Coffee with Almagul Menlibayeva by david gil

Paris, December 17th, Diane Pernet invited me to TRANSFORMATION, a monumental video installation by Kazakhs contemporary artist Almagul Menlibayeva at the Grand Palais in Paris. I had never seen in person the artworks of Almagul. My reference to her imagination were the “fashion like” images presented at the Venice Biennale and at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. I did not know what to expect especially since just a couple of days earlier, Diane had also made me discover SITE ETERNELS, another exhibition at the Grand Palais, just meters away from Almagul’s installation. SITE ETERNELS presented to the public four archeological sites in the middle of contemporary war destroyed by Islamic terrorists. SITE ETERNELS was an emotionally charged exhibition, but it wasn’t until I spoke to Almagul that I fully understood this violent clash of cultures.


Almagul Menlibayeva was born in 1969 in Almty, Kazakhstan. She received an avant-garde Russian art education at the State Fine Art Academy. “I grew up during the perestroika, after Gorbachev. There was a strong political control from Moscow. My generation quickly learnt how to avoid this control specially when it became weakened because Moscow was not so strong anymore and so there was a big decentralization, a sense of confusion.” TRANSFORMATION stages what Menlibayeva calls “the deconstruction of culture”. In total darkness, the visitor discovers three monumental screens measuring 1200 square meters hanging 17 meters from the floor, as well as a series of smaller screens under the arched dome of the Salon d’Honneur of the Grand Palais. “TRANSFORMATION is a cultural exchange between France and Kazakhstan. Both sides wanted this exhibition to happen. It took two years in the preparation, and now it has happened.”


Every project I undertake  is about inner research and finding a certain issue I would like to resolve and study … I am showing a re-edited version of Kuchatov 22, a film I shot in 2012, I am also showing new work : Tokamak and Astana. The exhibition is about how places change and how people want these changes. It is about the question of the future, where we are going … what we are doing. During the Soviet times, today’s Kazakhstan was assigned number 22 and the Russian term Konechnaya or “the end of everything.”  At the time, they were doing experiments, nuclear tests. An area of about 18.000 square kilometers, has been damaged. When I think of Kazakhstan … I feel it was probably considered like a laboratory … What is going to happen if we don’t think about the future and if we continue to ruin the place we live in forcing humans, animals and insects to leave or to adapt?”


Almagul told us how the nomad Kazakh population faced starvation during the Soviet times and to what extend their lifestyle was deconstructed. “There were many transformations in the role of the woman. My mother was a second generation who moved to town. But it was not about feminism, equality or freedom. It was about the Soviet Union massive machine needing people to work. Women were placed in the working force … We are just not the same nation any longer … Nomad mentality is minimal … you are moving with nature, you are learning from the animals, it is a very different way of using nature … We are not nomads anymore, we are consumers.


The powerful moving images created by Almagul Menlibayeva not only portray the deconstruction of Kazakhs lifestyle, but also their beliefs. During our coffee interview at MiniPalais, Almagul shared with Diane and myself a personal experience with her grandmother, who was raised Muslim. “I grew up during the Soviet Union. Religion was forbidden … when I was 5 years old, a friend of the family gave me a big doll. When I fell sleep, my grandmother took it and burnt it … she told me the doll was satanic … As a child, I did not understand … Later in life I understood … She was expressing her profound beliefs. For Muslims, the image of a deity means idolatry … there is a big cultural gap between my nonreligious upbringing and her Muslim upbringing … I probably became an artist because this question of the image is very important. To me image means freedom. And today, I would like to see images of women everywhere and I can create as many images as I want.” Almagul’s artistic preoccupation is right at the heart of the current turmoil uniting and separating the west and the east.


When asked about the stark and arid landscapes she uses to portray her almost fashion-like images, Almagul confessed “Yes, I use fashion as language to attract and to bring a lot of different topics … Fashion is mainstream. People can understand it … My images of the woman are portrayed like a Peri, which is a sort of Persian mythological beautiful and likable fairy who appeared in the 5th century; but very slowly during the 8th – 11th centuries the image of the Peri radically changed and very often was depicted angry, mad, wanting to eat men, scary. At that time Islam was gaining territory in central Asia and locals were forced to change their beliefs. I was interested in how a male driven world deformed the mythological image of the woman … my images are different because … it is a woman looking at herself and all her different qualities … it is a very interesting juxtaposition.


Almagul Menlibayeva’s soul is as monumental as the installations she envisions. Her subject matter and the way she utilizes the now democratized subject of high fashion to share her personal vision of her earth, her land anchors her artwork in today’s reality. “I would like to show a different picture of Kazakhstan because it is under the shadow of the Soviet Union, of Russia both culturally and politically and to me … this big piece of earth, this land is going through major deconstruction of modernism.” Almagul Menlibayeva’s TRANSFORMATION is a delight to the curious mind.