Central Asian artists gain international interest

By bne IntelliNews June 18, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

Exhibitions at the top London auction houses and an increasingly professional approach from collectors in the region indicate the Central Asian art market is gaining more interest both at home and abroad. While it would be over-optimistic to say that Central Asia is about to follow in the footsteps of the highly successful Russian or Chinese markets, artists from the region are certainly starting to attract more attention.

The last three years have seen international auction houses begin to cultivate a collector base among high net worth individuals in the region and among its diasporas. Part of the appeal has been the mix of representational images with the influence of the region's decorative traditions, though with a broad region spanning two continents and eight countries it is difficult to pigeonhole what contemporary Central Asian art is.

In March, Sotheby's put on its first selling exhibition of works from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Titled "At the Crossroads", the exhibition was organised because of the developing art scenes in the region. "A big collector base is emerging both locally and from the diasporas, especially in London. This meant it was a good time to explore the geography," says curator Suad Garayeva, who travelled across the region visiting artists and gallery owners to put together the collection. Artists represented at the exhibition included Kazakhstani artist Almagul Menlibayeva, Kyrgyzstan's Alimjan Jorobayev and Georgian Merab Abramishvili.

Sotheby's did not disclose the amount raised, but prices ranged from $5,000 up to $500,000. The exhibition drew in a "very good mix" of local buyers and those with connections to the region, as well as the auction house's existing collector base, according to Garayeva.

The show follows a 2010 exhibition dedicated to works by Kazakhstani artists organised by rival auction house Christie's, which Angelika Akilbekova, head of the department of exhibitions at the Kasteev Art Museum in Almaty, describes as "a recognition of our art at the highest level."

Ancient traditions

Originating in the same Soviet school but without the long history of painting that Russia has, the region's art scene has been influenced by new ideas as well as the revival of traditional crafts since independence two decades ago.

"This is a vast region between east and west, between the Middle East and Russia, China and Eastern Europe, with a mix of western and eastern traditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian artists have been reviving ancient traditions, and the region is also tied to Oriental history, Islamic and decorative art. There are strong links to Iran and most of the region also has Turkic roots," Garayeva tells bne.

Layla Mahat, artist and founder of the Kulanshi art gallery in Astana, has strong views on what defines contemporary Kazakh art. "There are a variety of ways to call yourself a contemporary artist of Kazakhstan. It's not enough just to paint a yurt and a horse and call it Kazakh art," she says.

Mahat founded Kulanshi - the name means "he who runs with wild horses" - in 2008 on her return from Berlin to Kazakhstan, when she found no place in the new Kazakh capital to display her work and that of her colleagues. Today, the gallery, which shows both Kazakhstani and international artists, regularly draws in a crowd of trendy young Kazakhs for its openings every few weeks. Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty does, however, remain the centre of the country's art scene.

According to Mahat, local collectors are also evolving and becoming more sophisticated. "Collectors of contemporary Kazakh art used to be very spontaneous - they would see something they liked and buy it. In the last five to 10 years, some have started to think more about building their collections and their taste is rising to another level. Collectors have started to ask professionals to curate their collections, which is a good sign," she says.

Internationally, however, widespread awareness is simply not yet there for most artists from Kazakhstan and other countries in the region. Garayeva notes this has its positive aspects, pointing to the potential for growth. "Many of the artists are unknown in the West at the moment, so there is a big upside," she says.

Emulating Russia

One of the biggest questions for anyone looking at the art markets of Central Asia and the Caucasus, is whether they will in time emulate Russia, where the combination of a long-established art scene and newly rich elite has sent the size of the market skyrocketing, despite a cooling off reported in 2012.

Despite traditions of textiles and decorative arts, Central Asia does not have the same history, and although the oil-rich countries of the Caspian Sea region have their share of newly rich buyers, there are not the same high-profile collectors and patrons of the arts that are now seen in Russia. Local galleries in Kazakhstan say they often struggle to find sponsors for their exhibitions, and art critic Ardak Yussupova, who works with the Has Sanat gallery in Astana, notes the difficulties finding experienced support personnel in Central Asia, such as curators, promoters and critics.

It is also rather early to predict how Central Asia and the Caucasus will develop in future. "Russia is a huge market with a big history of collecting art, so it's difficult to say if the situation will be the same in Central Asia. It's also too early to say whether Central Asia will develop as a region, or if individual countries will emerge," says Garayeva.

But, Mahat notes, that is not to say that the region couldn't suddenly emerge. China, for example, has suddenly burst onto the international art scene in the last three years, briefly becoming the world's largest market in 2011, and despite a 40% fall the following year, still in second place in 2013.

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