From Communist past to Capitalist future, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 fuelled a desire to replace Soviet memorials with architectural odes to nationalistic pride in the Central Asian region. For artist Erbossyn Meldibekov this ritualistic act between man and monument has become a topic of investigation and documentation as he captures and deconstructs the paradox of cultural identity.
Erbossyn Meldibekov, Dzhambul, Part of Family Album Series, Digital Photograph, 1978-2009 (2007-09), © Photos: Yerbossyn Meldibekov & Nurbossyn Oris.
Kazakh artist, Erbossyn Meldibekov, was finishing his studies at the Almaty Theatre and Fine Arts School in Kazakhstan when in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed bringing independence to Central Asia’s long time colonised territories. After a 75-year occupation, what ensued in Kazakhstan was economic, political and social chaos. Ironically, Meldibekov trained as a monumental sculptor under the Soviet regime and following the collapse of the old regime he would return to investigate the culture surrounding monumental architecture in a newly established free market society. His astutely critical approaches to the monumental culture in Family Album (2011), Gattamelata (2007) and Mutations (2001) document social change, question cultural representation and common nation building tactics.
Erbossyn Meldibekov, FamilyAlbum/Mutations, Photograph, 2008-11, © Photos: Yerbossyn Meldibekov.
Family Album (2011) fuses together both factual and fictional histories with the juxtaposition of original family portraits with their present day re-staging. Meldibekov seeks out the subjects of his found family photos and then asks them to pose once again at the site of the original image. He meticulously arranges the sides on which his subjects stand, the placement of arms and feet, the way women’s skirts graze their knees as their overcoats once did, even the way in which a handbag is held. It was tradition within the Soviet Union that as a newly married couple you would pay homage to the symbol of power, typically the local Lenin memorial, with the idea that it would ensure future family prosperity.
This collaborative project between the artist and his brother, Nurbossyn Oris, was prompted by parallel events – first the discovery that within the span of 120 years in the park centre of Tashkent there have been six memorial monuments of national identity all successively proclaiming conflicting ideologies, and second was the unearthing of family archives that captured these markers of rapidly changing times. In an interview Meldibekov comments, ‘I contrast family photographs from twenty years ago with modern ones, and it turns out that nothing much has changed – just the clothing and the heroes on the monuments framing the family being photographed.’ It is within the architecture of the changing landscape and the relationship between man and monument that Meldibekov is able to depict the static and disinterest of the individual against the backdrop of mutating power.
Erbossyn Meldibekov Mutations, Bronze sculptures, dimensions variable, 2008-11, © Photo: Haupt & Binder.
The mass-produced monumental bust is given a new interpretation in the Mutations (2008-11) series as four bronze figures of Lenin are contorted to replicate Giacometti, Patrice Lumumba and a great local hero with mongoloid features exemplifying a return to roots. In Meldibekov’s opinion: ‘in the conditions of post-Soviet nationalism, all our numerous new heroes are very monotonous: they are heroes of the past, invoked to confirm the historical credibility of our new governmental forms. But since nobody knows what these heroes looked like, there is a mushrooming of ethnic characteristics.’
Erbossyn Meldibekov, Gattamelata (previously Monument to Unknown Hero), 1999-2007.
Gattamelata (1999-2007), previously Monument to an Unknown Hero, reflects on the acceptance of the Western monument standardisation. Unlike the mushrooming of local heroes that Meldibekov mentioned above, here there is no face that can readily be identified. The natural materials used: horse, pelt and bone, are references to a nomadic era in the history of the Kazakh peoples but also to the equestrian sculptures of Europe’s monumental myth-making. Meldibekov takes European standards and applies barbaric tactics, the use of a real animal and its subsequent decapitation combined with an elegant positioning of the hooves. The absence of a rider is more telling of the current struggle for representation than any figure could be; asking the question – who can truly serve as a representative of such a complicated and diverse past?
Erbossyn Meldibekov is one of the first-generation of artists to come out of Kazakhstan following independence. He is highly esteemed and has been successful in creating dialogue with his contemporaries, through the now defunct Soros Contemporary Art Center – Almaty and Tengri Umai Gallery. He has been featured in numerous exhibitions, festivals, the 51st and 54th Venice Biennale’s Central Asian Pavilions, and more recently the Gwanju Biennial in Korea and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland Art Gallery in Australia.
Kasia Ploskonka also contributed to this article.