The artist Alexander Barkovsky stepped into Alif Gallery wearing skinny jeans and a traditional embroidered Uzbek hat, sat down on a swivel chair and spoke with me about the two years he spent living with the nomadic Mughat people of Tashkent, ultimately earning enough trust to photograph women with their children in poses that echo Raphael and Leonardo’s quintessential Madonnas. The compact gallery space was festooned with a laundry line displaying typical Uzbek pants in bold prints, and the images themselves—lithographs stylized with bursts of saturated color—are nestled in frames built from the bright dowry chests that Mughat girls fill with embroidery and other household items before marriage.
Alexander spoke to me through the translation of Alif’s Founder, Natalya Andakulova, and the rhythm of posing a question, listening to Alexander melodically respond in Russian as we locked eyes, then recording Natalya’s detailed translation, echoed the artist’s entrenched, painstaking process of printing, which took place in his chilly Tashkent studio with the use of an 19th century Soviet press and a smooth, acutely sensitive river stone.
He cites two key influences on his practice: Sergey Prakudin-Gorksii (1863-1944), the father of Russian color photography, and the French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Melies (1861-1938), who originally bought a camera to use in his theatrical shows and then, after it jammed, accidentally discovered the technique of causing objects or people to distort or fade on film.
It’s controversial to present this work in Central Asia, a place in which the Gypsy (a derogatory yet common term), Roma, or Mughat situation is considered sensitive, with many documented cases of discrimination, as well as the belief that the community is unhygienic and embedded in petty crime. It’s still more controversial that the artist represented real Mughat woman as martyrs in his works, explaining, “In general, the men sit at home and the women walk the streets begging for money, even right after giving birth. From her first moments of consciousness, a child understands this way of life and the role of her mother.” He chose to recall Russian icons and Renaissance works honoring the Virgin Mary as a way to recognize the women’s goodness and elevate their sense of self and the way they are regarded by society.
Despite these noble objectives the artist said, “Half the women denied my requests to shoot them as they hold the belief that the soul will be transferred to any image captured on film, and it is very challenging to change their minds about this as it’s a story that has been passed down by grandmothers in the community.”
The women who viewed the final work did not approve of it. They are influenced by Bollywood’s glamorous notions of beauty and considered these images to be distorted, regardless of the fact that Sotheby’s thought otherwise, selling Gypsy Madonna #6 at a 2013 auction in London titled At The Crossroads: Contemporary Art from The Caucasus and Central Asia.
Good Ideas: Alif Gallery is a relative newcomer, focuses on Central Asian art, and serves as further proof that Dubai’s steadily growing art scene is coming to act as a hub for galleries and artists from around the world. The gallery is located in DAMAC Towers and the show runs through 22 October, 2014. For more information go here.
Image Credits: Courtesy of Alexander Barkovsky and Alif Gallery