Recently, I received the unfortunate news of the untimely passing of an exceptional figure in the Kazakh art scene, who succumbed to cancer at a young age. I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Bakhyt Bubicanova during my research and visit to Almaty for the exhibition Suns and Neons above Kazakhstan. Beyond her amiable and inquisitive nature, her significance in the Kazakh art community should not be underestimated.
In a social and political context where protests are not viable, the artist found a way to express her perspectives on political matters, often employing her own body. Consequently, her art firmly aligns with the category of Feminist Art Activism.
Through the politicization of her body and the utilization of media such as video and collage, she employed activism as a tool to expose the person behind societal stereotypes. Her artworks served as visual responses to themes of imperialism and nationalism embracing elements of irony. She eschewed the use of art for propagandistic purposes, opting instead for a distinct engagement with political histories, particularly pertaining to heroism. Her work critiqued prevailing realities regarding the representation of power, predominantly male, in visual arts, encompassing mediums such as monuments, architecture, and painting. By juxtaposing elements of the baroque with the depiction of an unidealized female body, allegorical forms, traditionally presented in an embellished manner, underwent a transformation into political satire within her works.
One of her photographic series, Kazakh Imperial Art, was created during her art studies in 2010/2011. Due to financial constraints, she was unable to afford a model for her paintings. Consequently, she requested her roommate to photograph her, utilizing the images as references for her artworks. This series offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into history painting, where peculiar templates served as the basis for large-scale images that, in reality, possessed no heroic attributes but were constructed from entirely absurd scenes. In some instances, the artist is depicted reclining strangely on her couch, holding a sofa cushion in place of weapons, which would later be depicted in the paintings. This body of work explicitly critiques the aestheticization of politics through the production of the anti-spectacular. Furthermore, the substitution of typically male actors with her own female body serves as a commentary on the prevailing limitations imposed upon women’s roles, positions, lives, and potentials.
Considering the post-Soviet background, it is important to acknowledge that the presentation of one’s own nudity carries different implications compared to its place in Western art history. In the Soviet Union, constant apprehension regarding political surveillance and censorship permeated society, leading individuals to be cautious about their behavior and expressions in public. The public display of personal matters formed a distinct tradition in the West, originating in the 1960s. Such artistic works deliberately provoke shock and disgust, often interpreted as a liberation from social and political constraints. Historically, the term body art is closely associated with Western movements such as the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, civil rights, and human rights movements. In the post-Soviet Central Asian context, these types of artistic expressions emerged primarily in the 1990s and 2000s. Nevertheless, the manifestation of nudity within the Central Asian context, when viewed from a non-European art historical perspective, has a long tradition and can be attributed to nomadic rituals. However, it is important to acknowledge that these expressive practices were prohibited during the Soviet Regime, as any form of spirituality or religious activity was deemed incongruous with communist ideology. In the present discourse surrounding this subject, where artists delve into the exploration of these age-old rituals, it becomes crucial to tread carefully and avoid falling into the trap of orientalist debates.
An illustrative case in point is the artwork titled Northern Barbarians: Part II: Love Races (2000) created by Rustam Khalfin, a widely recognized pioneer of contemporary art in Kazakhstan. Collaborating with Yuliya Tikhonova, the video piece portrays a couple engaging in sexual activity while mounted on horseback. This depiction draws inspiration from a compilation of illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries known as Chinese Eros and provides insight into the nomadic tribes’ amorous practices, commonly labeled as ‘Northern Barbarians’ by the Chinese. Within this artwork, elements of voyeurism and orientalism are addressed, wherein the Other is objectified, explored, explained, and sexualized. Additionally, it serves as a critique of the Western art market’s propensity to embrace and perpetuate the exoticized stereotypes of nomadic cultures, highlighting a discernible male perspective.
In contrast, Bubicanova’s artistic endeavors serve to rectify this perspective by abstaining from presenting her body as a mere object of sexual desire. Instead, she critically examines the intricate connection between power and gender, particularly how gender functions within the power dynamics prevalent in visual art. Through the use of her own body and her distinctive personality as mediums of expression, she intentionally provokes contemplation and engagement with these themes.
Bubicanova’s most renowned work, titled The Apotheosis of War (2013), is a reinterpretation of the original by Russian painter Vereshchagin. In this rendition, the skulls depicted in Vereshchagin’s piece are substituted with Pussy Riot’s balaclavas – the masks prominently worn by the group during their performances. The significance of these masks is articulated by Tolokonnova, a member of Pussy Riot, who explains:
Early on, I discovered that when I’m wearing a mask I feel a little bit like a superhero and maybe feel more power. I feel really brave, I believe I can do anything and everything, and I believe that I can change the situation. We played at being superheroes, Batwomen or Spider-women, who arrive to save our country from the villain (…)
Although Bubicanova’s artworks maintain a modest appearance, the inclusion of activist elements is understated rather than overt. It is perhaps within this deliberately anti-heroic presentation that their true heroic impact is found.
Chambers, P. (2020) ‘MATERIALIZING DISSENT. Pussy Riot’s Balaclavas, Material Culture and Feminist Agency’ Deepwell, K. (ed.). Feminist Art Activism and Artivisms, pp. 237–247.
Badovinac, Z. (1998) ‘Body and the East’, Moderna galerija (Ljubljana).
Ibraeva, V. (2014) Bakyht Bubicanova, Painter, Video- and Photography Artist. Journal Robb Report.
Leaflet of the exhibition Suns and Neons above Kazakhstan (2017) Baku, Azerbaijan: YARAT Contemporary Art Space.
Northern Barbarians, part 2: Love Races. (2000) [Online] M HKA Ensembles. Available from : http://ensembles.org/items/112 [Accessed 31.05.2023].