MENLIBAYEVA, Almagul; Wrapping history
Born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, artist Almagul Menlibayeva currently lives and works in Amsterdam, Berlin and Almaty. She studied at the Academy of Art and Theatre in Almaty, receiving conventional training as well as an awareness of the textile traditions of Kazakhstan. She has gained international recognition in the last decade and exhibited at the Sydney Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2006, the German Oberhausen Film Festival in 2009 and 2010, and the three most recent Venice Biennales (2005, 2007 and 2009).
Menlibayeva’s work reflects on history, memory, ideology and the impact of globalism on a culture once referred to as ‘second-world’. Her practice incorporates photography, film and video, through which she creates works that are emerging from a cultural history largely invisible, since the late 1980s, to the contemporary European art world. Since the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1990–91, the Central Asian cultures have remained in comparative isolation. Menlibayeva was seventeen at the time. Following the USSR’s dissolution, Kazakhstan declared its independence as a constitutional republic in 1991, but continuing suppression of cultural traditions and languages, collectivisation of pasture lands and aftermath of Soviet nuclear testing are immediate historical realities.
Much of Menlibayeva’s work represents a reconnection to her cultural heritage through her family and people but from an independent and critical position. Where Islam is referred to in her work, it is through the lens of its hybridisation within Kazakhstan’s ancient culture. She has said of her works that they are the ‘bearer[s] of an animistic philosophy born in the depth of my culture’s heart that wants to impart its legacy to the globalised technological society’.(1) Adopting a visual-historical language, which she calls Romantic Punk Shamanism, Menlibayeva explores her country’s nomadic past and its volatile present: Kazakhstan’s history combines indigenous tribal nomadism, invasion in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, colonisation by tsarist Russia and integration into the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Wrapping history 2010 acknowledges Kazakhstan’s Islamic heritage while symbolically placing a woman at the centre of the composition. Outlined against the facade of a decorative mosque is a woman shrouded in cloth. The cloth dominates the composition with its strong lines characteristic of Ikat weaving — a traditional style in Kazakhstani textile culture. It veils her eyes, recalling the classical Roman allegorical figure Justitia in a metaphor for objective impartiality.
A number of young artists have recently turned to their immediate past and to their cultural heritage, re-examining colonial histories and cultural erasure. Almagul Menlibayeva is an important emerging figure among them.
David Burnett, Artlines 4-2010, p.38.
1 Almagul Menlibayeva, artist statement.