Erbossyn Meldibekov : Towards the definition of an atypical path

By Boris Chukhovich

Erbossyn Meldibekov is undoubtedly one of the most popular artists in contemporary Central Asia. It is possible to assert that, with regards to his persistence in struggling against all sorts of oppressive ideology, he is at this moment the most significant artist of this region. The artist became to gain recognition on the international art scene since 2005, when his work My Brother, My Enemy became a real icon during the 51th Venice Biennale. Yet the very presence of the artist on the international art scene doesn’t cease to arise questions over the integration of non-western artists into the network and institutions of contemporary art.

While showing in Western institutions this artist coming from an obscure and « exotic » region such as Central Asia, critics and curators usually try to provide orientalist interpretations and feedbecks, admitting, in so doing, their reticence, either intentional or not, to drop their prejudices concerning the radical difference between artistic edges of the world and western mainstream. In Meldibekov’s creations they rather underline a certain Asian element – rough, unattractive, violent, seady, raw – as opposed to contemporary culture, considered as « pragmatic » and « rational ». Even when the artist’s work is analysed by critics knowing his production in detail, they most frequently prefer to associate their interpretations to alleged local roots, which, in their views, radically distinguish Meldibekov from his western pairs. In order to uphold my thesis, I will refer to the latest Meldibekov’s solo show, which took place in Almaty in 2015. His author, the internationally recognized curator and editor of a well-known contemporary art magazine Viktor Misiano, has favoured a monographic approach aiming at presenting the major possible number of works, in a retrospective and in-depht analysis. Nevertheless the texts which came with the exposition weren’t neither neutrals nor academics. The very title of the exhibition – Eternal Return – should have, according Viktor Misiano, called to mind the « ritual character » of the artist’s work. The curator brings forward the fact that Meldibekov « turns the ritual into a theme, making it essential to his poetics. » Thus, in an elaborate form of critical museography, refering to Lévi-Bruhl, Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Blanchot, we witness the arising of the ancient opposition between « West », developping in a progressive and exponential way, and « East », ceaselessly performing the same rituals in circular movements.

Such authoritarian discourses affect the vocabulary used on local scene. The kazakh gallery which hosted the Eternal Return exhibition points out in its website that « the search of national roots, is one the main goals of Meldibekov’s art. » and stress on the fact that « Traditional culture has inspired the artist not only to change and renew, but also to repeat and return. » Rarer are those in Kazakhstan who try to interpret the artist’s production as a contemporary international art phenomenon, with its mixed and moderate references, among which western sources and inspirations have a major place. These attempts of a different kind of interpretation remain isolated and, even worst, ignored by the interior and the outside of Central Asia.External orientalisation is achieved by self-orientalisation and self-exoticization which is very confortable for everyone.

Without any doubts, Asia – or, more exactly, Central Asia, and sometimes Eurasia – is the center of Erbossyn Meldibekov ‘s interests. However, the evolution of the artist’s work shows in a very explicit way that the artist has always strove to deconstruct traditions and rituals of this region rather than to follow them. Even more significant in this sens is his growing desire for political criticism pointing at new state-controlled ideologies in central asian societies. Throughout his career, the artist has come to be more sensitive to any kind of outbursts of violence and oppression on behalf of power, and he tries to unmask new clichés and ideological dictates of our times. This approach has caused changement in the language used by the artist, whose expressive technique, mixing attractivity and spectacular performativity had made space for documentary and analytical processes. It would probably be interesting to note that in the middle of the 2000s, Erbol Meldibekov and the author of this text have progressed at the same time in our projets, studying, each of us with his own method, the evolution of official monuments of Tachket from Colonial, Soviet and Post-Soviet times.
Thus, Mutations and Phantom Invasions projects have appeared at the same time that my own study over the semiological genealogy of the Independence Monument in Ouzbekistan : therefore art and historical research blend in the same effort to comprehend the evolution of central asian contemporary society, whose repressed roots hid themeselves inside th colonial and soviet legacy of the region .

This way, the creative evolution of Erbossyn Meldibekov bares little ressemblance to the conventionnally apolitical career of the « contemplative eastern artist » whose image is kept up and nourished by central asian dictatorships. I would als add that this artist process remains atypical for the encompassing majority of the established artists on the international art scene, whose relationships with grantors and art institutions do not allow an open criticism of the State politics. The artist’s path reminds us of individual resistence – as much transgressive as dangerous – of dissidents from the past rather than of intellectual’s carrer’s of nowadays. His work, attepting to unveil the rough reality which lay behind the mask of new ideology is far closer to Foucault’s, Lacan’s and Deleuze’s legacy than to « asian rituals » « eternally returning ».

The Revolution in the Montains

Focusing his work on the changes of the turbulent political history of Central Asia Yerbossyn Meldibekov, explores through a longterm research, numerous visual languages, repetition and a certain irony the transformation of the urban environment where the constant mutations of sculptures, monuments, flags and national symbols reveal the porosity in the history and shifting identities that surface with every new government.

Yerbossyn Meldibekov´s mediums such as sculptures, objects, installations, photos and videos offer his viewers absurd and humorous visual interpretations of a desperate search for brand-new starts that are nothing more than mere political façades.

About the exhibition:

For his Up and coming exhibition during the Brussels Art Days 2013 at Jozsa Gallery, Yerbossyn Meldibekov presents works such as “Fog” a photo collage devoted to “Afghan female fashion” where the shifting of photographic technologies seems to plunge the world into a fog. “Self portraits” a series of wax sculpture bust of Asian communist dictators morphed with the artist´s own physiognomic features. “Lenin Peak” where a dialog between objects and lighting imitate the day transitions, morning, midday and evening making an allegory to the centenary history of re-namings of the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and “Competition” a visual investigation in 10 archival photos and drawings of one of the squares in Tashkent where throughout 90 years 10 monuments were replaced.

A rich variety of works where Yerbossyn Meldibekov engages the viewers in a poignant critic through a political frame.

Lingua Franca

54th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia - Central Asia Pavilion
Palazzo Malipiero, San Marco 3109-3201, Venice


more in .pdf




Lives and works in Almaty, Kazakhstan