Kazakhstan Contemporary Art Gallery

Vagif Rahman: "Kazakhstan can be proud that it is Kazakhstan"

EXCLUSIVE online journal 20.02.2016 Text: Dina Duspulova

Enter the top four at the international competition in Budapest, win gold at the competition in Baku: whether it is not the world recognition? But there is no a prophet in own country. Vagif Rahman, the prominent Kazakhstan sculptor, reflects on the fate of the domestic fine arts, which is as challenging as his own creative lifelong path.

Reference: Born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Since 1965 lives and works in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In 1998 - 2003 lived in Canada (Toronto). Over 130 exhibitions in Kazakhstan and abroad. Honored Art Worker of Kazakhstan, member of the Union of artists of the USSR (1972), member of the Union of artists of Kazakhstan (1991), member of Sculptors’ Society of Canada (1998). In 1970 graduated from the Moscow State Art Institute named after Surikov.

 Vagif, tell about your joint exhibition with a daughter, held in gallery "Tengri - Umai" in November, please.

It was not the first dream-exhibition of mine, Nargiz Rakhmanova’s father. Nargiz lives in Germany, she is a member of the Berlin Union of artists. I have a grand-daughter and a grandson over there. When the kids grew up a little, my daughter had been working hard in creativity. Since last year we have held three joint exhibitions in Almaty, our first vernissage took place in 1999, Washington. The joint art exhibition with the daughter is our family tradition. I was the youngest, the tenth, at my parents; since the childhood I  often told my elder sister, the National Artist of Azerbaijan: "We will hold the exhibition together". I came in Kazakhstan in 1965: I just fell in love with a Kazakh girl from Almaty and came here after graduation the Moscow Art Institute named after Surikov. Both of my brothers are sculptors too, one sister is an architect, and another one is a musician. 

Of course, talking narrowly about the specialty, there is a big difference between me, a Kazakhstani artist, and Nargiz, a Germany artist. In general, the European art is contemporary and problematic, not just landscapes, portraits and still lifes. More global task is set: reflecting unknown thoughts and dreams of a man. Works by Nargiz are conceptual, connected with science as a proof, that humanity moves forward. For me, a man of different generation, the problematic works are closer. My works are rather hyper-realism or neo-realism. Unfortunately, these trends do not prevail in Kazakh art. In the State Kasteev's Museum you can rare find one or two hyper-realism art works.

Where has Nargiz as an artist formed more: in our Kazakhstani reality, or in Germany, where she developed her conceptual style?

In this sense, Kazakhstan can be proud that it is Kazakhstan. It is not a rant words, there is an evidence: Nargiz studied in Almaty, at the Theatrical and Art Institute named after Zhurgenov, and I watched how she was drawing. It also concerns me, since I had lived in Canada for about five years. I returned to Almaty in 2003 and many people, including relatives, asked me: why didn't you come to Baku? I told them: an artist must live where he can create. To create art works in Kazakhstan is better, than in Azerbaijan, though it is debatable.  

There is something called "fine artistic taste" in works by Nargiz, that is not often seen amongst the artists.

Her works make people thinking. In our time an artist needs to be thinking, not showing like a camera. There are landscape artists who write beautiful scenery, and no thoughts. As to the ability to sculpt, it is called a molder, not a sculptor. I say to my students at the National Academy of Arts: we live another time and artist has to report thought, just this way is possible to move forward. I am just an adviser for you, I can just teach to mold well, but to think and dream you have to learn for yourselves. It is necessary to master a lot of information on the life from a professional point of view to know where is your road in art.

The life of Kazakhstan artists is not to be envied, it is difficult, and poverty deters young people. Recently I was struck by the fact that the youngest member of the Union of artists of Kazakhstan is 54. So our society can stay quite without art! Or still growing generation to replace? From this point of view, has the Kazakh fine art a future?

Few, very few young people. What is going on? I can judge by music: 25-30 years ago there was incredible competition in conservatory in Baku, everyone wanted! And for the last 7-8 years there only 3 applications at 7 entries; nobody wants to become a musician, all go to trade. In the postwar years, many parents had a dream to teach their children the singing and dancing. All rushed to buy a piano to children, it was a prosperity sign, and now nobody buys a piano.

Perhaps, a criterion of creative potential of future artist lies in the fact that he is not bought for big salaries, if he studies as an economist or a lawyer?

Stubbornness is a component piece of an artist. Artist has to be stubborn: if you chose the way, go to the end. I know, the young would say: what shall we do if a tube of oil paint is 5-6 dollars? On the one hand, poor would not become an artist, and on the other, in the world there is a great dropout rate: most of the well-known artists since the childhood were poor.

Are your students really talented or middling?

