Art Papers  

more from the
Mar/Apr 2014 issue:

How Are You Today?
AGNES interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist

by Constant Dullaart

Biennial Migrations: Geographical Data from the Whitney and the World
by Nat Slaughter

Hatsune Sings:
AGNES x Frances

by Cécile B. Evans

The Joy of Marginality
by Adrian Piper

Marker 2014: Gulf Solutions
for Central Asia and the Caucasus

Text / Stephanie Bailey

Art Dubai is the leading contemporary art fair in the MENASA—the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia—and its guest-curated section, Marker [March 19-22, 2014], is now in its fourth year of geographically themed, not-for-profit programming. The collective Slavs and Tatars made the selection for 2014, inviting art spaces from Central Asia and the Caucasus to exhibit in the United Arab Emirates. The result proposes a cultural kinship that would extend the acronym to "MENASACA" and, potentially, an interregional helping hand.

Lado Pochkhua, from the series The New Georgian Aristocracy, 2013,
ink on paper, 152 x 102 centimeters
(courtesy of the artist and Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project)

"The landscapes of group identity—the ethnoscapes—around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogeneous."
—David Parkin1

The Caucasus is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in the world—what 10th-century Arab geographer Al-Mas'udi called Jabal al-alsun, or the "Mountain of Tongues."2 Politics separate the region's northern portion, an area in Russia roughly the size of Washington State and consisting of the autonomous republics of Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and North Ossetia, from its southern portion, comprising the independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Caucasus is in turn separated from the steppes of Central Asia—home to five post-Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—by the Caspian Sea. These regions are the focus of this year's Marker, the curated section of the annual Art Dubai fair, for which five art spaces and organizations have been selected by Slavs and Tatars, a mostly anonymous arts collective whose multidisciplinary work is devoted to the sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians, and Central Asians.

The cultural links between Central Asia and the Caucasus are complex. Transdiasporic scholar Madina Tlostanova explains how early anthropologists, such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, regarded the former region as culturally "European" before it was regarded by the Russians as "Asian," a justification for the brutal 19th-century Caucasian wars. Meanwhile, Central Asia—ostensibly the only part of the world in which "Russians are regarded as Europeans!"—was always perceived as "Asian." In the case of both regions, the term has been used as derogatory.3 Yet as Tlostanova notes, within a larger global picture such distinctions have evaporated in recent years: both sides of the Caspian are now regarded together as "Asian," with all previous historical nuance essentially erased. This condition recalls a question Tlostanova once posed to the Global South: "What does it mean to be a void, to be nothing in the new architecture of the world?"4

The question is resonant to the cultural coupling that has been made between the two regions by various factions of art world. Sotheby's presented what it called "the first-ever selling exhibition of contemporary art from both Central Asia and the Caucasus" in 2013; aptly titled Art at the Crossroads: Contemporary Art from the Caucasus and Central Asia, the enterprise took the historical and geographical legacy of the Silk Road and shared Soviet experience as a connecting thread. It is no surprise that the market is taking notice of these regions now. Jo Vickery, senior director and head of Sotheby's Russian Art Department in London, has explained that rapid growth in countries throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia has made this an "exciting new geography for Sotheby's to explore."5 Yet the joint emergence of the two regions into contemporary art's field of vision obscures a discrepancy between their perceived economic wealth and their respective artistic and cultural realities. In the 20 years since perestroika, glasnost, and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Central Asia and the Caucasus have undergone vast political and ideological changes, creating fault lines that have caused arts infrastructure to quake.

Stanislav Kharin, from the series "Poetic Entente or Occupation of the Heart" Paul Celan, 2009, acrylic on canvas (courtesy of North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art, Vladikavkaz, Nothern Caucasus, Russia)

On the cultural production within the two regions, Vickery has rightly observed a "searching" for national identity in art from the Caucasus and Central Asia, something that, she notes, "was eradicated in many ways by the Soviet realist school."6 This move toward producing national identities provides the conceptual framework behind this year's Marker, for which Slavs and Tatars has chosen five art spaces and institutions: Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project (Tbilisi, Georgia); ArtEast (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); Asia Art (Almaty, Kazakhstan); North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art (Vladikavkaz, Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, Russia); and YARAT Contemporary Art Space (Baku, Azerbaijan). On the predominance of institutional spaces in their selection, Slavs and Tatars explained in conversation: "How can you have galleries when you don't have a market?" The statement points to the lack of an art ecology in each region, and to the efforts being made to change this fact. Slavs and Tatars has thus pointed Marker toward global questions about infrastructure that surround contemporary cultural organization and production—something the UAE, and by wider implication the Gulf (namely, Qatar), has been actively addressing in past decades.

