ANNYA SAND, Untitled, 2007, oil on canvas, 147 × 114 cm. Courtesy International Art Development Association, Paris.


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Kazakhstan continues to face a complex political landscape under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first and only post-Soviet leader, who has attracted widespread criticism for his policies. Despite being an ethnically multicultural and religiously diverse nation with plentiful natural resources, including oil and gas, the government offers few contemporary cultural activities and limited support for today’s artists. A rich cultural tradition in applied arts and music is upheld over fine arts, which were only introduced under direct Soviet rule, from the late 1930s to 1991. 

The Soros Center for Contemporary Art, once the primary organization for artists, closed in 2009, limiting the domestic art scene’s activities. However, since 2013 the nonprofit International Art Development Association (IADA), based in the cultural capital of Almaty with a branch in Paris, has initiated exhibitions of Kazakh artists at home and abroad. Founded by Kazakh curators Dina Baistassova, Indira Dyussebayeva and Laurent Lehmann, IADA aims to cultivate an artistic exchange between Central Asian and European artists through such projects as “The Other Side of Midnight” (9/26–12/5), a solo show by Israeli-British sculptor and installation artist Zadok Ben-David, at the National Museum of Kazakhstan, in Astana. Also in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, the Museum of Modern Arts held a jubilee exhibition (1/15–2/15) of paintings and graphic art by the respected mixed-media artist Sultan Ilyaev.

Back in Almaty, leading art institution Kasteev State Museum of Arts is known for a strong collection of fine and applied art that includes significant bodies of work from Russia, China, Japan, India and Western Europe. In 2014, the museum announced plans to mount a number of midcareer retrospectives with leading Kazakh contemporary artists throughout 2015, part of a partnership with the new Almaty-based Aspan Gallery, founded by former Christie’s postwar and contemporary art specialist Meruyert Kaliyeva. The series will commence in February with the provocative mixed-media artist Erbossyn Meldibekov. 

In September, Kazakhstan’s oldest gallery, Tengri Umai, put forth a semi-retrospective of the avant-garde collective Kyzyl Traktor (“Red Tractor”) entitled “777” (8/30–9/28). Another established gallery, Ular Art Gallery, promotes socialist realism alongside contemporary work. In February it hosted a solo exhibition of painter Esnazarovoy Perizat inspired by myths and legends (2/19–3/15). 

Abroad, at Rossi & Rossi in Hong Kong, David Elliott guest-curated a solo show by Erbossyn Meldibekov (4/5–5/3), presenting the artist’s long-term investigation into post-Soviet monumentality. 

At Art Dubai, Kazakh artists were featured in the Slavs and Tatars-curated Marker section, the fair’s nonprofit, themed program of exhibitions, talks and research projects (3/19–22), which in 2014 focused on Central Asia and the Caucasus. IADA participated in Marker as well as the educational program, while Almaty-based Asia Art+, co-founded and directed by curator Yuliya Sorokina, displayed works by husband-and-wife duo Victor Vorobyev and Yelena Vorobyeva, known for their photography and video art works. Elsewhere at Art Dubai, Milan-based gallery Laura Bulian also showed works by Vorobyev and Vorobyeva, as well as Uzbekistani artist and Red Tractor co-founder Said Atabekov, known for his installations, performances and video works. 

In London, MacDougall Fine Art Auctions hosted a solo exhibition of Kazakh classical pianist and artist Sholpan Sharbakova’s dynamic, colorful paintings (12/8–14), organized by UK-based Russian artist and curator Iulia Filipovscaia. Elsewhere in London, Sotheby’s held “At the Crossroads 2: Contemporary Art from Istanbul to Kabul” (3/27–4/1), which included photographic work by Almagul Menlibayeva. 

Earlier in the year, Menlibayeva participated in the prologue show of the Honolulu Biennial in Hawaii, “Chain of Fire” (10/30–11/9), curated by the Honolulu Biennial Foundation. Rounding out the “Year of Kazakhstan in France,” Strasbourg’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art presented “La Vie est une Légende”
(12/6–3/8/15), a survey of midcareer, post-Soviet Kazakh artists including heavyweight Erbossyn Meldibekov, among others. 

Looking ahead, the IADA will launch a multicity educational program to raise awareness of contemporary art from Kazakhstan and its neighbors, kicking off at the 56th Venice Biennale. Aspan Gallery will run a parallel program of smaller exhibitions concurrent with its collaboration with the Kasteev Museum.