It was in Alma-Ata (now Almaty in Kazakhstan) where Almagul Menlibaeva began her career as a painter, occasionally using felt as a resource. Though felt, a material par excellence in nomadic cultures, can never be limited to any ordinary medium. Being traditionally crafted by women, it unleashes a lyrical sensibility and dramatic tension in this Kazakh artist.
In the video that marks her artistic maturity, it is obvious where Almagul’s imagination finds its power, which could not have been anywhere other than the steppe. As a place of visual minimalism par excellence with its flat configuration, deprived of any vertical presence, it becomes a ‘Baroque Steppe’ when fired by her wild imagination. Inhabited by ‘Snow-Women’ or women as old as the world, it emerges as a magic space depicting an eternal symmetry of eroticism. Almagul’s works are fairy tales besieged by history in action, and even her most realistic video, set in a labyrinthic and rainy Alma-Ata, portrays the ultimate female fairytale archetype, the bride; essentially still a virgin escaping the violations which, from Duchamp onwards, she has been subject to.
Baroque and symmetrical, Almagul’s visual world was established in the wake of the crisis and later the collapse of the ‘East-Soviet Empire’ (1991). In an era of overwhelming changes, it regains both modernity and its ancestral origins. The characteristic naked body at the core of her work challenges the formalism belonging to a long history of Soviet art. Beauty and violence are continuously aestheticizing one another. However, the process is paradoxically ideological in the sense that it appropriates values such as the avant-garde and shamanism, which were forbidden in the Soviet era and are still very unfavourable to the new regimes in Central Asia. This young Kazakh artist makes such values pulsate with life through an unrestrained vitality that constantly clashes with the reality of a post-Soviet disaster. In a recent work (the video ‘On the Road’) the steppe is burning around a Sufi-shaman artist; an old, naked and unkempt man, who is in reality the artist Moldakul, a protagonist in the Kizil Traktor Group; the first post-Soviet avant-garde in the Golden Horde (1994). Alongside the man, two young, also naked, women dance and embrace each other, while the landscape is so extremely rectilinear and torrid that escape appears impossible.
In an earlier video-cycle of photographs entitled ‘Wagon’, the recurrent theme of naked bodies is set between the geometric power of an iron carcass that was once a railway carriage and a vast and imminent steppe. Almagul instils drama in the relationship between an eternal steppe and the ruins of a Soviet iron age, which seem more archaic than cities like Sairam, distroyed from Mongols in XIII century and whittled away by the wind.
In the ‘Baroque Steppe’ trilogy, which afforded her international attention, she plays with refractions and symmetries portrayed against the backdrop of an Islamic cemetery, as captivating as a fairytale castle. Dionysius and Apollo, primal chaos and pure formal organization, here meet in an absolute realm on the Central Asian steppe.
In an ideological return to her origins, Almagul seems intent on overcoming that Islamism which never made much headway among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, or at best wants to seize it in – as Valeria Ibraeva describes referring to the best Kazakh art – ‘a wild and deviant Sufi figure’. Yet in front of the great mausoleum of Saint (Khodja) Yasawi in Turkestan (a masterpiece of Timurid architecture), the artist looks beautiful and elegant in a multicoloured Ikat; above all she covers herself and aims a non-reconciliatory look. The title of this work is ‘Jihad’.