Marker's 2014 edition remains true to its initial mission: to provide a platform from which to engage and collaborate with areas of the globe viewed to have a shared history or contemporaneity with the Gulf, whether through religion, trade, or a specific sensibility. Indonesia featured in its 2012 edition, curated by Alia Swastika, and in 2013, curator Bisi Silva invited a selection of galleries from West Africa. As Art Dubai Director Antonia Carver pointed out in an email interview, "the whole point of Marker is to shed light on a set of arts scenes that are perhaps underrepresented on the international stage"—places where art practitioners and cultural producers are making compelling work, or more precisely are "attempting to transform their cities" or regions.

These intentions reflect those of Art Dubai. A commercial fair launched in 2007, it has, along with the Sharjah Biennial (launched in 1993), solidified its position as a cultural platform negotiating emerging senses of regional, national, and international identities, and even meta-identities forged from a postcolonial context. After all, the emirates of the UAE gained independence from British rule in 1971 and formed their federation that same year. This condition is a fertile theme when it comes to Marker's 2014 iteration, as the relationship between the republics of the Caucasus and Russia involves "a long history of border wars and imperial expansion."7 In thinking about these postcolonial and post-Soviet contexts, Slavs and Tatars has found a resonant thread between their chosen regions and the Gulf: they have all experienced relatively new exercises in nation-building, beginning in the 1950s in the latter region, and in the 90s in the post-Soviet states.

In light of these historical complexities, Marker's 2014 platform argues for cosmopolitanism. Slavs and Tatars has worked with each space and its artists to produce an introduction through what the curators call "a regime of portraiture"—a disturbance of figuration that features faces, places, and traces in works ranging from mid-20th-century painting to contemporary drawings and sculptures. The thematic intent is to encourage discussions around faith, language, and landscape, while considering how these notions have been "ritualized, interiorized, and hybridized beyond the often brittle politics of identity." The intention is to produce a space within which commonalities and convergences across regions, nations, and art practices might be observed and explored within the global frame of Art Dubai and its international audiences, without the threat of a certain cultural reduction.

Sergey Maslov, Baikonur 2, 1990, installation, computer collage, sound projection, and text (courtesy of Asia Art+)

The approach is reflective of a new kind of cartography Slavs and Tatars proposed at a 2012 edition of Art Dubai's Global Art Forum, another discursive part of the fair's not-for-profit programming that features interdisciplinary panel discussions and experimental presentations. The group suggested an expansion of the regional acronym currently used to define the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia—MENASA—to include Central Asia and the Caucasus, thus, MENASACA. On the subject of Marker 2014, the curators stated their excitement "to tell a different story of these regions," which they described in 2012 as largely ignored territory, despite sharing cultural and historical ties with the MENASA. These ties can be traced back to the legacy of the Silk Road, the old trade routes of which Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Gulf were and are a central part. Aida Mahmudova, the founder of Azerbaijan's contemporary art space YARAT, has also remarked on this relationship: "As ex-Soviet countries, the Caucasus and Central Asia share recent political history, but in the more distant past, they have been fruitful trading partners, sharing political, religious, scientific and cultural ideas. Socially there is both great diversity and mutual understanding in the region; many cultures and religions have lived alongside each other for millennia." Likewise, as Carver explains, "most capitals within what can loosely be termed Central Asia and the Caucasus have a historical relationship with Iran and the Arab world," not to mention "a contemporary relationship—through communications, travel and trade—with the Gulf, and particularly Dubai."

To illuminate and perhaps revive these connections through the prism of contemporary art, Slavs and Tatars has designed a communal installation for Marker after the chaikhaneh, or Eurasian tea salon, leveraging a space and a concept that is familiar across the Muslim and Asian worlds, from Turkey to Xinjiang. In presenting disparate regions in the steadfastly "social" environment of the traditional tearoom, a new approach to global relationality is proposed. The motif invokes a crossroads that is commercial (as an intersection for trade) and cultural (as a place to sit, drink, and discuss). It is a fitting theme for Marker, itself a space of cultural relation that operates within an art fair, which is in turn a social marketplace predicated on trade. As a spatial metaphor, the tearoom takes a mediatory position that privileges nonconfrontational interaction through culture, encouraging dialogue in a hospitable space of casual proximity. As an approach, it at once problematizes and expands upon common themes too often viewed as binaries: the local vs. the global, the historical vs. the contemporary, the public institution vs. private commerce.

