Installation view of KATYA NIKONOROVA’s “In Time” at the Kasteev State Museum of Arts, Almaty, 2012. Courtesy Tengri-Umai Gallery, Almaty.



Home to a multifaith, multiethnic population, Kazakhstan faces challenges as president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first and only post-Soviet leader, tries to maintain social and economic stability. 

Although Kazakhstan has a rich cultural tradition in applied arts and music, fine arts were only introduced under direct Soviet rule (1936–91). Today, the government offers limited support for contemporary artists, who largely show abroad. The Soros Center for Contemporary Art, the primary organization supporting artists, closed in 2009, limiting the local art scene’s activities.

The biggest art institution in the cultural capital of Almaty is the Kasteev State Museum of Arts, which is known for its collection of Kazakh fine art and applied art from China, Japan and India. After undergoing a much-needed renovation in recent years, the museum reopened in February 2011. In preparation for 2013—the year of French culture in Kazakhstan—the museum featured historical and contemporary French fine and decorative
art in “Pearls of France” (6/8–8/5).

The Third International Contemporary Art Festival (ArtBatFest), “2012: Beginning of the World” (5/25–6/25), took place in the streets of Almaty, with installations by Kazakh and international artists placed in parks and outdoor public spaces around the city.

The country’s oldest gallery, Tengri Umai, resumed monthly exhibitions in 2009 after several years without a permanent space. “Katya Nikonorova’s Biennale” (5/4–19) took place simultaneously at four venues—“Nude I” at Tengri Umai, “The Place in the Desert” at the Battler Social Club, “In Time” at the Kasteev State Museum of Arts and “False Awakening” at the House of Culture—and showcased the work of this emerging artist, who works in various media from graphic design to video art.

Another long-standing player, Ular Art Gallery, promotes socialist realism alongside contemporary work. In early 2012, Ular launched the project “Art of Kazakhstan in the XXI Century,” to introduce Kazakh artists to the public by placing reproductions of famous works on billboards around Almaty.

Exhibitions are rare in the capital Astana. The city’s most notable shows take place at the Museum of Modern Arts, which held “Sixties: Turkic Romanticism” (6/4–8/30) dedicated to a group of Kazakh painters, sculptors and graphic artists who abandoned realism in favor of symbolism in the late 1960s and 1970s.

As in previous years, Kazakh artists gained more attention abroad than at home. The first major survey of Kazakh modern art in Russia, “Face of the Bride” (6/6–8/19), took place at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, and featured the country’s best-known artists including Almagul Menlibayeva, Elena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, Said Atabekov, Erbossyn Meldibekov, Oksana Shatalova, Galim Madanov, Zauresh Terekbay and Alexander Ugay. Atabekov’s and Meldibekov’s works were also featured in “Lingua Franca” (10/19–11/1), a reprisal of the 2011 Central Asia Pavilion from the Venice Biennale, held at Gapar Aitiev National Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. 

Around Asia, Almagul Menlibayeva’s collaborative work Ride the Caspian (2011), made with Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani, exploring contemporary relationships between Kazakh and Iranian culture, was featured at the 18th Biennale of Sydney (6/27–9/16). Menlibayeva also participated in “East is West: Three Women Artists” (1/14–2/15) at the LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore. Erbossyn Meldibekov took part in the Gwangju Biennale (9/7–11/11) with his photo and sculpture installation Guljatai: Afghan Fashion and Season Gindukush (2012), showing how Afghan women’s fashion reflects political and social changes.

Kazakh artists were well represented in Europe. Menlibayeva and the husband and wife duo Elena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev participated in the first Kyiv Biennale (5/24–7/31), curated by David Elliott. Menlibayeva featured in “One Sixth of the Earth: Ecologies of Image” (1/28–6/3) at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain.

Looking ahead to 2013, with exhibition prospects unlikely at home, Kazakh artists are continuing to seek opportunities abroad. The Central Asia Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, entitled “Winter” after a poem by Kazakh poet Abay, will be curated by a young duo: Ayatgali Tuleubek from Kazakhstan and Tiago Bom from Portugal.