

There is a danger for artists, they try to find some kind of their own way, their own style and it is good, of course. But an artist should constantly look for some new ideas, not to stop, i.e. Akzhana’s task now is not to lose this activity for search, have constant thirst for creativity. In general, this is probably the most important thing.

She has the potential, but it can fade out if you do not endlessly make it a big fuss. You need always to be creatively active, perhaps it is the main thing. And everything else, when you have this activity, this desire for creativity, everything else comes later in the process of search.


Mrs. Zhumagulova, thank you very much for your interview!

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