To deeper connect to the artist, TiA brings you a series of interviews with artists from around the globe. Our passion at TiA Talent is making art accessible and celebrating art from a wide variety of cultures which are often overlooked in Western Europe. This series allows us to connect artists, who use different mediums and grapple with a wide variety of themes, with you, our readers! Travel with us as each interview transports you to a new city or continent. Get to know different artists as we explore their backgrounds, stories, inspirations, and exhibitions.
Our first interview takes us to the Steppe of Kazakhstan, as we talk to Saule Suleimenova about her artistic journey and how and why she celebrates Kazakh identity through her remarkable work. Saule was extremely kind during the interview process, she answered every question with great passion and detail and gave us an exclusive look at her upcoming exhibition Saga of Returnees, which was a real honour.
Saule Suleimenova was born in Almaty, which was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Republic, on the 29th April 1970. Her father was an architect and an artist, and her mother was an ethnomusicologist who researched traditional Kazakh music. Saule is married to fellow Kazakh artist Kuanysh Bazargaliyev with whom she has two daughters, Suibike and Medina, both of whom are artists and art and civil activists. Saule began to write poems and studying art when she was 12, and when she was 16 she realised herself ‘as an artist, when the only way to live with no pain was to paint.’ She later studied Architecture and the Design of Architectural Environments at Kazakh State Academy of Architecture and Construction in 1996. She also graduated from Kazakh State University of Arts in 2013 with a Masters in Art Criticism.
Art and Activism
For Saule, art and activism are intertwined; her own celebration of Kazakh culture and identity is in many ways a form of rebellion; a constant battle against the colonial Russian and Soviet forces that attempted to erase the Kazakh language and culture and belittled the Kazakhs as second-class citizens. This long journey of decoloniality began when Saule was growing up with her mother, whose work researching traditional Kazakh music meant that she was able to hear ‘the amazing traditional Kazakh musicians and …amazing conversations with Kazakh intellectuals who [were] talking about the values of Kazakh national culture.’
When she was finishing school, she experienced the Jeltoqsan student protest movement. Jeltoqsan was a peaceful protest of Gorbachev’s dismissal of ethnic Kazakh First Secretary Kunaev and instillment of his Russian replacement Kolbin. Troops descended on the protesters, and it quickly became violent. Saule remembers : ‘I didn’t speak Kazakh, I just wanted to be with them. I think this is not only post-colonial but the colonial mind or the colonial feeling it is just still in process, it is very difficult to discover, to understand that you just deserve to have respect in your own national culture when everything and everywhere and everyone around you tells you something different.’
Jeltoqsan has undoubtedly influenced her work; ‘My own gesture in my decolonial kind of way was my project Kazakh Chronicle which I started in 2008, when I was just trying to work with old archive Kazakh photos, and contemporary photos in the streets of my town. I’m sure that my way to decoloniality of the consciousness of my understanding of myself is just on the way, it’s a long process.’
What does it mean to be Kazakh?
Kazakh identity is at the heart of Saule’s works, and for her the recent oppression in Kazakhstan has brought it to the fore. She remarked that ‘after bloody January, I think all of us really realise what does it mean to be Kazakh? To be Kazakh now, it is just mostly to be victims of this at the beginning of January. To be Kazakh now is to be people who are oppressed after thirty years of the regime. It’s a very interesting time now. Now we realise we want to be together; we realise that we are equal, not to select people in a kind of hierarchy, kind of parameter; who is on a higher level, a lower level. We just need to realise we are all citizens of Kazakhstan, and I think that’s amazing. At the same time there is lots of tragedy, and my heart is bleeding, but at the same time I release that we just became a nation.’
Saule reflects on Kazakhstan’s historical trauma through her artworks. She believes it is important to reopen the nation’s traumatic past ‘especially now after bloody January we can see that it’s very important to know and to remember about historical Kazakh trauma, it just repeats and repeats and comes and comes again. [It is important to know] how some forces from the kind of higher levels just think they have a right to kill some people, to not let them live.’ Asharshylyk, the Soviet induced 2-year famine which decimated the Kazakh population by almost half, has particularly contributed to the Kazakh identity crisis. Saule explained that after the famine, Kazakhs lost their sense of value and self-respect. In order for Kazakh identity to be celebrated, the past has to be confronted because it still plays such a huge role in contemporary Kazakh self-worth.
We can see how Saule is de-colonising Kazakh identity through her exhibitions. In 2015 Suleimenova created her public art project Kelin. She used plastic bags on a polycarbonate sheet to create the image of a traditional Kazakh bride. Kelin was hung over a street in Almaty and chairs were placed underneath so that people could sit under it and gaze at the bride as the sun shone through the plastic. Kelin brings together Kazakh culture and the Kazakh past with the ecology of contemporary Kazakhstan, as Saule’s use of plastic waste situates the piece within the contemporary issue of plastic waste.
Kelin, Almaty (2015).
The Adventure into Sustainability
This marriage between decoloniality and sustainability was not initially intended. Saule remarked that she first started using cellophane because ‘of this amazing texture of the plastic material, all these plastic bags they are so bright and so vivid in colour and so exciting.’ She first used cellophane as an artistic material in 2014 at an exhibition where she also showed acrylic paintings, however, she found that ‘this new work was so fresh and bright and colourful and kind of had a 3D effect with the special volume of the plastic.’ She didn’t expect her work with plastic to be perceived as sustainable, as that was never her initial intention; ‘I just wanted to talk about my artistic way, I didn’t expect something else’, however, she found that ‘I create the medium and the medium creates me, and new meanings, its very exciting and I can find lots of new meaning as I work more with this material.’
Sky Above Astana
Despite her sustainable art methods, Saule does not consider herself to be an eco-warrior unless she is creating a public art project, saying ‘because all these big works need the huge number of plastic bags and I have to make requests from people to give me more and more of this material and I need some volunteers to help me select them… these moments… I feel myself as an eco-warrior.’ She is most proud of these public art projects and is looking forward to continuing her work using this medium. ‘The most amazing is in the future because I would love to be free of any limits that I unfortunately have, I would like to have a huge mural out of plastic bags and to live in a public space forever, to not have to take it down after the time of an exhibition, and to watch how this work is getting older and the colour of the plastic bags just losing their colour, it could be amazing. It could be a very good reminder for all the people around how to live with plastic, not to throw it away so easily as we do every day.’
Skyline (2017) at the Bread and Roses Exhibition, Berlin.
Saga of Returnees
Saule’s next project is called Saga of Returnees. She told me it is ‘dedicated to the Kazakh people who moved from China, Mongolia, back to Kazakhstan. In my artistic practice, it’s kind of de-colonial practice. My current project, Saga of Returnees, is dedicated to ordinary simple people who are unique, like Kazakh culture, which was so different from the Soviet people who I was around.’
After the recent protests in Kazakhstan, she would like to retitle the work so that it holds the same name as one of the protest banners: ‘We are ordinary peaceful people not terrorists’.
We hope that this interview with Saule Suleimenova brought you new perspectives in the new art world.
Thank you, Saule, for your time, passion, and kindness and for sharing your story with us and our readers.