LONDON: Central Asia and the Caucasus get a rare moment in the artistic limelight this week as Sotheby’s stages a London exhibition of works from the 1960s to the present day, hoping to generate interest in artists from an often overlooked region.
Lying either side of the Caspian Sea with China to the east, Russia to the north and Iran to the south, countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Georgia have plenty in common, not least subservience to Moscow during the Soviet era.
Other forces unify many of them too – religion, Turkic culture and mineral wealth – but these artists have gone in different directions to explore identity and heritage in a region in flux.
“That’s the beauty of it,” said Suad Garayeva, who curated the show called “At the Crossroads,” “because it becomes disparate and, at the same time, the artists retain this connection.
“For example in the 1990s, a lot of them started looking for their own identity and for that they started reviving old traditions, ancient history.”
Prices for the 47 works on sale range from $3,000 for relatively obscure, up-and-coming artists to $500,000 for a portrait of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich by renowned Azeri artist Tair Salakhov.
While only hinted at through the bleak winter landscape, the dark connections between artist and subject underline the kind of repression many of the featured works were created under.
Painted in 1987, when the political thaw was under way across the Soviet Union, it looks back to darker times when Shostakovich was denounced by Stalin, leading to artistic isolation and uncertainty and the fear of harsher punishment.
The younger Salakhov’s father was arrested and shot in 1938, when he was 9 years old, and later he was refused entry to the Leningrad Academy of Fine Arts because his family was considered an enemy of the people.
Clashes against the system is a recurring theme.
Kyrgyzstan-born, Uzbekistan-based Vyacheslav Akhunov was once considered a political threat and he chose to change his mode of expression to avoid the censors.
In the 1970s, he took to creating notebook-sized works so that he could conceal them inside ordinary books.
On display are 33 such worksheets, all featuring photographs of astronauts who traveled to space between 1961 and 1971 and surrounding them with handwritten excerpts glorifying the Socialist Motherland and Soviet people.
As the tiny writing goes on, it becomes less and less legible until it is a meaningless scrawl.
Although the exact circumstances are unclear, Sotheby’s officials said Akhunov was not allowed to travel to London for the exhibition because he did not get the necessary paperwork from the Uzbek authorities.
In more recent paintings, photographs and videos, artists have branched out to tackle religion, the environment and the pros and cons of renewed wealth driven by huge deposits of oil, gas and minerals being exploited in the region.
In Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva’s photograph “The Aral Beach,” she captures a naked model lying on the parched earth in front of the rusting remains of a boat, her modesty protected by strategically placed military hats.
The land would once have been underwater, but decades of intensive Soviet irrigation projects caused the Aral Sea to shrink to a fraction of its original size, leaving boats and ships eerily stranded on what is now effectively desert.
Sotheby’s will sell the works privately rather than by auction, arguing that little-known artists needed nurturing before their works appeared in public under the hammer.
Officials are hoping for an international audience, but the show is tailored toward wealthy collectors from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia, many of whom have made large fortunes from the global rush for natural resources.
“At the Crossroads” is on display at Sotheby’s London headquarters until March 12.