How can the Uzbek capital become an art city? The plan: to eschew starchitects and take things slowly.
You are not in Tashkent long before you notice that nearly every car on the streets of Uzbekistan’s capital is a Chevrolet, invariably the same Ravon model, usually in white. The (made in Uzbekistan) Chevrolet monopoly underscores what an archaic, isolated place of eye-watering import tariffs it is. Shipping things in is also complicated by the country being one of only two in the world that is double landlocked – none of the countries that neighbour it have access to the sea either; the only other example is Liechtenstein. The nation is shaped by a heady mix of cultural influences: the traders who arrived along the Silk Route, Russia and then the Soviet Union, which incorporated the nation into its empire.
Now as the country emerges, slower than some of its neighbours, from the post-Soviet thaw, it has to decide how to present itself to the world afresh, seeing culture as the best way of building a new international presence. But it wants to do this in its own unique way, according to Gayane Umerova, executive director of the Art and Culture Development Foundation (acdf), an organisation launched by the country’s Ministry of Culture in 2017.
In Moscow, Astana, Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi, gleaming new museums and galleries have been erected, often with unusual silhouettes dreamed up by starry architects. But in Tashkent, a subtler approach is being tested. The Centre for Contemporary Art Tashkent (ccat) is an unassuming structure set back from the city centre, surrounded by civic and university buildings. Madina Badalova, who is the head of education and inclusivity at the acdf, as well as the coordinator for the ccat’s current exhibition Dixit Algorizmi, believes that the new venue is an exception in the region, where cultural advancement often means demolishing what’s already there and rebuilding from scratch.
“Here, we want to promote the reuse of old buildings, as they hold the essence of our culture,” says Badalova. With its distinctive, turreted brick exterior, the cavernous space was designed in 1912 by German architect Wilhelm Heinzelmann as a power station to fuel Tashkent’s first tram line. “We wanted to preserve it, to reuse it, but without any sense of museumification,” she says. Still, the ccat won’t be left in its raw state: Paris-based architects Studio KO (designers of Marrakech’s Musée Yves Saint Laurent in 2017) will spruce up the original structure.
“We have lost a lot of historic buildings and now we must learn from what we have,” says Umerova on the show’s opening night, surrounded by a well-dressed young crowd of arty types drinking the free-flowing sparkling wine. “Finding a building like this was a blessing, and we want it to be a place for a new generation of locals; somewhere they can connect and use as a resource,” she adds. Umerova hopes to repeat the trick by rescuing more venues across town. For instance, her foundation is working with the French Foreign Ministry to create a French cultural centre in a striking modernist structure that used to house the former Soviet tourism ministry, as well as an adjoining cinema. Then there is the complete restoration and overhaul of the Tsarist-era Romanov Palace, as well as the modernisation of the ornate brutalist State History Museum nearby.
“We have lost a lot of historic buildings and now we must learn from what we have. Finding a building like this was a blessing”
Despite its well-meaning aims, for an initiative so focused on energising the city’s art scene, the acdf is still reliant on international input. The new venue’s debut exhibition was curated by London and Milan-based design studio Space Caviar. Dedicated to eighth-century mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa-al Khwarizmi (the father of the algorithm and algebra), this display of multimedia art by both Uzbek and foreign artists is intended to show the world a new narrative around technology, away from the assumption that the roots of computing lie in Western nations. The gallery maintains the programming is aimed at Tashkent’s residents and not just foreign eyes but there’s a deliberate push to attract attention and resources from beyond the borders too.
Still, Badalova insists that the ultimate goal – and the key to creating lasting soft power – is to find ways to foster talent at home, perhaps with some external help. That’s why the idea for the country’s first pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, which involved a recreation of a mahalla, a traditional low-slung neighbourhood, was co-created with up-and-coming creatives who were part of cca Lab, an initiative consisting of 20 graduates running research projects and workshops with youngsters in Tashkent. “When you are taking a project abroad, the people here can be left out of the process,” says Badalova. “There has to be something behind the exhibition. It has to make sense here first. Then we have to introduce our people out there.”
Ruslan Yuldashev, a software developer who works at the Tashkent College of Information Technology across the street, has become a fitting example of community collaboration. “I was walking by and saw that there was an upcoming exhibition about the polymath Al-Kwarizmi,” he says. He decided to get in touch; today, his school works with the centre’s educational programme and has set up a class examining the relationship between the Arabic alphabet and QR codes. Rather than feeling excluded from the gallery’s global roster of curators and creatives, Yuldashev sees it as an opportunity. “I like seeing international artists bringing their vision and standards to Uzbekistan,” he says.
