Anvar Musrepov a new media artist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Applying the practice of marginal journalism to his artwork, Anvar pushes the boundaries of socio-political correct content. His deviant projects study the psychology and nature of people, modern traditions, and culturl hypocrisy. We met up for a beer in an Almaty mall to talk about being a young contemporary artist in Kazakhstan, religious sects, traditions and nationalism.
How did you get into art? What do you attribute to your success?
It started through work. I am from Almaty and I worked in Esquire magazine and often I had to visit fashion events – I didn’t like that world so much and my work was based on my reactions of the reality I see around myself.
What was one of your first pieces?
I am actually more of a journalist and have been actively making art for about a year. I started making a series of works through a Soviet context, like this “dicks on a fence” sticker graffiti series– a naïve gesture of protest. In school a kid would draw these on his desk to say that he is anti math or something like that - an elementary format of protest. And the “likes” icons inside them are because are because when I worked at these fashion magazines it seemed the whole purpose of my life was to gather as many “likes” as possible. There was this huge mall that had first luxury shops like Armani, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc., and I sticker bombed it, as well as distributed them around Almaty. They were removed the next day.
What were you protesting?
It wasn’t as much of a political protest as it was me being mischievous. My friends and I shot a documentary about the whole process and we were wearing masks, but my boss saw my tattoo in a shot and called me into his office. He told me that those companies are our biggest sponsors and it really almost jeopardized my job. I just wanted to feel some form of freedom.
At what age did you start doing graffiti?
I started three years ago. When I was about 16, I was running a blog and was asked to be an editor of a creative website. Then I started working at a fashion startup and then to Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire. Right now I am a student in Moscow. My specialty at esquire was marginal journalism. That’s how I got into graffiti. I worked in a psychiatric clinic so I wrote articles about that. Then I got into an extremist terrorist sect and wrote about my experience with them. One of my close friends filmed porn in America and is from a traditional Islamic family, so I would write about her. There is not much freedom in journalism in Kazakhstan. When I wrote about the life of a transvestite I experienced huge censorship. That’s why I gravitated towards art - to experience freedom.
Your piece “Pharanur” is another example of marginalism? What’s the work about?
For the 23rd year anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence I made 23 portraits of President Nazabayev dressed as a pharaoh. When you get closer to the image you see a group of pixels rather than a face. In Kazakhstan there is a law that states that the face of Nazarbayev is a national symbol and it cannot be used in any material without special official permission. You could go to jail for five years. I skirted on a thin line because technically this is not the face of the president, but rather a selection of pixels.
Are you afraid to continue making these works?
I don’t plan to get into politics. Art making is a type freedom; self-expression is very important. There are many artists that are still force trying to delve into politics but I’m not interested in that. Art and politics go in hand in hand most of the time already, so it’s hard to avoid.
Why are you making these works then?
My work is a way for me to understand who I am, what my thoughts and my opinions are. I work in new media and it is also marginal. I cannot imagine that I will ever be involved in gallery traditional arts. I am not doing this for the business. I can separate commercial art from fine art. Museum systems have not figured out ways to present these works. I am interested in outsider art and counter culture. I am not actively looking for gallery representation. I am learning programming right now so that I can code websites. I am not looking to sell works. I can shoot videos, photograph, write articles, etc. If you are making artwork with the purpose of sales, then there’s no freedom there.
What are the biggest difficulties in Kazakhstan?
I don’t see much difficulties making art. You can work with any budget and make media art. In regards of censorship, everyone speaks of some pressure and a totalitarian machine. I have made openly critical projects and have not experience that much pressure. An example is a project I made in a gallery space called “Bailanys”. It is about a silver traditional skullcap that possessed powers to transfer information telepathically. It also has the original DNA code etched into it. I paired it with 19th century images of Kazakhs wearing this cap and mockumentary footage about an archaeologist hunting this cap down. When it was found the police officials took it away from him and president Nazabayev is now using it to predict the future. I used images from the National Kazakh archive and footage from archaeological digs. It was criticism of national myths. In schools kids are being taught myths about batyrs and a golden man who led the people. In reality it was a female shaman who does not have much to do with the Kazakh people. There were actual people who asked me if this was true.
