Who: Almagul Menlibayeva is a Kazakh artist and filmmaker whose projects focus on her homeland. Her recent films have looked at the ecological and psychological issues impacting former-Soviet Union satellite nations like Kazakhstan two decades after gaining their independence. 2013′s Kurchatov 22 was a 5-channel video installation about the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk nuclear test field in Northern Kazakhstan, and the ecological devastation wrought on the surrounding steppe and its populace. 2011′s Transoxiana Dreams was a 23-minute film shot within dried-up regions of Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea coastline, and exhibited alongside production photographs and lightboxes. The film won a main prize at Kino Der Kunst 2013 — an international film festival in Munich, Germany that celebrates the work of visual artists. The jury’s praise for the film included comment on its “personal and intimate vision of everyday life in an environmentally damaged landscape” and as a “nomadic shamanesque revival through punk and surreal staged tableaux vivants.” Camera In The Sun spoke with Menlibayeva for a May 2014 interview about how she approaches her film work, Kazakhstan’s Soviet era, and her thoughts on its environmental and societal legacies.
[Publisher note: All images are copyrighted by Almagul Menlibayeva, and are courtesy of American-Eurasian Art Advisors LLC.]
How did you begin making film projects?
I started to do video in 2002. But at the beginning, I was a painter. Then I started to push my boundaries, and I also did some performances. One of the performances I did was called Eternal Bride. I had a friend; she was just married 2 years earlier. She came to me and said, “I would like to sell my dress. I need the money, it’s a pity that I cannot wear it again.” For me, it was maybe because I grew up in this very traditional patriarchal family. From time to time I visited, and I’d always think the first day is so amazing. You know, like marriage. And then, there would come everyday problems and people, like normal life. And in my idea I thought, “OK, why don’t I just tape this?” So I tried to wear this dress. I’d just go around in February, which is a very cold time. I’d wear this dress, and go somewhere in the periphery, and see what happens. I will just not say anything to anybody. I will just agree. So I took two cameramen with me. And this is how I started to combine video together with stage. It comes from the performances. Because in a performance, you always care about people contact, what they feel. For me, it was important during the shooting to also see how viewers see how other people are reacting, or not reacting. Because, usually they do not react, it’s like they don’t care. Then you always have a strange feeling that everybody agrees with this and what is going on there.
But it’s not true, of course. Culturally, yes. There are certain things people agree with, even in that situation, which makes this a very different world. Also, very often artists live in a parallel world. So you are switching from your very subjective world, to the normal world — or a kind of normal. We don’t know. A normal objective reality. I jump from the very subjective, to the objective. And anyway, we are always carrying our subjective world outside. And sometimes, people very successfully live inside in their own world. But the landscape can give video all these parallel things. Then for me, documentary or film interviews are a language. There is a style that has developed with all these productions, which I can use. Because, we know the language of interviews. It’s a talking head. Or in documentary, it’s a staged thing. We already know this language, so we can read, and I can use this for the artwork.
Does living in Europe impact your Kazakh artwork?
I don’t think it matters where you are, really. It’s contemporary. The art world and art market gives you a lot of possibilities to have a dialogue. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Europe or the United States. It absolutely doesn’t matter. But sometimes I ask myself that. Because for example, I’m living in Berlin and I don’t have any work about Berlin. But I know it very well. So in Kazakhstan, we have artists, but not many. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary art school yet. There are a lot of very good artists, but they are teaching themselves. It’s mostly very enthusiastic people. I also to understand what is going on there, it’s become very global. That’s why contemporary art is a possibility. I think maybe 60-70 years ago, there would have probably been no audience for what is going on in Kazakhstan. But now, there’s more and more participation in this dialogue of what is going on. There are some things that I like to shoot. But in Kazakhstan is different; there are towns and nice bars. But the areas where I go to, are mostly remote areas, there live very small people. If you know Dostoyevsky, he and Gogol are writing about “small people.” And there’s a large amount of these people. They don’t know their rights. Or they know their rights, but aren’t so active. And I would also like to give this kind of voice. This woman from Kurchatov who is living this small village, she told me nobody is interested in her life. And if you have the possibility to screen in the Berlinale, where she has a possibility to talk, I think this is a great possibility to transfer. Because what I can do, I can just film her good technically. But what she’s saying, it’s quite interesting. So you can transfer.
