Almagul Menlibayeva • Video Artist, Kazakhstan

A memory of the Centaur

Landscape Stories: Enchanted, I admire your works that explore the life of post-Soviet lands of Central Asia. You become unwitting passengers of a world sometimes mythical, dreamlike and ancestral. Tell us about your vision of your land?
Almagul Menlibayeva: Central Asia has a great and bitter history which very few people know. Perhaps that's why my work is dreamlike. The collapse of the Soviet Union makes me question who I am in general and where it all leads to. And I, as well as you, become the involuntary spectators of an ongoing/occurring drama. When I was a child an event happened to me, which I believe influenced me to become an artist later in life: Once, when I was four years old, my aunt Gulbarshin gave me a big German doll as a present which was my size at the time. It seemed to me the doll was alive, but was simply reluctant to show it. When I woke up the next day, I couldn't find the doll. I looked for it all day long, and in the evening my uncle told me that my great-grandmother Saginim burnt the doll in an oven. My great-grandmother was very old and full of memory and experience as the history of mankind. Sometimes it seemed to me that she was the first woman on Earth. Upon questioning her where my doll was, she said that it is forbidden to make an image of humans. That event eventually inspired me to use the human body in my work. I remember soon after she died, the day of the funeral, she was lying with a stone on her chest in a separate room next door in the house. When nobody was looking I went inside her room. I was sitting with her for quite a while, until the moment when I decided to take the stone off her chest. The stone fell out of my hands and made a loud noise when it hit the ground. People from the funeral rushed to the room to see what happened. This event in my childhood made me think about death for a long time and later influenced me to become an artist.

Video Still from Apa, 2003

Landscape Stories: Your poetic language as a subject has often born the representation of women. In these, the figures are portraits of powerful symbols of shamanic practices of your country of origin similar to the imagery of contemporary globalized world. For example, a photo of your latest work "Centaur" (2011). Tell us?
Almagul Menlibayeva: In my art, I often make historical references. Behind this image of the girl with four legs, which I called Centaur, hides a story. According to the legend, when the ancient Greeks saw a nomad on a horse for the first time, they thought this was a single being, half-human half-animal and they called him a centaur. My female centaur is a nomad with four legs coming from somewhere afar and always on the move – this is an image of migration. I work with the image of the woman. I like to depict my women as strong, courageous, ancient and modern with a mysterious past. I am aware of the missing information on Central Asia and the Siberian regions and I know, I have an opportunity to develop the aesthetics of these regions into contemporary art and to discover interesting facts in the process. For example, Tengrism is the first monotheistic religion, which originated in Altai and gave life to other monotheistic religions. The past is always somewhere nearby.

Landscape Stories: What are women for you?
Almagul Menlibayeva: Mystery of Nature.

Peri and the Girl, 2008

Landscape Stories: How are your images born?
Almagul Menlibayeva: "From anywhere", there is such a place in our consciousness. Maybe this sounds strange, but nevertheless it exists.

Landscape Stories: If you had to choose three of your photographic works representative of your path, which ones would you choose?
Almagul Menlibayeva: This is a difficult question, but there are definitely four: Peri and the Girl (2008), Apa (2003), Madonna of Great Steppe (2010), and Centaur (2011).

Madonna of Great Steppes, 2010

Landscape Stories: What are your memories from the 2007 Venice Biennale?
Almagul Menlibayeva: It was great. I worked on my installation most of the time.

Body guards of Yassavi, 2010

Landscape Stories: What is your personal relationship and what is your taste, opinion and preference towards architects and architecture? I'm thinking about, eg: your work "Exodus."
Almagul Menlibayeva: I think that the external architecture is a reflection of the internal supervision and of the experience of interaction with the surrounding space. And for me, who loves emptiness and the endlessness of the steppe, I have an attentive and careful relationship with architecture. In the work Exodus the architecture of the round house, the yurt, plays a large role. I did continue this theme in my work Milk for Lambs where the main heroine compares her body with the landscape and with the circle form of the yurt, the round tables and with the steppes.

Aralkum, 2011

Landscape Stories: Among your images there is a work related to DIFFERENTE TEMPORAL LEVELS: Your choice becomes very cinematographic and very intense. Often it is emphasized by acustic research that melts together different elements of popular melodies with modern "club music", puts together tradition and different levels, like in the images. Which are your technical choices?
Almagul Menlibayeva: For me, it is important to work on the soundscape for the film. Sound plays a big role. All of my soundscapes are made by OMFO. He is a composer and a musician of electronic pentatonic music. This unique combination is his artistic language. I like the combination of cinematic video and pentatonic electronic music, because this combination can have a long life. In my last works, my visual cinematic style is a combination of documentary, staged footage and production photographs. And for me, the editing process is very important. I believe video art can be an interesting continuation of cinema as it is not commercial entertainment.

Centaur, 2011

Landscape Stories: Next projects?
Almagul Menlibayeva: My next project will be about architecture. It is a project about the new modern capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. I find it very symbolic that the new capital was built on the place of the soviet gulags ALJIR for the wives of "the enemies of the Soviet Union." From a dark, depressive, small and frightening place is where this new future town is born. The past is Always Somewere Nearby.

Interview by Camilla Boemio