Artistic gesture as a necessity (Almaty city)

city culture 09.10.2017

Artistic gesture as a necessity (Almaty city)

Almaz Isakov

Article from the magazine “City: made by …”, (Bishkek, 2017)

A resident of Astana, Nesipkul Uyabaeva, who lives in a private house that falls under demolition, covered the exterior walls of the house with portraits of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev printed on a color printer. According to the woman, by posting 91 portraits of the president on the walls she wants to stop the planned demolition of her dwelling in the former horticultural association “Mayskiy”[1].

Nesipkul Uyabaeva, having abandoned all hope in fighting by legal methods and feeling powerless over a huge state machine, makes an artistic gesture that cannot be overlooked. Nesipkul does not even appeal to the president himself, but to his image. This gesture, firstly, grasps what is “dissolved in the air” – in the totalitarian regime, the image of the dictator is an absolute, uncontested power. Secondly, this gesture is a partisan appropriation of the power image. Nesipkul covers her house with Nazarbayev’s portraits in order to protect it from demolition authorized by the very authority/the president. 


“Why I hung up this portrait, because officials are not afraid of God, of no one, let them be afraid of our president. Our president maintains the same policy, so that people live well, that our future, everything was beautiful, top notch, and here they throw us out on the street, taking away our own lands”. Nesypkul Uybaeva

The president’s policy, which Nesipkul talks about, can be briefly described by his words: “The face was washed, but the ass is all covered in holes[2]“. In this case, the president is concerned about the aesthetic component of his Astana project. This concern is also provoked by the “Astana Expo” project. Such events create a large flow of tourists, businessmen/potential investors into the country, and the city turns into one big stage, where a grandiose presentation of national pride unfolds. In the context of such events, and in general in the vision (of the authority) of the city, buildings like Nesypkul’s house become that very “holey ass,” which must be covered in order to avoid “shame.” It is noteworthy that this situation is archetypical and reveals the inconsistency of liberal optics. The president, fearing “shame,” makes a decision to destroy any factor that can cause it, in this case the house. Yet, this is the house of a citizen of Kazakhstan. Thus, if this house is so bad (we will not go into a detailed analysis of what seems to us “bad/unaesthetic” and “good/aesthetic”), then it is Mr. President’s fault. The deplorable nature of its situation is a direct consequence of the policy led by the authorities. The authorities, however, carefully disregard this, using liberal sophistications in the spirit of “everyone is responsible for their success.”

The foregoing makes even more clear the artistic gesture of Nesipkul as a political statement. A political statement with which you can identify, which has already happened in Almaty. On some objects of Almaty city space, as we understand these objects are in the risk zone, or have had precedents of clashing interests of the authorities and citizens, stickers with a portrait of Nazarbayev and citations allegedly belonging to him began to appear. In fact, these are citations of left-wing theorists of the city, such as H. Lefebvre, D. Harvey, and others. Quotations reflect the concepts of a city diametrically opposed to the president’s/authorities’ vision. The appropriated power image has now become a subversion. It is not known whether this involved a group of artists, one artist or indifferent townspeople, but the work on the form was centralized. The diametricality of these concepts is that for Nazarbayev the city and the state as a whole is a personal project that must be coordinated only with his views and the views of various partners that own resources. Whereas for leftist theorists there is an inalienable right to the city of every inhabitant, with whom the authority must reckon.

In light of all this, the question remains for conceptual artists and curators of contemporary art (those who consider themselves and thusly represent themselves) – where are you? There is a feeling that the potential for political struggle has dried up. Personal observation of the habitus of some curators confirms this feeling. For them, art as political is just a topic for which one can get funding to live in comfort. Therefore, any artistic/political statement is stillborn. Any attack on other actors, speculating on the “quality” of the produced material and own regalia within the contemporary art nomenclature, is a panic attack from a sense of insolvency/falsehood. They say the plight of modernity is in the dereferenced bourgeoisie, but it is not true. The plight of modernity is in the bourgeoisie mimicking the leftist artists, curators and activists.

[1] An Astana resident awaiting demolition covered the house with Nazarbaev’s portaits

[2] ibid