They are really talented. I encourage young sculptors, it is a rare profession. I need it:

I am a little prickly and have very small circle of contacts. For private contact I informally chose two guys, they come to my studio and I am engaged with them. One, a participant of three international symposiums, I push to the global level, because to be a local hero is nothing!

In the past 25 years the fine arts of Kazakhstan is given very little attention. "Little" is an understatement. With the onset of the 90s many of the stages of development of the fine arts were eliminated, including exhibition committees and expert commissions of the Ministry of culture, even the commission of Arts Council in case of the Union of artists had broken up. They kind of filtered good art, brought it to the court not only our experts, but even the world community. In this sense, for twenty years there is a large vacuum. What works of Kazakh visual art we can show, say, abroad? We can show only those works that were created in the Soviet time, because for 24 years, except one or two works, approved by the Minister of culture alone, neither the Kasteev's Museum nor the Ministry of culture, did not do acquisitions.
Is it bad that artists are given a big freedom in finding creative expression? Nobody drive them into the rigid ideological framework. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist ideology has sunk into oblivion, and along with it all the commissions.

All of them were the art history commissions, the committees of quality selection, and they vanished. Critics went into business, opened private galleries, but the people today do not go to the galleries, and galleries were turned into shops, art salons. I watched: a buyer does not ask now who is the author of a work? An artwork is regarded as a commodity: it would fit in color in an apartment. Nobody is interested in the author: here what situation turned out to be in an artist! And freedom has nothing to do with it. If the artist wants to be free, he is free. During the Soviet times, I refused to sculpt Lenin, I was free, no one could order me. Of course, I felt the economic blockade, my family had lack of money, but I did it for the sake of art. And there were artists who made money at it and built big houses.
Can you call some of today's art historians who is more or less afloat?

Nope. They used to be before. For example, Nurmukhamedov studied classical art history, the authentic Kazakh art: the birth of the ornament, its use in painting. He was such a real man from earth. The same Shardenov, the last of unspoiled artists. I would say, they were "pure", and today’s artists do not know where they go or if they go somewhere. They are embarrassed to say what style they belong to, and art critics are silent. Absolutely. It became evident from the 70s. Reading articles in newspapers and magazines, I realized that art critics do not write articles as research on art, but sort of "memorable", just to mention one or the other, not to offend them. And the same names wander from one article to another and if there criticism, it is such as if has come to kill.
I am fan of my profession, because people judge by art how the state prospers. Always:  "music forward", here what is the Kazakh art, here what is our earth! And if someone would like to have a look at works of art of Kazakhstan during that period, there was nothing to show. We have to talk about the situation we found ourselves now! This is a topic for a critical conference. The last one was in 1986. Do you understand, how long ago? Why not gather all these thoughts and send them to whom it may concern? My dream is to see a professional conference. Criticism is a noble thing, after all, early critics knew it. Now such a conference cannot be held. Time had run out, and as if a blank white spot been left: people died and neither authors, nor sculptures.

There is another solution to the problem: why like in the childhood not to take an artist  at random one by one and to write about his art? People need anatomy of art, not eulogy. The foreign guests understand at once the eulogy: things are bad. To criticize, you should know the work of art from inside; how it was created? It is necessary to analyze: whether an author moved today at ten centimeters, or does not move at all? Where are his new works? The main question is: where are we going? First, the mass media would ask the members of the Union of artists: where are your artworks for the last three years? Make the exhibition from recent works.

You said that the galleries turn into art salons and shops. But today the art commerce is a global phenomenon. Perhaps, it is necessary just to look at it in a different way: how an artist has to be transformed and become known in new conditions, how to get a brand?

I have my own point of view on pre-brand state, it is my vital credo: an artist must to prove every day to himself and the art lovers that he is an artist. Every year I update my works by 33%, it is eleven new works, which I expose annually at the solo exhibition. No one does so in the country. In culture you can’t relax: if you want to win, you have to be in shape all the time. Of course, you can drink wine sometimes during a symposium when without knowing language you communicate with sculptors from other countries (laughs).

It is insistence to yourself.

Naturally, insistence. I don’t let relax myself, it is necessary to be in search and develop, you cannot stop: either you are an artist, or you can pretend, although no longer an artist. In our society, an artist like an athlete who received a badge of the Master of Sports of the USSR and wears it for 25 years. He is no longer the Master of Sports, he turned to be an inveterate drunkard who gave up sport long ago. The same about an artist, who once was entitled the Honored Art Worker. He is no longer the Honored Worker of Arts, because ceased to create new paintings, does not expose the work of his heart, but he enjoys his old works, and his time gone! There are lot of such people amongst us, who do not work at all, and that is not even the age: somewhere in 45 years there are no works any more. Why? - art critics should raise this problem at conferences, debates, meetings of the Union of artists. Nobody runs them, we like orphans left without parents!

