As Central Eurasian researchers and scholars, we sometimes find ourselves working in a field over-determined by tired and limited tropes, particularly when news about the region makes its way to the mainstream press. As curator and online zine editor Ciarán Miqeladze wryly puts it, “Uzbekistan is no different in this matter. The Central Asian country is constantly treated to the same narrative of a post-Soviet, despot-controlled country, replete with bridenappings, magical men on horses, and Instagram-able mountain ranges housing radical Islamic terrorists.” However, at the avant garde culture site Post Pravda, where Ciaran and his colleagues are working to amplify local and alternative voices from the Caucasus to Eastern Europe and beyond, the goal is to provide different viewpoints and narratives. This is the simple premise of their piece “Telling More Than One Story: Our Favorite Uzbek Photographers,” which spotlights the work of Aleksey Tudakov, Anton Papin, Diana Mindubaeva, Ildar Sadikov, and Hassan Kurbanbaev. This piece presents a mini-collection from each photographer-artist, where we see how spaces are filled with the faces, shadows, and vivid colors of everyday life, and the result is a stunningly beautiful compilation of ‘a view from within,’ and an invitation for viewers to explore further the richness (and the legacy) of the contemporary photography scene in Uzbekistan.
Strong narratives of repression and journalistic unfreedom in authoritarian states might miss the ‘counterpublics’ and forms of critical expression to be found in the art world. Global attention is drawn to spectacular examples, such as that of Pussy Riot or Pyotr Pavlensky in Russia, but throughout the post-Soviet world in galleries and exhibition spaces, various forms of engagement abound. According to independent researcher and art curator Alexandra Tsay, part of the strong legacy of public art in Central Asia lies in its ability “to increase the number of critical voices and challenge the status quo.” In her online curation of the work of artist Pasha Cas, she notes the very presence of his pieces serve the powerful reminder for audiences of silence, “the absence of public discussion about important issues” like the aftermath of Soviet nuclear and industrial development in Kazakhstan, or the high level of teenage suicide. Cas has run into trouble with the authorities in Kazakhstan, who have removed his public artworks, and who briefly opened a case against him. But perhaps like so many great public artists, his rebellion lies in the simple transgression of the conventions of the artistic frame, and in his insistence on reclaiming the literal buildings and ground of present as a medium for his message. But as Tsay notes in her commentary, not all art has to be so overtly ‘political’; all public art alters our vision-scape and allows us to see the canvas of something new.
Taking up the perspective of sensory research and the landscapes of human experience is one of the ways that Aynur Kadir, a doctoral researcher at the Making Culture Lab, Simon Fraser University, has also approached the study of shrine worship among Tajiks in Xinjiang. In a recent blog post, she provides photos and video clips of the prayers and gatherings of this active pilgrimage practice today, in which she herself has also participated; readers are urged to engage the phenomenology of festivals – as for example the melting of the snow and the celebration of the coming water at Zohur, or the festival of the lights at Pilik Eid. In her oral history of the sites, Kadir discovered that prior to the cultural revolution in China, the pilgrimage to sacred sites through the communities also involved chanting and music – today the Quranic recitations remain. Kadir’s blog is part of the broader project “Sounding Islam in China: a multi-sited ethnographic study,” headed by Rachel Harris at SOAS, University of London, and supported by the Leverhulme Trust, whose purpose is to explore the expressive culture of Islamic worlds in China. This research team focuses on the ‘flows,’ meaning, and power of sound, asking, “How does sound help understanding global ideological debates and existential piety, personal acquiescence and collective resistance?” Taking an ethnographic perspective helps researchers to set aside limited or dominant narratives of religion and state, and to ask instead how people come to inhabit fully the cultural worlds of their own making.
*** UPDATE! ***
A new collected volume helps to put many of these questions within the purview of a globalizing post-Soviet world: how do flows of music help us to understand the ways that religion, culture, and even instrumentation are changing under shifting circumstances, linking individual locations to broader sonic landscapes and geographies in the current historical moment? Researchers Razia Sultanova (Cambridge) and Megan Rancier (Bowling Green) argue for the articulated presence of a ‘Turkic soundscape’ across Europe and Central Asia, and have assembled a series of articles “that reflect the geographical breadth of the area under study, the collection addresses animist and Islamic religious songs; the historical development of Turkic musical instruments; ethnography and analysis of classical court music traditions; cross-cultural influences throughout the Turkic world; music and mass media; and popular music in traditional contexts.” (https://www.routledge.com/Turkic-Soundscapes-From-Shamanic-Voices-to-Hip-Hop/Sultanova-Rancier/p/book/9781138062405/ )
For those interested in activist art across post-Soviet spaces, check out Madina Tlostanova’s new book, coming out this year, where she asks what a decolonial future might look like: Tlostanova, Madina. 2018. What Does it Mean to Be Post-Soviet? Decolonial Art from the Ruins of Soviet Empire. Durham: Duke University Press.