SteppenBaroque III_ Almagul Menlibayeva 71x107 +16 cm white around-1559212069294
Steppen Baroque, 2010. Inkjet on archival paper

Almagul Menlibayeva was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1969. As an artist who has experienced the Soviet era as well as the post-Soviet era changes in her country, and as a prominent female voice in the region, she focuses on contemporary social and ecological issues in Central Asia and Kazakhstan from a feminine perspective. Her work explores the cultural transformations that have taken place over the centuries across Central Asia to understand the evolution of contemporary Kazakh society and draw attention to important regional and global issues.

The artist — who divides her time between Kazakhstan and Germany — uses various media such as painting, photography, graphic art, performance, installation and video to express herself. But her first solo exhibition in the UAE, Genius Loci — Central Asia, at Andakulova Gallery features mainly photographic works and a few videos from several well-known series created over the last decade.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Red Butterfly 71x101cm, C-print, 2012-1559212076174
Almagul Menlibayeva, Red Butterfly, C-print, 2012

The ancient Roman term Genius Loci refers to the guardian spirit of a place, but it is often interpreted as the distinctive atmosphere or spirit of a place. Menlibayeva has travelled across Central Asia to photograph monuments and places that reflect the history of the region, its changing society, economy and ecology and celebrate its spirit. Although her work is rooted in this region, it speaks about global issues.

The stranded fishing boats and tanks are a reminder of the past, but at the same time the settlements in the distance indicate that people have moved on and found new ways to survive. This is how human beings are — we are using up our planet and developing technologies to live on Mars.

- Almagul Menlibayeva

Some of her most striking images were shot in and around the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth largest lake in the world but has dried up after the rivers feeding it were diverted for irrigation. Her photographs of rusting fishing boats lying in the middle of an arid desert-like environment poignantly highlight the ecological crisis of modern civilisation. Another series features an ancient monument whose architecture is a testament to the cultural influences brought to the region by travellers, traders and conquerors throughout its history, underlining the importance of cross-cultural interaction in an increasingly divisive global political environment.

In her theatrical images, the artist juxtaposes the formalism of Soviet art with the informal spontaneity of nomadic art, and includes references ranging from tribal symbols, local mythology and the communist industrial past to Malevich’s paintings, military regimes and contemporary fashion.

A key feature of Menlibayeva’s photographs is the presence of women as central figures. Dressed in military uniforms or draped in traditional fabrics, these modern women look strong, stylish, confident and quite at home in ancient or hostile environments. By placing them at centre-stage in her compositions the artist looks back on the status of women in Central Asian society and attempts to carve a space for them within the new cultural framework of post-Soviet Central Asia. The lonely figures in stark surroundings also symbolise the isolation of modern urban life and the protective spirits that guard and revitalise the land which is threatened by the looming environmental disaster caused by rapid modernisation.

Her videos feature the Soviet era Baikanur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. They highlight the growing danger of space debris to our environment.

The artist spoke to the Gulf News about the layered narratives and symbolism in her work. Excerpts:

Why did you choose mostly photographic works for this show?

Photography is an important medium for me because I come from a culture where images were manipulated for propaganda — both during Soviet and post-Soviet times, so I like to experiment with my own image manipulation for a different purpose. Today, most people think of Central Asia as a remote isolated region, so I travelled to various places across the region that carry traces of our interactions with Greece, Turkey, China, India, Persia, Iraq, Russia and many other places that have left their mark on our contemporary cultural, economic and socio-political environment. I want to invite viewers to learn more about my country and my region and its centuries old connections with the rest of the world.

What do the monument, the women and flowing fabrics symbolise in works such as My Silk Road to You and Red Butterfly?

This 11th century monument is located in a remote southern town which was on the ancient silk road. It is related to the mythological tale of a woman who defied society to be with the man she loved but tragically died. Its architecture is a blend of Turkish, Persian, Phoenician and many other styles, preserving the memory of the cultural cross currents in this region.

Although it is so old and remote this place is still very alive. It is revered as a monument of love and hundreds of people visit it even today to get married or pray for love or progeny, reminding us of the mix of religions that co-existed in this region such as Islam, Sufism and Shamanism and remained alive despite the suppression of religion during the Soviet era. I have put strong modern women next to this ancient monument to connect the past with the present. The fabric draping them and stretching on both sides represents the flow of time, knowledge, culture, trade and the memories of the past that shape the present and the future.

Why are you fascinated by the Aral Sea area?

I keep returning to this area because there are so many narratives in that stark environment. What was once one of the largest lakes in the world is now just a stretch of salty desert land because of short sighted policies, the change from nomadic life to an agricultural and industrial society, and the desire for rapid modernisation. The stranded fishing boats and tanks are a reminder of the past, but at the same time the settlements in the distance indicate that people have moved on and found new ways to survive. This is how human beings are — we are using up our planet and developing technologies to live on Mars. The women in some of these pictures seem to be having fun oblivious of the shipwreck behind them. They represent all of us who are having a good time while everything around us is being ruined.

What is the surreal location in Solar Eclipse IX?

I staged this in the ruins of a Stalin-era gulag. Many women were brought to this forced labour camp as political prisoners and they had to endure torture and rape during those dark times. I have put the women on ladders to lift them up so that they can rise above the ashes of the past and make a new life. The mother and child are symbols of rebirth and regeneration.

What is the story behind your recent work, Caspian Palms?

As we move away from nature, strive to create economic miracles and use industrialisation and economic power as weapons, our ideas about utopia are changing. I have taken inspiration from Greek mythology to imagine a modern utopia for a new industrialised world. I have visualised an island in the Caspian Sea inhabited by happy people created from the blood of ancient Titans. The island is fertile, sunny and protected from harmful winds. The inhabitants spend their time singing, dancing, feasting and living long blissful lives free of disputes and disease. Their temples are the oil rig like Caspian palm trees. Atop these palms the whole community celebrates the Cult of World Peace and sings hymns for the salvation of whales. When they feel satiated with their idyllic life, they seek deliverance and embrace death by diving into the sea. You can not doubt the existence of this utopia.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Genius Loci – Central Asia will run at Andakulova Gallery, DIFC, until September 20.