Not that we needed the leadership of the Communist party, which would demand: do this, do that; - no! But there should be some uniting spiritual impulse, to which people would aspire. Artists live by exhibitions and not everyone can qualify for the state award. Earlier there was the prize of the Union of artists, at least some incentive of spirituality. For the sake of this award, people would work, and now there is no it as there is no award of the Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan. Both the financial, and social status of the artist in the republic depends on it. I mean the best artists, with whom the Ministry of Culture does not enter into contracts for future works. Great achievements of the country should be reflected. The beautiful city of Astana (I didn't build, we have not been involved) is built, The Aral Sea began to recover, the Baikonur spaceport works as a clock and people fly; it is necessary at all these topics to order art objects, paint pictures, after all  they all remain in history, and sculpture is the longest one. Foreign visitors are surprised, that we have very few sculptures. But there is no such a sculptor in the country, who could build at own expense a two-meter sculpture in bronze!

Perhaps, the artist's task at this stage is to reflect this to reflect the state of cultural decay in society, but not wait to be invited to Astana in order to imprint Baikonur or another achievement? Аfter all, artist has to work at the call of the heart, not at the call of the party, as before.

To paint a picture, a painter needs a creative environment, in which he would feel himself a confident citizen of his country. The most joyful state is when the artist can look at the sun, stars, clouds;  then he is a strong man and he cannot but write any more, he has to write! This state was lost, no one wants to look at the sky and rejoice because there is no starting point, spiritual incentive, people look down under feet, as if not to stumble and fall. If senior officials think that an artist has to become an individual enterpreneur and earn, then the information about us is just erased.

It is ridiculous: become an individual entrepreneur and wait when a buyer would come to purchase a painting. After all, not every day artworks are bought. If sometimes an artist  sells a work at a very modest price, he is just happy! Not a contract he needs, but support. It is necessary to manage this like in other CIS countries. Even in Tajikistan, the Union of artists is on the budgetary providing and who at us in Kazakhstan would respect the artist, reckon with him? Where was the Ministry of Culture when the National artist of Kazakhstan Telzhanov died? And how was buried Nauryzbayev, the first Kazakh sculptor, is just nightmare! Who does it? We ourselves, the Union of artists, and who if not I will say about it? “You shouldn’t do that: the culture, which was rather high level, fails in the eyes!


If there is no ideas in the Ministry of Culture, it is necessary to bring us together and  ask: what to do? any ideas? From 1977 to 1983, I worked in the Union of Artists as a Mambeev’s deputy and know what could be done. When Mambeev was the Chairman of the Union of Artists, he went to Dimash Akhmetovich Kunayev, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party of Kazakhstan, with a request: it is hard for the artists, they live on government subsidies, they need housing. At the Soviet Union, Kunayev gave the artists a huge house on Kozhamkulov Street, and as a gift from him eight sculptors, including me, received fine studios. It was the peak of a positive stage of work of the Union of artists. To have artists in oblasts I supervised them, traveled across Kazakhstan and opened offices in three areas. In this regard the Party’s line was very good. Was the Party nothing to do? Mayors of Guryev and Zhambyl were supportive, no one refused, all gave apartment to the local artists. I will never forget how a secretary of Kokchetav oblast Committee of the Party supported artists! I was shocked and applauded her silently when she told: "Apartments will be: you know, when six engineers leave the oblast, it is imperceptible, and when two artists leave, it is immediately perceptible!" That is there were such people, and they still have to be! I would give them all the power, if I could.

In modern society an artist is faced with the necessity to be both an artist, and a manager. Do you manage to combine two in one?

With regard to selling my sculptures, I am not really able. Concerning economic conditions, I am very discreet, I don’t need a lot. I don't take orders not to get stuck. Life is not eternal as seemed before, I am not up to orders. I am 75, and I have to fulfil the ideas I was born with, it is the main task. When sculptures ready, I hand them over to Tengri Umay, Oyu, Art Samal galleries, from five to twelve works to each one. Let gallery owners sell, they are managers. I often hear from them that my works leave for abroad. I ask: who took it? It is interesting to know where your work left.

Judging by how your sculptures leave abroad, are you a man of means?

I would not say so. During 27 years I live in the studio, I was not given an apartment, my third daughter was born there. I am still working in the studio, but I think to lease it. I am forced to. The state has nothing to do with it, it is the internal affairs of the Union of artists. Former heads  squandered all. There is nothing but strife: the Union of artists is fond these artists, not those. Therefore I do not go there. I make my own way in creativity. Nobody sent me to Canada, I chose the country myself and at the  age of 58 had gone there. Now I am fluent in English and Turkish. I left Leninism here, took away with myself by plane a ton of the sculptures and at once opened my exhibition there. Members of the Canadian sculptural society pushed each other: nobody at us exhibited so. He is for certain a millionaire - so many bronze sculptures! He has a factory in Kazakhstan!

