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March 8, 2013 7:37 pm
Central Asia and the Caucasus is the latest region to pique the appetite of the art world. As falling auction prices for contemporary art from China, Turkey and the Middle East hint at satiation, salerooms and dealers are looking to this less-discovered territory as the next big thing.
Stretching from the Black Sea in the west to the borders of China in the east, the area resists facile classification. However, ex-membership of the Soviet Union, a wealth of natural resources and dubious civil rights records are unifying factors for states such as the Caucasus nations of Azerbaijan and Georgia and the five “stans” – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan and Turkmenistan – that make up Central Asia. Other than in Georgia, which is mainly Russian Orthodox, Islam is another common denominator.
For the power brokers to fashion a new trend, that’s plenty. Earlier this week, Sotheby’s launched its first selling exhibition dedicated to the region, At the Crossroads, Contemporary Art from Central Asia and the Caucasus, which brings together 50 works ranging in price from $3,000 to $500,000.
Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby’s Russian art department and joint organiser of the exhibition with Russian specialist Suad Garayeva, identifies Socialist Realism and its avant-garde alternative Non-Conformism as the two styles which, during the 1960s and 1970s, shaped the region’s artistic culture: “We looked at how these two schools carried through perestroika and emerged through independence.”
Freed from suppression, says Vickery, artists were at liberty to “look back to their ancient traditions [and] their religious roots.” She perceives a “revived spirituality” on one hand, on the other “new ways of making Pop Art” that respond to the region’s rebirth as a capitalist heartland.
The result is a rich entrepôt whose showpiece is the $500,000 portrait of Shostakovich by leading Azeri painter Tair Salakhov, a lucid, cold-hued likeness that exultantly reveals Salakhov’s talent for stripping Socialist Realism of its forced gaiety. Equally provocative in its own way is “Party Line” (1979), by Kyrgyzstan-born Vyecheslav Akhunov, which assembles rows of photographs of 1960s Soviet astronauts with text in such a way as to translate the art of the archive into austere formalism. Among the younger generation, 44-year-old Kazakhstan-born Almagul Menlibayeva is a slick witness to her country’s eco-political failings with a photograph of a rusting trawler – remnant of the Aral Sea’s once-thriving fishing industry – as backdrop to a seminude model on a desolate beach.
When Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili bought a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar for $95.2m at Sotheby’s in 2006, it signalled the region’s buying power. Clearly, Sotheby’s hope is to fuel this appetite further. London is home to an increasingly active artistic community of ex-Soviet citizens, many of whom shuttle between the UK capital and their homelands.
Vickery points to the dynamism of Kazakh buyers – “increasingly active in our sales here” – and Azeri patrons such as Mila Askerova who opened a commercial gallery, the Gazelli Art House, in London’s Dover Street in 2011. Meanwhile Aida Mahmudova, a niece of the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev and founder of Baku-based not-for-profit contemporary art space Yarat, is overseeing the Roman leg of a European tour of an exhibition of Azeri contemporary art, Fly to Baku.
Yarat is also behind an initiative for a show in Venice devoted to Azerbaijan and its neighbours, to coincide with this summer’s biennale, showcasing artists from right across art’s newest power bloc, including Iran and Pakistan.
It is significant that one new project has chosen to open neither in London nor, for example, Moscow but in Dubai. Launched by two Uzbek women, Natalya Andakulova and Gayane Umerova, Alif Gallery opened its doors in January in Park Towers, a Gherkin-style skyscraper in the heart of the financial district. According to Andakulova, their focus will be on artists from across Central Asia, although their current roll-call is almost entirely Uzbek.
Several factors, says Andakulova, influenced their decision to launch in the Gulf state. Host to the prestigious annual fair and a mushrooming number of private galleries, the Emirate has become the undisputed commercial hub of the Middle East’s contemporary scene. Andakulova, who has lived between Dubai and Uzbekistan for seven years, says she was seduced by the “attention paid to art” there, although the fact that the Emirate is also a tax haven may have been an added attraction.
Just as significant is its heterogeneous population, which includes a sizeable community of citizens from the ex-Soviet republics. “You are far more likely to find buyers for Central Asian art in Dubai than in Moscow,” said one art-world insider who asked not to be named. Russian art patrons, many of whom are leaving the capital following Putin’s re-election according to a Reuters report last year, have so far shown a marked lack of interest in art from their former neighbours.
Andakulova also highlights the links that a shared Islamic heritage has woven between the Gulf region and her native territory, pointing out that key figures such as Omar Khayyam, the medieval philosopher Ibn Sinna and the ninth-century Sunni scholar Imam Al-Bukhari – “although a lot of Arabs think they were Arab” – were born or based in Uzbekistan when it was part of Persia. “It was necessary to know Arabic in Uzbekhistan and the Arab culture was very present.”
The art, chiefly figurative painting, on which Alif will concentrate draws on these cross-currents. “Our artists are modern rather than conceptual,” says Andakulova. “Through them we can show the ideas, the meanings and the philosophy of the region.” The opening show by Timur D’Vatz – a Russian-born painter who trained in Uzbekistan but has been based in London for 20 years – is a panoply of myth-laden images whose jewel-bright colours and hieratic figures infuse Byzantine iconography with inward Sufi calm. A similar bias towards mystical narratives is found in the two Alif artists, Jamol Usmanov and Murad Karabaev, who are also showing at Sotheby’s this week.
Will this be enough to tempt Gulf-based buyers? The glittering launch party for Timur d’Vatz was graced, says Andakulova, both by Russian expats and by Sheikh Butti Bin Suhail Al Maktoum, nephew of the country’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed.
The key now is for all players in this nascent market to proceed cautiously. Sotheby’s must take care not to pump the prices of artists beyond what private dealers can sustain. (Vickery admits the local gallery scene is still “fragile”.) It is equally important that artists’ individuality is not subsumed by regional labels.
Meanwhile, the risks of enterprise in territories with vast natural wealth and a history of corruption cannot be underestimated. Azeri president Ilham Aliyev, the uncle of Azeri patron Aida Mahumodova, has been fiercely criticised for the suppression of political opposition. The main sponsor of Sotheby’s exhibition, Kazakh mining company ENRC, has been battered by corporate governance scandals. Asked if it wished to comment on the collaboration, Sotheby’s declined.
It would be a shame to trample on those Sufi dreams.
Art Dubai, March 20-23, artdubai.ae
‘At the Crossroads, Contemporary Art from Central Asia and the Caucasus’, Sotheby’s, London, until March 12
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