At the peak of his career in the early 1970s, Kazakh painter Salikhitdin Aitbaev was accused of “Picassism” and “bourgeois formalism” and forced to alter his work to win back the approval of Soviet art critics.
But Aitbaev, who died in 1994, is experiencing a resurrection of sorts. The avant-garde master is among nearly 50 artists from Central Asia and the Caucasus whose works will be featured in a new commercial exhibition by the world-famous Sotheby’s auction house.
The weeklong “At the Crossroads” exhibit and sale opens March 4 in London. It features a range of nonconformist, socialist realist, and contemporary artworks from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Joanna Vickery, the head of Sotheby’s Russian Department, says the art on display varies widely in style but is unified by the region’s slow emergence from a conformist Soviet school.
"We wanted to portray a very broad range of the kind of art that was being produced throughout all of these years from the 1960s on," Vickery says. "And now, if we speed ourselves up to the present, the last 20 years since perestroika and glasnost and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, we can see in all of these countries that there’s a sort of searching for their own national identity in art, something which, of course, was eradicated in many ways by the Soviet realist school."
Among the more traditional artists on display is Rakhim Akhmedov. His 1959 oil painting “Girl From Surkhandarya,” showing a young woman dressed in a vivid red cloak and lemon-yellow headdress, is inspired by the decorative traditions of southern Uzbekistan.
Another is Azerbaijani painter Tair Salakhov, whose 1987 portrait of composer Dmitry Shostakovich is considered one of the show’s highlights.
The portrait, showing Shostakovich sitting in profile against a severe, snowy background, is also the exhibition’s top-priced item, listed at $500,000.
There are some very wealthy people in these regions -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, in particular.... It's a way of connecting with wealthy people from these regions and hoping they will maybe buy other things."
Vickery describes Salakhov’s work as "very collectible" and "incredibly difficult to find."
"This piece is an amazing portrait of Shostakovich," she says. "The artist painted him a few times. It’s just a fantastic work and would appeal to our very traditional Russian collectors. And it’s priced very much taking that marketplace into account."
But the exhibit also includes the works of younger artists, many still in the early years of their career -- including Azerbaijani conceptual artist Mahmud Rustamov and Kazakh photographer Almagul Menlibaeva, whose work, “Aral Beach 2,” depicts a nude woman lying in front of the corroded hull of an abandoned barge.
'Connecting With Wealthy People'
Many of the works in "At the Crossroads" are being exhibited in the West for the first time, meaning good exposure -- and potential profits -- for the artists involved. All of the pieces are on sale, with list prices starting at $3,000 and rising to Salakhov’s $500,000 portrait.
Still, many of the potential purchasers are expected to be not Westerners but wealthy residents of the Caucasus and Central Asia who may be looking to invest in locally produced art.
This is a useful, necessary thing for Kazakh art. We need to get to the point where our art starts to move on the market.
Georgina Adam is a London-based journalist who covers the global art market for the "Financial Times." She says the selling exhibition of regional art is Sotheby’s way of building its own business by tempting the post-Soviet super rich to enter the world of big-time collecting.
"This is a means of getting a toe, if you like, into a potentially rich new collecting community," Adam says. "There are some very wealthy people in these regions -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, in particular. And from Sotheby's point of view, it's a way of connecting with wealthy people from these regions and hoping they will maybe buy other things."
In a still-unsteady global economy, fine art is considered one of the most secure ventures for high-end investors, lured by record-breaking sums like last year’s sale, for $120 million, of one of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at a Sotheby’s auction.
International art sales currently generate more than $60 billion a year, with China -- which has more than 1 million millionaires -- now dominating the global art market.
Artists Not Reaping Rewards
Accordingly, Sotheby’s and other auction houses have sought to cultivate new relationships with potential collectors in other emerging markets in Indonesia, Africa, and the former Soviet space.
The Sotheby’s exhibit comes at a time when energy-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are both seeking to assert themselves as valuable players on the global art stage.
The “Crossroads” show is sponsored by the Kazakh mining giant Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. And it comes as Azerbaijan's ruling regime has invested millions in funding cultural centers, city galleries, and traveling exhibits, like last year’s “Fly to Baku” series, aimed at acquainting Western critics with the country's artists.
In some cases, however, that cultural largesse has yet to trickle down to the artists themselves, many of whom work without the protective patronage of a gallery or agent representation.
Kazakh artist Georgy Tryakin-Bukharov, whose scrap-wood installation “Golden Ratio” will be part of the Sotheby’s exhibition, says he does not have enough money for even basic necessities like a mobile phone, despite having exhibited his work in Italy, Germany, and India.
For such artists, the “Crossroads” sale may represent a welcome financial opportunity – particularly if it stokes local enthusiasm for art purchases. (Sotheby’s does not disclose its financial arrangements, but Vickery says the sellers receive the “majority” of the proceeds from a sale.)
Yury Markovich, the director of the Ular gallery in Almaty, laments the continued lack of funding for artists even in wealthy countries like Kazakhstan. For him, the Sotheby’s exhibit is a welcome advance.
"This is a useful, necessary thing for Kazakh art. We need to get to the point where our art starts to move on the market," he says. "It’s not something we’re going to see for a few more years at least. But we can see small, progressive steps."
Aleksei Azarov of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report