I try to be in Kazakhstan half the year. It depends on my work, and if I’m busy with editing. Because I also work with a film composer named German Popov. His artistic name is OMFO [Our Man From Odessa]. He is originally from Ukraine. And I’m living in Amsterdam, so I work with him on the music. But usually I go to Kazakhstan in the summertime. So I’m going very soon again. I’m free to go and come back, but it’s very difficult to say how long. Like last year, I was there only three months. The year before, I was there five months.
What’s your opinion of Kazakh cultural identity during the Soviet era?
Kazakhs were nomads. But in 1932, when the Soviet Union was in need of money to build up, they took from the Kazkhs all their camels and horses and possessions. This was the only way they made a living. And they took everything, and a lot of people just died from hunger. They suffered terrible years of hunger. During these two years, about 30% of the nomads died. That time rests deeply in the memory of any Kazakh. Then everything became so Soviet-ized. In the Soviet Union, there was a kind of friendship between nations. But this was more like a conceptual friendship. It’s as if there was only one artist, but it is easier to say: Stalin. So how he sees it, “What is this national friendship?” What it is there was national nihilism. So there was some kind of picture of how to look like Ukrainians, or how to look like Kazakhs, and how in a kind of story they didn’t have this — or they had this, and how it was difficult. So before 1917, it was “everything was terrible.” And after 1917… So it was kind of mythological, like in the bible. This made here a very big impact on me also while I was working on this Kazakh identity. I’m a Kazakh-born person, but I grew up in a town with a Soviet school. I was completely a Soviet child. I didn’t know my own language. Kazakhstan has 110 nationalities. During the Soviet Union, when there were big programs for everything, mostly Soviet programs of agriculture, or politics. It was a completely different place 20 years after 1917. And then it was a completely different place 20 years after that. So how did this [older] Kazakhstan look? How were they living? There were a lot of things that you really don’t understand, and you don’t know. But the possibility to understand and research a lot of things came after 1993, and slowly people start to discover. Actually, I remember they didn’t believe when Yeltsin told them there was no Soviet Union. “What is he saying? This is a drunk Russian.”
What about older Kazkh history with other nomads, like the Mongols?
In Kazakhstan, there are many descendents of Genghis Khan. My tribe came from Mongolia to Kazakhstan in the 11th century. Some tribes fought for him, some tribes not. For example when you look at Mongolia, there are different yurts, but the history and many things are not only Mongolia’s. It was actually all Eurasia, Altai, South Siberia’s history. There are many identities connected to the Turkic group of languages: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Khakas, Turkish, Tatar, Azerbaijani, Turkmen. One’s identity is strong, and then the other is Genghis Khan history. Each country’s ruler tried to marry someone from the Genghis Khan family. It was like a European royal family. Something that changed the landscape was when Islam came to Central Asia. That was a difficult time I think. Some people do not agree with me, but I think the real interesting culture — the nomads — started to lose their own real culture. So I think one change was when Islam came, and the second one was the Soviet Union. It was like an ideology which takes all your attention, 100%. So you have to change yourself. Personally, when I look at myself, I would like to understand who I am. I have these kind of influences. So I try to take out one influence, and then another, and then I can understand who I am.
I also read a lot about the art of the nomads. The art of the nomads was absolutely unpredictable. There were a lot of sad stories and dramatic stories. Women were beautiful, or very ugly. There was a wide palette of how it was. What we know remains a lot of very mysterious stories. For example, there is a legend about one man named Korkit, born old from childhood. Everywhere he went he was running away from his death. This is very cinematic, there is a strong image that we are running from death, or would like to live longer, we are afraid to be old. But in, Soviet art, and Soviet art after the fall, we don’t have this, everything is very formal. I think after 50-60 years, if you look and see what they did, you will not find anything, as there is no emotional truth. There’s nothing there because you remember some thing if it was really sincere. With dialogue, I’m sharing what I feel. Maybe someone will understand me in 20-30 years, or 100 years, and will recognize the same problems. I think this is very important. But this understanding of art from the Soviet time, and this post-Soviet time, makes me think that I’m struggling with something that’s dead.
How does Kurchatov 22 explore post-Soviet Kazakhstan?
The topic is a nuclear test field during the Soviet time, from 1949 to 1991. During the Cold War, there was a huge nuclear program running during these years, where there were about 456 explosions. It’s everything we think of the Cold War, all the experiments were there. I went there, I filmed interviews with people who were children at the time and had survived. They saw something, they heard, as some of them didn’t know what is was as they were never informed of what could be the consequences of these experiments.
