Before arriving in Osh, the location of our residency, we made three stops in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The first one was in Almaty, then we went for a couple of days to Taraz , and finally, we came to Bishkek. In the process of visiting friends and family, we started collecting stories about food. We were interested in various practices of cooking, eating, and socializing over food.
Yesterday, we finally arrived in Osh. Our host, Tamara, met us at the airport and brought us to the apartment we will be staying in during the residency. Her son brought some freshly baked bread from the nearby bazaar. As she poured us tea in a special Central Asian way by passing us the pialas with a slight bow, we talked about our ideas and plans for the next three weeks. Tamara reminisced about her trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. The conversation slowly moved to how Jerome and Daniel became artists. Tamara was interested in their paths. As the guys told about their journeys, we realized the stark difference between what constitutes the archetypal artist in the West and in Kyrgyzstan.
In the West, according to Jerome, the artist is a darker and tormented figure. He compared the artist to the shaman. They are more conscious of the human nature and its pitfalls, and they can cure other people. The artist in Western culture is a suffering genius. Jerome invoked the belief of ancient Greeks in the four humors. A healthy person was the balance between these four elements. A disbalance, on the other hand, created depression and creativity. Black byle is the particular disbalance, an excess of which created depression and also creative energy. Altogether, the idea of genius and creativity was connected to depression and mental disease. As an example, Jerome referred to the citizen Kane, this guy is bigger than life, a genius but also wounded. The wounded people are the most agitated, the nutcases are the loudest.
Tamara’s idea of the artist, on the other hand, is a very positive figure (she used the Russian word “sozidatel’nyi”). It’s a person that makes the life more interesting, more palatable. She kept saying that artists are happy people. They take the reality and sift it through their heart. They have a happy task of making life more beautiful and make other people reflect on their reality. She reasoned this specificity by the prominent presence of crafty arts among the Central Asian people. Art was about craft, the craftswomen were making beautiful rugs with beautiful ornaments just so that their daily life was prettier.
Moreover, Tamara distinguished between the nomadic and the sedentary type of artists. The sedentary artist comes from the valley culture and is constantly fastidious. Because of their sedentary lifestyle, they could not sit still and constantly involved in improving their own environment. She pointed to the bright red embroidered carpet behind her and said that only the sedentary people (Uzbeks or Tajiks) could come up with such contrasted colors. The nomads (Kyrgyz and Kazakhs) were, on the other hand, much mellower because they were travelers. Their color scheme is also much more different from the sedentary people. It’s a lot more in terms of half-tones. Also, Tamara implied that they were more lazy by putting her palms together and reclining her head on it.
One of our goals for the residency was to get to know and collaborate with local artists in Osh. We were interested in creating a platform for exchange and contact between artists from two different contexts: American (specifically the SF Bay Area) and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. However, upon our arrival, our search for artists, especially the younger generation, turned up few results. Jerome said that he felt a big contrast between his experiences with the Open Restaurant in the Bay Area where it was easy to find artists to work with and our difficulties to find such collaborators in Osh. We asked a number of our key contacts in Osh to help find artists. Yet, even Almaz, a local journalist and our irreplaceable guide in Osh who had a very profound knowledge of the city, could not provide us with any cues. He explained such lack by referring to the general trend of most talented young people leaving Osh.
The shortage of artists was part of the dire economic condition that the region was in. Southern Kyrgyzstan was considered to be poorer in contrast to the north were Bishkek was located. Furthermore, growing poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to increasing rates of labor migration. Almaz gave us staggering numbers for migration. If the country’s population was officially five million people, about two million were abroad to earn money for their families in Kyrgyzstan. Migration seemed to have affected every family. Everybody had a cousin, a son, a brother or sister who was away in Moscow, Astana, Almaty, or Dubai. Migration was like a war, in the words of Almaz. It has brought an eerie absence into the lives of Osh residents.