This breaking down of binaries reflects on strides taken in the UAE with regard to using culture as a tool through which nations might mediate their own identity within a larger geopolitical frame. This year's Marker theme recalls that of the 11th Sharjah Biennial in 2013, which similarly invoked the ancient trade routes and trading posts by referring not to the chaikhaneh but to the Islamic courtyard garden as a medium through which to explore shared relationships between the territories of the Global South. This was also a cartographical project; mapping out the cultural relationships within a term—the Global South—that encompasses the regions of Central America and Latin America, Africa, the Middle East including the Mediterranean (but excepting, officially speaking, the European South), and most of Asia. Of course, one thing defining much of this vast area is a legacy of colonialism, which recalls the observations made by Slavs and Tatars on the commonalities between Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Gulf. These regions, due to their postcolonial or neocolonial contexts, have had recent and analogous experiences in nation building, and for many the challenge of restoring or renovating their cultural infrastructures remains.

Wato Tsereteli in collaboration with Galaktion Eristavi and Leqso Soselia, 0000000, 2012 (courtesy of Wato Tsereteli and Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project)

The Caucasus, according to Slavs and Tatars, are doing better in terms of building civil institutions than the countries of Central Asia, in which there is a significant lack of infrastructure. This story is told through Marker selections such as Asia Art+, a space without a space in Almaty, Kazakhstan, run by Yuliya Sorokina. Sorokina also founded ASTRAL NOMADS, an online archive for art in Central Asia named after a novel by Sergey Maslov, for whom the project was originally initiated (Maslov passed away in 2002). ASTRAL NOMADS highlights a compelling issue Slavs and Tatars discovered through their research in Central Asia: it is difficult to find artists under the age of 40, let alone information on those who are. This is the result of Kazakhstan's lack of initiatives supporting local art production—initiatives as basic as art schools that would produce new artists, while preserving the work and knowledge of their forebears. These infrastructural gaps make endeavors such as Sorokina's crucial.

Here, Central Asia finds a point of convergence with the Caucasus. In Georgia, Irena Popiashvili, who recently relocated to Tbilisi from New York, co-founded the Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project, another unconventionally formatted gallery. It also acts as an advisory and consultation service to collectors, manufacturers, designers, architectural firms, museums, and design schools, as well as offering curatorial services for both residential and commercial projects. She has also taken on the task of creating a new Visual Arts and Design School at the Free University in Tbilisi. It will, according to Popiashvili, "occupy the space between the two extremes that exist right now in Georgia"—namely, between the academic style of the past and the contemporary visual language of the present—a space left by post-Soviet transition. Popiashvili explains the void within the frame of cultural production and culture institutions: "Since the USSR fell apart, Georgia has not redefined what it means to be an artist here. The academy was serving the ideology of the party until 1991—they were producing students trained to illustrate Communist Party ideas. There was an underground art scene at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, but with the civil war of the 90s and economic hardship, it kind of died out. The artists either left or stopped making art."

During the 1990s, NGOs did enter Central Asia and indeed promoted local cultural figures and artists abroad. But, as Slavs and Tatars explains, "they didn't really invest in a long-term goal, in education, or in bringing these skills to duration locally." In 1998, George Soros founded the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty, only for its doors to close in 2009. During this time the Central Asian Pavilion was established at the Venice Biennale (in 2005), initiated by Russian curator Viktor Misiano and operating without organizational or financial support from any national government. Instead, it works with foreign nonprofits—in 2013, for instance, the pavilion was supported by the charitable Dutch organization HIVOS: the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation. According to Slavs and Tatars, most NGOs have left Central Asia since these efforts began, however, and perhaps understandably. It is no secret that the region is awash with natural resources, including oil, and is therefore incredibly wealthy—another point of convergence it has with the Gulf. Where these areas diverge, however, is how that wealth is used when it comes to investing in culture.

Slavs and Tatars contends that much could be gained from comparing and exposing the practices of the Gulf, and in particular the United Arab Emirates, to the forces in power—administrative and economic—in such nations as Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Investing in infrastructure and institutional support for the arts, and perhaps embracing a more progressive view toward their function, the Gulf is an example of how cultural economies and scenes are being built and nurtured. Neighboring the UAE is Qatar, another emirate with a big stake in contemporary art. In 2011 Qatar had officially become the biggest consumer of art in the world, attributed to a "buying spree" in advance of the 2022 World Cup. Recent acquisitions have included the record-breaking 2011 purchase of one of Paul Cé—zanne's Card Players, sold for $250 million at auction. Yet investment in Qatar has also gone into developing state cultural institutions such as the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, while encouraging the development of academic programs such as those offered at Virginia Commonwealth University's Qatar campus, where students may now pursue BFA and MFA degrees. Support has also gone to exhibitions and institutional partnerships abroad: a recent Damien Hirst retrospective, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority, was first shown at London's Tate Modern in 2012 before traveling to Doha in 2013.