During the Soviet time, Kazakhstan was like a big laboratory. It was closed to the world. If we don’t have information about Kazakhstan, it’s because it was a secret place including the test field, Baikonur Cosmodrome. There was the gulag area with territory as big as France. There were a lot of people in gulags, so called enemies of the state, intellectuals, musicians, writers, if you remember Solzhenitsyn, anybody Stalin consider as a danger? There were also a lot of military programs during this period. Kazakhstan started to really open its doors, and had the opportunity to invite people in, only after 1993. When you flew some places, you would see the very little airports. Those airports were only made for the military. So you see, it was quite limited. But the country played some kind of role as it was Soviet territory during the Cold War times.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, things were left how they were. Concerning the nuclear testing, they took all the know-how with them, all the archives. There are a lot of things, which people in Kazakhstan are just discovering. Like where it’s really not good to go, because many places were in secret, and you have to find the people who know these things in order to avoid the dangers. The problem is also the archives. You know, the archives of the Soviet Union are partly closed, because it became what is now Russia. I mean, there are certain things you can access, but certain things you cannot access records of people who were sick or died or what they died of. There was some kind of big research during Soviet time of why people were sick. When I was there, they now had a national nuclear foundation. They go to places, and they try to protect people. They also invite people who are sick, and see why they are sick. Also animals. There were a lot of things that were affected.
How does Transoxiana Dreams address the Aral Sea’s disappearance?
It was interesting when I went there, to see how people are dealing with this ecological catastrophe. When you go there, you see how people live and what they do. Of course, you see that there are problems and how they deal with all these things. I would like people to know what happened there. I told that story through the eyes of a small girl. My hero is this small girl who doesn’t understand what is going on. So now, as an artist, you can have a space to play and put in some fantasy images. I put her in this reality, and she explains what is going on. She is a victim of this situation which she didn’t choose, she was just born into it.
She says in a dream she is helping her father. So I tried to put in a lot from Kazakh culture that believes in dreams and shamanism. It transformed and became very individualistic, very personal, like child’s fear or a fantasy. I tried to make that space, and also put in a lot of information there into this dream. There was one island where, during the Soviet time, they were testing biological weapons. So the wind is blowing, and everybody is sitting at home. There is this terrible wind, which is a strange with a mixture of centaurs together with Soviets. These things are not understood by the young generation; they don’t know what happened and what is going on.
The problem with the Aral Sea resulted from very bad management during the Soviet time. There was a lot of agriculture in places with people growing rice and cotton. These two things need a lot of water. The problem was mostly in the south of the Aral sea. There are two rivers: Amu Darya from the North, and Syr Darya from the South. The Amu Darya from the Kazakhstan side, they stopped taking water from that for agriculture. But the South is very dependent on agriculture. To the people of Uzbekistan, rice and cotton is very important. Kazakhstan is different, because it has other sources and places to grow things like rice. It was possible to resolve this problem but also very difficult due to the bad and uncontrolled management during the Soviet time. Uzbekistan provided cotton for the whole Soviet Union, and also exported rice. So now people have menial jobs in a so-called formed economy.
For me, when I was there it was shocking. You understand how everything’s so fragile, and people really didn’t think about what was happening at the time and what would be the consequences. During the Second World War, the Aral sea provided a lot of fish for the soldiers. The locals didn’t eat fish for many years, because they were so patriotic, otherwise they would kill you. So when you listen to the stories, you feel very sorry for these people. I sometimes think, “Maybe now they have a really happy time?”
The sea shrunk, and a lot of people moved out. I think the government was thinking that people would leave that place. But the Kazakhs there have this cult of ancestors. So because of the place, where they have graves of their parents and their grand-grandparents, they remain there without water. For them, to be there, is more important. The young generation probably will and does leave, because you loose contact with your culture, which happens or you understand it differently. This gives the opportunity to leave the town and find and build up a nicer life. But for the generation 50 and older, they live there and raise camels. Fishermen have to go about 100 kilometers or more every day to get to the Aral. This is all they can do. This is what they learned, what they are doing, and are very happy that there is a little bit of water there.
What was your reaction to winning the main prize at Kino Der Kunst?
You know, I was actually very surprised. Because, there were a lot of great films. A lot. I’m not old-fashioned, but films influence me. So when you look, you cannot say its contemporary art anymore. It’s quite different, as I grew up on Tarkovsky and Parajanov. So when you are building up the language, there was not so much information to learn. From this minimal information, you are building up yourself. But of course I see a lot of things. I also film myself, and I edit myself. I think editing is very important. You can create some kind of world absolutely from the zero. The Aral Sea is an area that’s absolutely different. Man artists go there and see different things. I actually made two works that were similar: Milk for Lambs and Transaxiona. I understood for myself, and I’m not going to repeat and do any more of this kind of work.
