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Almagul Menlibayeva, Apa, 2003, one-channel video with sound, still. Courtesy the artist and Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, New York
Almagul Menlibayeva has never followed feminist debates or delved into gender theory, and yet there is no doubt that the representation of the female has long been her core interest. This in many ways encapsulates her position amongst the first post-Soviet generation of artists in Central Asia. What these artists have in common is that when they unexpectedly found themselves citizens of new independent states at the beginning of the 1990s, they were all confronted with the task of defining national identity. In constructing or simply making up a national art of their own, they were also conceiving an alternative to the one hurriedly put forward by the new political leaders. They didn’t recognise themselves in the neo-baroque academic monuments to home-grown heroes and Fathers of the Nation that were brought to life by the official narrative. In this context, the mission that Menlibayeva invented for herself may be defined as an attempt to create space for the female within the framework of a new national cultural paradigm.
In the Soviet era, the canon for the visual representation of the female in Central Asia was embodied in the painting Doch Sovetskoy Kirgizii (Daughter of Soviet Kirghizia) by Semyon Chuykov.1 Executed in 1948, it shows a young girl with Asian features in front of a steppe landscape with a mountain ridge on the horizon. Everything in this picture is programmatic: the youth of the heroine, her clothing (European, not traditionally ethnic), the books she is clutching and her impulsive pose, as if turning towards the future. This was precisely how the so-called ‘liberated Eastern woman’ was imagined by the Soviet modernisers, who had granted