"None of this is happening in Central Asia," Slavs and Tatars reminds us. Thus, by comparison, the Gulf's support of both commercial and public enterprises within the arts is laudable. Slavs and Tatars insists that Marker's trans-regional study is not a moral proposition, but an infrastructural one. As such the group is able to bypass familiar political critiques of Central Asian republics—where elections continue to fall short of democratic standards, and media outlets remain under government control—and the equally problematic, notoriously hierarchical hereditary monarchies of the Gulf. After all, as Fred Inglis once observed: the study of culture is the study of power relations.8 In that case, perhaps it is better to have culture than no culture at all.

Despite the flight of NGOs from Central Asia, the work being done by institutions featured at Marker suggests a future for real cultural development both there and in the Caucasus. Of the spaces taking part, YARAT stands out as a regional model for an institution working at once locally, to stimulate production, and globally, to create an international presence. In 2012 it launched the PARTICIPATE Baku Public Arts Festival, and in 2013 it staged Love Me Love Me Not, a collateral exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale that featured artists from within and around Azerbaijan. YARAT founder Aida Mahmudova sees Azerbaijan's economic and geographical situation as particularly well-suited to aiding cultural reform in both regions, expressly using its position "as a relatively prosperous country at the crossroads of Central Asia and the Caucasus ... to lead artistic initiatives and become a focal point for culture in the region." Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial capitalize on the UAE's own position at a cultural, commercial, and geographical intersection to do the same.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai offers two key definitions in Modernity at Large: "History leads you outward, to link patterns of changes to increasingly larger universes of interaction; genealogy leads you inward, toward cultural dispositions and styles that might be stubbornly embedded both in local institutions and in the history of the local habitus."9 Applying these definitions to Marker 2014, what we see is the manifestation of a refreshed worldview that recognizes, as Appadurai has also observed, that today there are "fewer cultures in the world and more internal cultural debates."10 As a curatorial endeavor, the efforts described above seek to mediate multiple contextual complexities so as to produce a historical and genealogical space within which regions—and their constituent nations—might come together and articulate themselves within a cooperative global framework.

It is at this meta-historical juncture'—between past, present, and potential futures'—that the cross-regional cartographies being produced through such cultural programming in Marker, and by wider association, the Gulf, are at their most potent. As a platform, Art Dubai, Marker, and indeed the Sharjah Biennial have deliberately positioned themselves as contemporary meeting points between "ancient" and "new" art centers, not to mention those centers regarded in the contemporary art world as powerful or dominant. As such, they engender a global lateralizing that moves away from linear historical narratives or hierarchical fields of cultural '—and thus political'—relation.

Stephanie Bailey is the managing editor of Ibraaz. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is currently based in London, though her heart is in Athens, Greece, where she wrote, edited, and taught between 2006 and 2012. Bailey also writes for Artforum, ArtAsiaPacific, Modern Painters, LEAP, Ocula, and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. Her work also appears in Notes on Metamodernism and Hyperallergic.

1. As quoted by Arjun Appadurai in Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 48.
2. J.C. Catford, "The Classification of Caucasian Languages," Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations Into the Prehistory of Languages, eds. Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 232–233.
3. With the notable exception of Tajiks, who were not Turkic people and anthropologically not Asian, a fact that was and is used as a source of political tension.
4. Madina Tlostanova, "The South of the Poor North: Caucasus Subjectivity and the Complex of Secondary ‘Australism,'" The Global South 5, No. 1 (2011): 66–84.
5., "Sotheby's announces first ever selling exhibition of contemporary art from central Asia and the Caucasus," published December 13, 2012, at
6. Daisy Sindelar, "Sotheby's Exhibit Taps Into Art—And Money—Of Caucasus, Central Asia," Radio Free Europe, published March 3, 2013, at
7. Charles King and Rajan Menon, "Prisoners of the Caucasus: Russia's Invisible Civil War," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010, www.foreignaffairs. com/articles/66446/charles-king-and-rajan-menon/prisoners-of-the-caucasus
8. Fred Inglis, Cultural Studies (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993): 185.
9. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996): 74.
10. Appadurai: 48.

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