Lines of Sight
Artist Networks in Soviet and Post-Soviet Central Asia
by Robbie Schweiger
Last year, the Stedelijk’s collection grew further with the donation of 22 works by 13 artists represented by Aspan, a gallery in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Aspan represents and supports artists from Central Asia through exhibitions, publications, educational programs and residencies.  In September 2021, I embarked on a research project informed by the donated works, with financial support from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The project focuses on three of the 13 artists: Vyacheslav Akhunov (1948), Lidiya Blinova (1948-1996) and Rustam Khalfin (1949-2008).
Fig. 1: Elena and Viktor Vorobyev’s studio in Almaty. The backlit photographic print is from the duo’s light box installation Ruler of the Stars. © Robbie Schweiger Fig. 2: An abandoned building known as ‘the snail’ in Bishkek, a broken-down sign for the cigarette brand ‘West’ hanging from its central column. The sign’s missing letters are only visible in reverse from its undamaged side, the resulting semi-inverted word appearing to symbolize the complex relationship with the West.. The building itself reminds of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a symbol of the utopian aspirations of Soviet Modernism/Universalism. © Robbie Schweiger Fig. 3: Traditional Uzbek handwoven silk fabric with palm motifs. There are no palm trees in Central Asia, but their image appears on all sorts of things as a symbol of sophistication. © Robbie Schweiger Fig. 4: One of Vyacheslav Akhunov’s works coming to the Stedelijk: Zhivi tikho / Dyshi tikho (Live quietly / Breathe quietly), 1975. © Robbie Schweiger Fig. 5: Installation view of the exhibition In honour of L.B. at Asoan Gallery, 2019. In front, Rustam Khalfin’s installation from 1996 that gave name to the exhibiton. In the background Lidiya Blinova’s Finger Ornaments, 1995. Both works are now part of the Stedelijk collection. Courtesy of Aspan Gallery.
These artists were at the forefront of a new wave of Central Asian art production, one constituting a parallel culture that broke away from the officially sanctioned styles and subjects of art in Soviet Central Asia in the mid-1970s. The oeuvres of these artists are examined in light of their interaction and relationships with other artists, artworks and ways of thinking that were part of the ‘counterculture’ to which they belonged, both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By mapping unofficial and/or underground networks around these artists and engaging in dialogue with communities of artists and critics who, to this day, are barely known in Western museums, this project aims to gain access to previously undocumented information and ‘secret’ knowledge created by and exchanged with a small group of insiders. And by retelling the interconnected stories and reconstructing the art practices resulting from this undertaking, it seeks to contribute to the art history of Central Asia and, simultaneously, recontextualize an important part of the Stedelijk Museum’s collection, namely that comprised of Russian avant-garde art, which remains an important point of reference for these artists.
Following a review of existing literature on the subject and several Zoom meetings with local artists and art historians, an overview of the networks around Akhunov, Blinova and Khalfin began to take shape. In November and December 2021, I travelled to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the networks were brought into sharper focus through a series of conversations. Upon my return to the Netherlands, I went through my diary and discovered that the volume of information shared with me exceeded the scope of my research objectives. Thus it was decided that alongside the planned research output – an open-access academic paper – I would share part of my many encounters and findings in the form of travelogues on the Stedelijk Studies’ new website. Over the next few months, I will post four research logs, or travelogues, on the four cities visited for the project: Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Nukus. The people and ideas discussed in these logs may serve as the basis for future research of my own or of others.
Take the plunge
 The donation consists of works by Vyacheslav Akhunov, Bakhyt Bubikanova, Lidiya Blinova, Saodat
Ismailova, Dilyara Kaipova, Rustam Khalfin, Yerbossyn Meldibekov, Almagul Menlibayeva, Alexander Ugay, Gulana Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, and Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev.
 See Aspan’s website: http://aspangallery.com/
 The region labelled Central Asia, a term coined by Alexander von Humboldt in 1843, is seen as stretching from the Caspian Sea to Central China, and from Southern Russia to the north of Pakistan. Based on the origin of the artists represented by the gallery, these diverse territories can be narrowed down to three countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
 This approach was inspired by Klara Kemp-Welch’s book Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019).