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Modern Art

A spirit of uninhibited creativity in the visual arts of Kazakhstan began to emerge on the eve of perestroika in the mid-l980s. Alongside the vicious stifling of protest in December 1986 and a budding prospect of national autonomy, a genuine self expression was in the air. Socialist realism had ruled for too long. From out of the shadows emerged those who had not dared to show before - or if they had attempted to do so, had been denied the chance.

Abylkhan Kasteyev (1904-1973) was perhaps the first Kazakh to have devoted his life to painting, beyond the traditional ornament - the visual language of Kazakhs. He sought to record with love, joy and grief the dearest things: faces of relatives and friends, landscapes and objects. Kasteyev created epic images of a reality where nature and man lived in harmony. Post-war, Soviet-trained Kazakh artists like Moldahmet Kenayev (born 1925), Sabur Mambeyev (born 1928) illustrated here, and Salihitdin Aitbeyev (1938-1994), also illustrated here, celebrated with varying degrees of skill and banality, themes of Kazakh life, which Sovietisation had effectively destroyed.

Abdrashit Sydykhanov (born 1937) began working with Aitbayev until the December events of 1986 when Kazakh nationalism was cruelly stifled. His subsequent works put together tamga-geometric signs of Kazakh tribes, and ideologies of mythology and history.

Pictorial expression was henceforth in the hands of younger performers: Bakhyt Bapishev, Askar Esdauletov,  Galin Madanov, Aimagul Menlibayeva, Marat Bekeyev. Their creativity has evolved on the one hand from independent Kazakhstan, on the other from global influences. Each of them has held exhibitions abroad.

All at once in 1987 the landscape painter Bakhyt Bapishev (born 1958) created A Symbol of Fertility. Despite its simplicity - a ram against a background of mountains - the image proved to be polysemantic. This ram is at once vulnerable and strong, commonplace and majestic, the support and the victim of man. It is a kind of world model, with an inherent stability and an eternal self-renewing cycle of death and life.

The motto of Aimagul Menlibayeva (born 1969) is 'Away with school, be unspoiled like a child!' The images associate experience and imagination, reality and myth, her compositions like Egyptian frescoes or Mayan friezes, and her technique essentially flat, as if drawn by a child. Askar Esdauletov (born 1962) also avoids the illusion of a three-dimensional world, his paintings saturated with mythological characters, dream phantoms, personified representation of Kazakh-dom, unfettered by rules - childlike impressions set amid adult judgments.

Galim Madanov (born 1958) has moved away from the representational. His images defy verbalisation, engaging the viewer with their texture, and a ruminative improvisation. They have built him an international reputation.

As for Marat Bekeyev (born 1964), his work lies between the national and personal, tribal and individual, collective and private, between form and formula, nature and abstraction. The main theme is the nomad, pilgrim, traveller, a person in infinite space. His drift of many years from the feeling to judgement, from the myth to life, brought him to the duality of a world of bright childhood reminiscence and the area of symbol. These worlds come into collision in, for example, The Heaven Guest (2003), a work of magic nonsense and penetration into the child's soul. The Kazakh artists of today are wedded to their traditional culture, but express too a powerful sense of the universal.