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Central Asia: Art Attracting Increasing U.S. Interest

Art experts say there is growing interest in the United States for indigenous art from Central Asia, ranging from high-profile exhibits in New York to more low-key displays in other cities. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev talks with several area scholars about the spread of Central Asian art in the United States

New York, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia is still not treated in cover stories in U.S. art magazines. But a number of exhibitions, folk-art festivals, and textile, craft and jewelry sales reflect an increasing awareness in the United States of a cultural world previously known only to a small group of scholars.

Major museums in the states of New York, California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have in recent years organized large-scale exhibitions related to Central Asia's vast cultural heritage. Some art experts in the United States say this is a direct result of the Soviet Union's dissolution 10 years ago, which eased the strict regulations imposed by the state on even the temporary export of art objects deemed to be national treasures.

At the same time, Western experts have gained access to previously unapproachable Central Asian archaeological sites. They now are also allowed to view collections once kept virtually in secrecy behind the gates of museums' stockrooms in newly independent Central Asian states.

Uli Schamiloglu, a professor of Turkic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, tells RFE/RL that great museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appear to be benefiting from the gradual opening up of the post-communist states.

"They [U.S. museums] seem to have much more access now to various regions within Russia and to various individual collections or to areas where they may have not had access before."

But few ordinary Americans seem to be acquainted with the art or even the geography of Central Asia. Elena Sullivan, an art historian in Boston, tells our correspondent:

"They don't have enough knowledge, and sometimes people don't really know what are we talking about, geographically, what is a Turkmenistan, what is a Tajikistan. It's my observation [that] not so many people [are] familiar with these countries. Maybe [it's] because [the] media is not giving enough information. Maybe [it's] because people [do] not travel so much in those countries, compared to the countries [in Asia to which] they [do] travel, like China, Indonesia or whatever -- Malaysia."

Late last year, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art opened exhibits focusing on the nomadic peoples known as Scythians and Sarmatians. Gold and other objects found in their burial mounds in Ukraine and Russia are considered to have established important connections among various cultures in Central Asia. The museums' curators said the exhibits generated strong public interest.

On an equally large scale, the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco held an exhibition in 1999 and 2000 called "Between the Black Desert and the Red." The show featured an important collection of Central Asian carpets and textiles donated to the museum [by Wolfgang and Gisela Wiedersperg] that consisted of 82 Turkmen rugs, bags and decorative hangings. They included outstanding examples by major Turkmen rug-producing tribes as well as many rare samples -- some of which are considered the finest of their kind -- of the country's weaving tradition.

In 1998, the Georgia Museum of Art -- located in Athens, Georgia -- organized a large exhibition of textiles titled "Arts of the People of Central Asia." It consisted of more than 100 artifacts from the major Central Asian ethnic groups, including Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Tajiks. Many of the show's items, which date from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries, have rarely, if ever, been exhibited publicly.

Another show of traditional Turkmen art on a similar scale was organized in 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

An usual example of art exchange was the creation of a traditional Tajik teahouse in the city of Boulder, Colorado, the fruit of a sister-city relationship with the Tajik capital Dushanbe. The teahouse opened in 1998 and has quickly become a popular site. It was built by some 40 Tajik artisans and its decorative elements include the hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools and columns, exterior ceramic panels, and cast-bronze statues.

As is the case with fine arts from other parts of Asia, the interest among U.S. collectors is greater for traditional art forms from Central Asia than for contemporary work.

There have been relatively few U.S. exhibitions of contemporary Central Asian paintings. The most recent is probably one now being held in New York, showing the latest work of two Turkmen painters -- Atta Akief and Allamurat Muhammadov. At the opening last month, Jaffer Longer, a New Yorker, told RFE/RL about what the work evoked in her.

"What it reminds me of are, from a North American prospective -- and I hope it's not insulting -- but the 1950s paintings which I really like of the exotic places and, you know, represents almost a fantasy world compared to the American world we live in."

Some experts say that among the reasons for the rare exhibition of contemporary Central Asian art in the United States is the absence of promoters and managers who are able to bring the artists to a U.S. show. Alma Kunanbay, a Central Asian scholar now teaching at the University of California in Berkeley, says the relatively low number of immigrants from Central Asia has served to reduce the area's cultural impact on the United States.

"It is very unfortunate that in regard to Central Asian matters and activities in the United States -- in terms of a social status corresponding to their market value -- there are very few immigrants here from those countries. No one is leaving Turkmenistan. Only Bukhara's Jews are leaving Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan? Forget about it. Most of the arrivals from Kazakhstan are those who are getting married to U.S. citizens and are trying as fast as they can to become Americanized. There's only a small minority from Uzbekistan attempting to preserve their community, their customs, to maintain internal marriages. But this is a very small percentage."

In addition to museums and -- to a lesser extent -- private galleries, two large non-profit organizations also substantially contribute to the promotion of Central Asia's cultural heritage in the United States. They are the Silkroad Foundation and the Asia Society.