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Central Asia has a rich and ancient history. It contains some of the most ancient urban centres and some of the oldest nomad traditions, which continue to thrive.
Central Asia has seen many empires rise and fall, but the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century brought with it a unique set political, social, and cultural challenges during a period of historical transformations. Along with far-reaching geopolitical changes, the region faces an unprecedented environmental crisis.
Central Asia has inherited the environmental disasters of the Soviet era through decades of mismanaged waters resources, extensive mines and widespread dumping throughout the region. What was once known as a haven for life, trade and cultural influences through the Silk Road, is becoming a literal and figurative desert. Massive lakes are drying up, desertification is accelerating and states risk war over water rights. The region is on the frontline of the environmental and social impact of an age where human activity is reshaping the “natural” world – the dawn of the Anthropocene epoch.
Faced with an unprecedented but undeniable fact, Central Asian artists of today have undertaken a variety of projects and artworks in order to illustrate and explain the fragility and unpredictability of life in the area. They are playing a special role in portraying their region. Their works are based on the intention of accurately representing the region in modern times, and also serve as an inspiration for people in other regions.
These artists do NOT interpret environmental issues with a narrow or restrictive sense. They find multiple, intersecting ways to examine contemporary themes, and the present day struggles associated with the deteriorating nature of our environment.
Reframing the local discourse on environment
During New York Jewellery Week in 2021, the world was (re)introduced via the News from Central Asia show. The exhibition featured artists of all five ex-Soviet Central Asia Republics (Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) for the very first time at a single show.
The curator Aida Sulova asked that each artist create experimental jewellery pieces that would capture a Central Asian theme, and that would present the current dynamics of that region to an audience who would be unfamiliar with the region.
The environment was a prominent theme throughout the exhibition: Jol Jol’s Jetysu presented a golden tiara adorned by the shapes of the seven rivers that flow into the disappearing Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan; and Dilyara Kaipova’s Curse of CottonThe massive Uzbek textile industry is responsible for the desertification that has occurred. This report also shed light on the issue.
Sulova said that the perception was that environmental protection is a niche concern, that does not affect the average citizen in the region. As the theme for NewsThe show made it clear that the declining environmental situation is now a top issue on the international contemporary arts scene.
Another of Sulova’s initiatives is Once Upon A Plastic BagThe project is an art-activist project that aims to tackle the problem of waste in Kyrgyzstan. Sulova’s Trash Can Initiative adorns bins throughout the capital of Bishkek, with painted mouths eating plastic bottles. These bins are a reminder that our actions not only impact the environment but also our own well-being.
Kazakhstan is also exploring the links between environmental art and activism as well as social change on a large scale. Saule Suleimenova, a Kazakh artist, uses plastic bags to illustrate the modern Kazakh society. She also uses them to reflect on modernity and waste within the Great Steppe. Her exhibition in Almaty. We Are Ordinary People, drew almost 100,000 attendees with a central piece that reflected the Bloody January protests which occurred in Kazakhstan in January of 2022.
Originally a single issue protest against an astronomical increase in petroleum prices, the response evolved into a movement for widespread political changes, culminating in a brutal army crackdown. The public impact of Suleimenova’s show was deep and immediate – the Kazakh authorities released the names of all Bloody January’s victims the day after the exhibition ended.
The Trash Museum of Bishkek is one example. It was opened in October 2023.
The Museum is a public organization that raises awareness about waste issues. It’s located inside a shipping box on an active landfill near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. It reexamines the historical evolution and current state of the local Kyrgyz people’s relationship with the land, by delving into Bishkek’s “trash history” from the 1920s to the present. The Museum does not ignore this unpalatable reality. Instead, it uses it to highlight the real, but less glamorous, aspects of Kyrgyz culture.
Voices of indigenous peoples in Central Asia
Central Asian culture is no exception. The relationship between the land, its people and the indigenous communities is an important part of the society. It may seem obvious, but the importance of critically examining land and the changes that it is undergoing has only recently been recognized in Central Asian art.
In the Soviet era, much Indigenous produced art and craft was relegated to being “heritage pieces”, artificial legacies engineered under the state’s control. Formal artworks purporting to represent the environment, were considered anachronistic. This prevented any investigation of the effects of Soviet era programs on land.
The environmental arts in the region have now played a crucial role in the reclamation indigeneity, and the renewed expression of ancestral inheritance. The end of 200 years of Russian occupation in Central Asia, in 1991, opened up new dialogues and a renewed connection to the land. Many Central Asians had felt suffocated in their own homelands, as Russia’s imperial rule forced them into an externally imposed monoculture.
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Indigenous peoples have access to the land once again; yet, as the environment of the region has changed, so have the artistic perspectives on the evolving relationship between the peoples and the land.
Almagul Menlibayeva’s video-photography project Transoxiana DreamsThe film presents a modern, decolonial perspective on the local cataclysmic experience that has been the alarming disappearance from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world (about the size of Belgium), is now a desert due to Soviet water management policies that were geared towards mass-producing cotton in the region.
Menlibayeva’s work combines ancient mythology with modernist imagery, mixing ships in the barren desert with enigmatic and alluring four-legged female creatures resembling centaurs, recalling how the area’s nomadic Indigenous people were depicted by the ancient Greeks.
Menlibayeva’s work is an attempt to show from an eco-perspective what happens when Indigenous people are surrounded by colonial forces who are exploiting the land and changing the landscape for the purpose of extracting resources. The artistic impulse combines with the drive to reclaim true occupancy of the land – a step towards provoking dialogue and driving practical action to reverse destructive environmental trends.
Central Asia, which is on the frontline of a global environmental catastrophe that science has predicted, offers a valuable lesson about the power of art as a means of advocacy and as an agent of social transformation. Art can be a powerful tool for raising consciousness, inspiring action, and fostering a closer connection between people and the environment.
The works outlined here are compelling illustrations of how the environmental crisis in Central Asia – as well as for other regions around the world – is interconnected with broader social, political and cultural challenges.
The region’s experience exemplifies at once the potential inspiration and the confronting insights drawn from an approach that addresses the complex interplay between cultural expression, environmental degradation and decolonisation.