– Autumn/Winter 2012

Almagul Menlibayeva: The Female as Excess

Viktor Misiano

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

  1. Semyon Chuykov was one of many Russian artists who moved to Central Asia in the years after the Russian Revolution and introduced the language and technique of European painting there.

  2. See Anna Temkina, ‘Gendernyi poryadok: postsovetskie transformatsii (Severnyi Tadzhikistan)’, in Sofia Kasymova (ed.), Gender: Traditsiya i sovremennost, Dushanbe: 2005, pp.6—91 (also available at http://www.genderstudies.info, last accessed on 31 July 2012).

  3. Gulnara regularly collaborates with her husband, Muratbek Djumaliev.

  4. Conversation with the artist, July 2012.

  5. The terms ‘post-traumatic texts’ and ‘acting out’ were introduced by literary scholar Dominick LaCapra. See his Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001. The term ‘magical historicism’ was coined by Alexander Etkind. See Mark Lipovetsky and A. Etkind, Vozvrashchenie tritona: Sovetskaya katastrofa i postsovetskiy roman, Moscow: NLO, 2008, p.94. For a more detailed account of how these notions work in the post-Soviet context, see Viktor Misiano, ‘Total Recall: From Acting Out to Working Through’, in Jan De Vree (ed.), Europe at Large: Art from the Former USSR (exh. cat.), Antwerp: M HKA, 2011, pp.12—31.

  6. See Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1983, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

  7. See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980, trans. Leon S. Roudiez), New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

  8. See Irina Zherebkina, ‘O performativnosti zhenskogo’, Gendernye issledovaniya, no.9, 2004, also available at http://www.kcgs.org.ua/gurnal/gurnal–09–06.pdf (last accessed on 30 July 2012).

  9. From the early 1990s onwards, the intellectual heritage of Gilles Deleuze has been very popular among artists and critics in Kazakhstan. The work of Menlibayeva’s mentor Rustam Khalfin, in particular, was interpreted through the category ‘body without organs’. See Zhanat Baymukhametov, ‘Fenomenologiya Drugogo, ili “Golem” shagaet po Zemle’, KURAK. Tsentral’no-aziatskiy al’manakh: iskusstvo i obshchestvo, no.4, 2010—11, pp.12—16.

  10. See Yuliya Kisina, Prostye zhelaniya, St Petersburg: Aleteia, 2001.