State-run initiatives such as the Center for Contemporary Art and its foundation might be trying to salvage at least some of Tashkent’s historical buildings but they can’t stop the overall tide of aggressive construction across the city. This is the largest capital in Central Asia – and with 34 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan is by far the region’s most populous country. The nation’s economy might be increasingly dynamic but an Uzbek’s predicted annual per capita income was still a paltry $2,000 (€1,700) in 2021.
But there are also people making plenty of money in this resource-rich country; Uzbekistan exports gold, copper, uranium and gas. As oil is furiously piped to nearby China – and wealth forsome flows in the opposite direction – developers are racing to build luxury apartments and vast shopping malls. Much of this is encroaching on the historic architecture of Tashkent, including the labyrinthine mahalla that the Biennale honoured.
That’s why people such as documentary photographer and activist Timur Karpov are sceptical. He founded his independent multidisciplinary space, 139 Documentary Center, in the east of the city, running a mixed programme of exhibitions and events from inside a largely disused, Soviet-era agrotech factory. The centre has also shown several projects examining the rapidly disappearing mahalla, predating the acdf’s display by several years. “The mahalla that surrounds us here is set to be demolished very soon,” says Karpov, pointing to some old buildings down the street. “The mahalla is trendy right now so [the government] is pushing it hard but they are the ones killing it.”
Next up in the 139 Documentary Centre’s programme is a show exploring the difficult history of Uzbekistan’s cotton industry; Karpov has spent six years investigating forced labour during the post-Soviet era. Despite the controversy surrounding president Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s re-election in October, a landslide win against government-appointed opposition candidates, the politician’s mandate has largely coincided with an opening up of the country in the past five years. Recent economic reforms such as the liberalisation of the currency market and a shake-up of the tax system have led to considerable outside investment, which in turn has created opportunities, particularly in the capital. But freedom of expression is also concentrated in Tashkent; elsewhere in the country, clampdowns are still a frequent occurrence.
Still, Tashkent’s changing fortunes have managed to lure citizens such as Timur Azimov home. A part-time film producer who also works for an online marketplace, 26-year-old Azimov lived in Kazakhstan’s Almaty (known as Central Asia’s most easy-going city) for four years before moving back to his hometown. He is enthusiastic about Tashkent’s nightlife of underground parties and speakeasies, all of which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. One of the city’s best spots is Sila Bar, an underground venue beneath an Italian restaurant. As strobes light up the revellers dancing to techno, Tashkent is beginning to offer some of the thrills of other cities.
High above ground on the 17th floor of the Hotel Uzbekistan, overlooking the sprawling city below, the hotel’s bar is another of the city’s fascinating places. Sitting atop a 1974 building that has become a poster child of concrete brutalism, this panoramic bolthole, with its plentiful cigarette smoke and faded modernity, is an evocative post-Soviet gem that feels deeply cool. “Tashkent is now at the edge of a renaissance,” says Azimov. “There’s enough to keep young people from leaving nowadays; in fact, I don’t understand why more people aren’t making the move.” Perhaps in time they will.
Those hesitant to return might be biding their time. The culture sector is making promising steps but still faces structural problems, particularly the fact that the grassroots scene remains fragmented and lacks the skills needed to get projects off the ground. That’s why Azimov will become part of moc: a creative organisation of more than 100 artists, musicians, designers and producers. Originally founded in 2019 by young producer Odil Mukhamedov as a “society of creators”, moc hosted its first festival in March. It gathered Tashkent’s freshest talent across all artistic disciplines in a format sponsored by the British Council, which has been on the ground in Uzbekistan for 25 years and also runs a film-maker programme that facilitates networking with professionals in the field. Staged over 10 days, moc Fest featured performances, seminars and exhibits, as well as sound and light installations, exploring themes from the importance of cultural heritage to the emotional effect of art.
“Tashkent is now at the edge of a renaissance; in fact, I don’t understand why more people aren’t making the move”
moc operates independently of the Uzbek government, though it collaborated on individual commissions, such as the Stihia electronic music festival. But Mukhamedov is optimistic about the acdf’s internationally minded programme. “I hope that as we Uzbek creators continue to flourish, the culture foundation will engage more and more with us,” he says. “We are just at the beginning of a process. There is so much space to fill in the cultural sector.” Let’s hope that more projects like his will be those that pack it.