How do you openly get away with such criticism?
Art exists in a shadow, the officials aren’t educated enough to understand what the work is about and to pick up on the nuances. They see things at face value.
What other projects have you been working?
Here is a project I made called “Buyrocco” - a play on the words Barocco, “buy” and “bai” which in Kazakh means wealth. When the USSR fell apart a lot of the wealthy Kazakhs starting making these really kitschy baroque-inspired homes in attempt to fine their roots to “royal society”. Those who could allow this would more or less build gilded palaces with oak furniture and parquet floors. I shot a series of staged portraits inspired by Caravaggio. In one of them, in the place of Jesus I put a famous homeless man from Almaty. Another is a nature mort scene showing an abundant table with imported liquors. Even as recently as 100 years ago people didn’t know what cognac or vodka was. It was all Kumyz. This project is an observation of globalization.
Does Islam play a big role for you?
Yes, I am working closely with Islamic context. The Islam that everyone is talking about, Salafism, hijabs and everything, it’s a foreign religion. It appeared about 20 years ago and has nothing to do with Kazakh Islam. Salafists are sects. Then there is the idea of Tengrism, which exists as tradition and monuments. Tengri is not just a Kazakh idea, its more Central Asia. The spirit of Tengri is long dead. Salafists are against Tengrism, because they see it as a cult – they are radically against local culture. Real Kazakh were never Islamic. Kazakh Islam has always been mixed with Shamanism and Tengrism because they are nomads. There are so many sects in Almaty: Protestants, Buddhists, so many unofficial religions because there is no law regulating them. Lately there have been Aryan sects that are anti internet, pro ecology, and those who openly propagate racism. They live 50 km outside Almaty in a community. There are a ton of skinheads here. I made a photo series of a woman wearing traditional Kazakh garb wearing a hijab that turns her into an ISIS executioner. This work started some radical arguments between the Muslim communities on internet forums.
Are all your pieces this radical?
Another piece I made that hasn’t offended anyone called “Namaz Maker” - an alternative carpet for the formal prayer of Islam. You have to read various prayers to observe it. I made a projection that changes with handclaps. You can switch between morning, midday, etc.. A compass is attached that can change the regime. And a contextual commercial is includes about hot tours to Mecca. In radical Salafism they have a traditional ceremony where you marry or divorce you need to clap three times. We live in the 21st century, possess these advanced technologies, believe in gods, and the end result is just absurdist.
Is Kazakhstan trying to be more Western?
Right now there is more tendency to copy America. But there is a determined direction towards nationalism. There has been an increase in observance of nationalistic holidays. Kazakhs want to be free. It’s better now than during the soviet regime. Now we have a totalitarian regime and we need to fight it, but it’s a matter of time. The good thing about nationalism is that we get further away from Russia. In terms of nationalists, people in search of freedom go towards extremes. Books like “ Why did people appears from Kazakhs?” start appearing, which is just ridiculous.
Are you into sci-fi?
I am mainly interested in it as a unique format to use as a criticism. I recently did a work called “Superbahataekwondist” and it was shown in a Moscow gallery called “Gallery in a closet”. You install literally in a closet.
People must really be getting tired of white walls.
It is a sneaker with two blades on each side. Underneath I installed a video footage of a series of neighborhood fights. The video starts off with about three minutes of this guy exercising. The story is about this “guy” because he wears this object on his feet. It’s based on the national story of having to pay heed to someone. In school they tells about these knights on horses. But the real person who was a figure of inspiration is just a guy in the next neighborhood who fought his way towards authority. There is more honesty in these stories, this prison culture, rather than the traditional culture that is being imposed in schools.
What music do you listen to?
I listen to electronic music with no words. I feel like when you listen to words you lose a logical train of thought. And techno.