Then there were art fairs. I worked in many European countries, China, Mauritania, Western Sahara, I participated in international exhibitions in Toronto, New York, Washington. Amusing things occurred. Perhaps due to my accomplishments I was expelled from the Union of artists. I arrived to Almaty in 1999 and the artist Amandos Akanayev organized a protest demonstration in my defense. I even did not know that I had so many friends: crowd of 150-200 people gathered on Kozhamkulov Street with banners: noise, din, the militia arrived - what is it? Two hours later I got a call from the Union of Artists: “We have found your personal file...”

Tell about your early interests. When was your first acquaintance with sculpture?

I molded figures from the age of five. In mathematics my head did not work at all, and in the 7th grade the teacher told: either you leave, or we would kick you out. I left school  and helped my sister, wrote water colors, molded small statues. In 1954 I was 14, the sea nearby, and I tried to enter to Naval School. In days of Stalinism my father and the uncle were shot, and as "a son of people’s enemy" I wasn't let on a threshold. What to do? Mom suggested to go to the art school. First, I studied with a cold heart until for the second year I noticed that guys were going additionally in the evenings in a group to train a hand in drawing like violinists. They did not take me in their circle and it was a big push. When I am angry, I always draw a good conclusion: Why I won't draw? - I will! Stubbornness won and at home I started drawing from 10 am to 11 pm whatever I saw: relatives, furniture, flowers, chairs, window. I drew every day for a year and I so got the hand that in a year children took me in their company of draftsmen and between us there was a competition – who draws better. It turned out that only two of us entered Moscow Art institute in 1959. And the competition there was just eight places to entire the USSR!

What or who motivated you as a sculptor ahead with the development?

In 1965, I came to Alma-Ata. There were only five sculptors, and what I saw, I did not like much. It was naturalism, just cold masks, effigies. In China and the UK they sculpt so, even eyelashes copy. The reason why Rodin became great is that he has expression, feelings, mind. I began to look for another form of sculpture. For a long while I struggled to find, tried and broke, again and again, and people took it as if something wrong with my head: Why? You are given money to mold Lenin, and you don’t! I thought: Okay, let me crazy, let’s see what would happen in 25 years!

In 1985 I exhibited for the first time … in Tajikistan. We were forbidden by the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make an exhibition up to 50, and I was 45! It was necessary to begin with something. So I persuaded Mambeev: the exhibition is not in Alma-Ata! According to his order I shipped 20 sculptures to a car, and I flew  a plane. There was a fine vernissage in Tajikistan, a first article was published. When solo show goes, you can see from outside what was done, and notice errors, improve yourself and go further.

What are your favorite works?

I am like a junkie who kicks from what's being sculpted. When doing a work, I never get tired, I do not even understand the word "tired". Why should I get tired? It is my favorite job! While executing it, you are fully filled, and sometimes it is necessary to check a day or two from all directions, almost upside down to look if no error. At this time I feel a great love for the work. Therefore, there are some special works, maybe, two or three works from the series "Bronze, glass". I am so happy with them that I do not sell. I cannot sell them, they stand in order my conscience worked. I don’t like the word "masterpiece", I am just happy with my work, a really successful piece of work turned out, I can show it to everyone: that is my work! One is called "Reflection" and "Model #3, Oriental"

Which of international exhibitions is the most memorable? What is the biggest achievement?

I really like what I did in Ukraine, a park sculpture in Ternopol in 1990. In addition to  the international symposiums, I participated in three biennials - in Japan, Azerbaijan (Baku), Hungary. At the site, without any sketches I had to keep everything in my head and to cut stone. I received two awards, passed a competition in 92 persons, I got in top four and performed in Budapest at an exhibition of finished works. I got there an honorable mention. I was given two months to make them a  sculpture. In Baku, I won a gold medal in 1989. Now because of the age qualification, I departed from symposiums, the elderly are not allowed. But, as an experienced sculptor, I am often invited as a member of the international jury to Malaysia, Argentina, Brazil.

Perhaps, hard times check the artist's creative potential. A true artist in any conditions remains an artist and he can see his task in creating a dream. Difficult or not, and particularly if it is difficult, artist like a hostage of his talent would still be engaged only in creativity.

Amen. In Soviet period, we were closed like in a deep coffer . And when artists were let out from the coffer, they started rushing in all directions: some went abroad, some just did not understand what to do with freedom and by inertia kept doing what they did before. They haven't ripened for a new, and the youth is beginning to ripen just now. But the situation will change soon and there will be excellent paintings because there is no stop in art development. It is known, after the night the morning comes and want or not, you will paint beautiful pictures! I am absolutely confident in our magnificent development.

Many thanks for the interview.