What do the Kazakhs you interview think about the Soviet era?
I love to talk with people all about the past, and what they think about. Some of the older generation will compare. They say, “Oh, it was free education, medicine service.” You know, I think the problem is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, people didn’t understand what was really good, and what was really bad. For example, the red star I consider a fascistic swastika. I’m doing this project now about Stalin’s repression, and I think that time was absolutely terrible. For me, the Soviet Union had this victory over fascists, but what happened inside the Soviet Union was also very dramatic.
I’m working now on this gulag project. And I actually interviewed one man whose father was in the camp as an enemy of the people, as a political prisoner. He’s about 80 years old, and remembers everything that happened, and how it happened. They moved from Donetsk actually, where his father was a coal miner. Then they moved them to Kazakhstan. But before moving to Kazakhstan in the 1920s, they the Soviets said to his father “You’re going to a place where it’s very warm, and there are apples and apricots. It’s a great place.” They came there together with about 200-mine workers, dropped in the steppes in the middle of nowhere. They had did to build up the places to stay and everything else, without anything. There was no support. He said, “Almagul, I have witnessed the Soviet Union in each decade, and I’m telling you, there was no stability. Never stability.” He was always talking about food. “There was no food.” He also told me something interesting that struck me. He said, “I you for a drive where I went to visit my father. He said, ‘I would like to show you the old town.’ So we drove and we came to some steppe, and just a road and trees. And he said, ‘Here was a whole town. It was here. There was the official house, and here was a prison, and here was a school. And now everything is under the earth.’”
When Stalin died, the same people were working in the government. The same people said, “Yes, he was bad.” And they started to put out the oldest archives, and said, “If you want, you can dig up the many bad things. They are still there.” as everybody was participating in these things, and were victims. Then I actually looked at them, and thought, “Oh my god, I didn’t know.” Of course, I knew from the books. But it would probably not be the same if its like it is now. [Kazakhstan is] one country, and then everything is changing. Now it’s a different country. But the players who are in government are the same people. There is no collective analyzing of the past together. People don’t want to talk about this, because they participated in this.
Do you see parallels between Ukraine’s current problems with Russia, and Kazakhstan’s?
I feel the parallel. Because the mentality of the Soviet Union is still there. So all those republics remember the big fear or horror of what was. But Russia feels good. They say the greatest time was when it was the Soviet Union. Of course, they were the main players in that scenario. I see a lot of parallels. So when Putin started to raise with Ukraine all these territorial questions, I was very upset. This territorial issue is everywhere. We also have this in the north of Kazakhstan. The problem is that a lot of people were pushed to move to Ukraine. There were big programs to participate in the building of the Soviet Union. So some of them landed there, and they had a great time during the Soviet Union. But when these republics started to build up their own nationalities, it’s very painful, if you’re talking only in the Russian language. Now others have to learn, because those people were secondary, and not so important. The people from the totalitarian time, have problems, as you have to give up certain things. You have to be normal. I find it imperialistic pride. It’s very difficult to give up. It will just die with time. I witnessed it, and I see in very simple people how it’s very difficult to leave. Because if you were more important than others, and if someone is giving you this opportunity again, this is your opportunity. You suffer 20 years, and now… it’s very strange what is going on. But I think all these things should have happened in 1993, at the time when it collapsed. It just happened now. It had this incubation period. Because when the countries collapsed, people didn’t have time to think what was going on. Everybody thought there is Perestroika. All the things started with Ukraine, and you understood that there was no perestroika at all. We are like a romantic people. We say, “Oh, Perestroika…” But you have to work and do things. I think this is also a lack of political education, and education in human rights. Because people still suffer from Soviet repression, the Soviet time has left a really, really big trace. This is Pandora’s box, and Putin opened it. I think he as a person has an interesting charisma, with some kind of key to open it and manipulate. He looks like he’s a very normal Russian guy. People feel he’s “Our guy,” You know, “He’s like me, and he made this. If he can do this, then why not?” And also, because he was KGB. During the Stalin times, there was the KGB, and people always talked in the kitchen. Even now, you can see people always try to not talk. All these points, which now Putin is using, are still there. He knows, the pattern and the construction of how to talk with the people, it’s there still. After these 20 years, the anatomy didn’t change. You find out it’s still there.