Rapidly gaining widespread attention in recent years, Almagul Menlibayeva’s work has been exhibited at institutions around the world, from M HKA, Antwerp, to the 18th Sydney Biennale. Her work touches on global issues of environmental and socio-political concern, but has its own distinctive aesthetic. The artist masterfully combines Asian motifs with elements of contemporary fashion photography and the visual devices of the latest video art.
Almagul studied decorative and applied arts in her native Kazakhstan. Beginning her artistic practice with painting, she quickly found it to be an insufficient medium for the task she set out to tackle. Realising that she knew very little about her native land and the history of its people, she decided to travel around her vast homeland in order to research its local character and communicate the lifestyle of its remote populace to a wider audience. Her journey took her from the Oriental mythology of Southern Kazakhstan to the nomadic traditions of the steppe and finally to explorations of the remnants of its Soviet past.
Questions of self-identification, such as ‘what is Kazakhstan’ and ‘what it is to be Kazakh’, prevailed in the mind of the recently sovereign nation. Almagul was one of a generation of artists from the 1990s who sought to find a distinct voice for Central Asia through the visual devices of contemporary media. Like many of her peers, she found video and photography better suited to convey the context of a given moment and relaying numerous narratives in a single shot or a single minute of film. Her early videos, such as Apa and Steppen Baroque (both 2003), explore ancient esoteric beliefs, their transformation through Islam and the relevance of this symbiosis in the collective unconscious of present-day Kazakhs. In Apa, for example, the artist explores the issues of lineage and the ancient regard for the forefathers. She replaces the father figure with the mother figure, apa means mother in Kazakh, and traces the genealogy back seven steps in order to find the ultimate mother by calling out her name seven times, the repetitive recitation of which is reminiscent of a Sufi dervish’s ecstatic meditation.
Almagul often makes photographs from her sets as further carriers of the open-ended narratives explored through video. The work presented here is part of the artist’s research project on the history and present conditions of life around the Aral Sea. The project resulted in a 23 minute long video entitled Transoxiana Dreams and the photographic series (both 2011), of which this lightbox is one.
The largely deserted expanses of land in Kazakhstan were strategically depopulated during the Cold War, as the steppe held important USSR military and nuclear bases, Baikonur Cosmodrome being the best-known among them. The development of biological weapons on one of Aral’s islands coupled with a general disregard for environmental concerns and the draining of water for the mass irrigation of immense agricultural fields all the way in Uzbekistan, led to its rapid desiccation in the 1970s. During the project Almagul lived with a local family and learned the lifestyle of the fishermen who formerly inhabited the shore of the lake, which alone produced 1/6 of the fish supplies. These men now need to travel 150 km each day to get to water but maintain a strong attachment to their native land and build their lives accordingly, providing an extreme example of human resilience.
Transoxiana Dreams was filmed in the basin of the drained body of water, against the background of expanses of land scattered with salt dunes and remnants of old fishing boats. The women in the video are young Kazakh artists. In the Aral Beach 2, a naked girl lies on the ground against the background of a derelict barge. The allure of her perfect body is juxtaposed to the ugliness of entropy embodied in the rusty metal of the ship. Almagul often plays with such dichotomies and, according to the artist, a balance between ugliness and beauty is essential to her art. Photographs that can easily pass for fashion photography unveil a post-apocalyptic scenario, a localised realisation of global environmental concerns.
Almagul displays an ambivalent relationship with issues of feminism in the visual arts. On one hand, images of women, mothers and often the artist herself are prolific in her work, as the artist searches for her own complex identity as a female citizen of the world, who is still strongly rooted in old family traditions. Yet on the other hand she often portrays femininity as a negative sign. For example, the women appearing in Transoxiana Dreams wear provocative military uniforms that reference the superficiality of fashion and glossy magazines, while also denoting the socio-political evil that eats away the surrounding nature. These semiotics are reinforced by the appearance of a female fox which the artist juxtaposes with a male wolf; a totem of bravery and honesty in Central Asian nomadic culture. Some characters in the video and photographs wear foxes on their heads as a symbol of corruption, shrewdness and petty bureaucracy.
Almagul's personal aesthetics have been largely formed by Russian Constructivism. The artist admits that she only recently realised that references to Constructivist ideals subconsciously emerge throughout her work, thus adding another layer to the cultural mélange. There are direct allusions to it in the composition of this photograph, such as the triangular shape of the boat, the perfectly parallel lines of the base of the boat and the reclining body, as well as the geometric shapes obscuring the girl’s nakedness in the foreground. However, the modernist preoccupation with purity of forms is subverted by the fact that these shapes are none other than military uniform caps placed on their side.
These sophisticated tensions come together in Almagul's photography with a polished aesthetic that has a universal appeal - as the recent acquistion of one of her pieces by the Louis Vuitton Collection demonstrates. Her visual language is easily identifiable through its highly stylised qualities and balance struck between seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies; namely ancient folklore and contemporary design, fluid concepts and solid structures, female transformations of male symbolism, heart-breaking ugliness and tantalising beauty.