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Nomads on the Plateau: Conversation with Alexandra Tsay

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Almaty, Kazakhstan

Nomads on the Plateau: Conversation with Alexandra Tsay

31.01.2023

Grace Wong

 

Alexandra Tsay, an independent curator and researcher, talks to CHAT about her research focus and curatorial interests.

A mixture of grasslands, plains and hilly plateaus against the dramatic backdrop of tumultuous mountain ranges, Kazakhstan is one of the countries that make up the region generally defined as Central Asia. Its largest city, Almaty, is where Tsay intermittently works and is based at.

This article is an edited interview with Tsay during her residency at CHAT in June 2022.

    Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan 

In your bio, you mention you are ‘based in Almaty and elsewhere’. Where is this ‘elsewhere’? 

Well I spent last year in Vancouver, but prior to that I was also constantly leaving and coming back to Almaty. I am still very rooted in Central Asia, in my life, my research and practice. But I also really like that we are now so open and connected to the rest of the world. With international projects, you can have the opportunity to work elsewhere, but also the opportunity to make connections between your own place and elsewhere.

Almaty, Kazakhstan

With your many fellowships and residencies across the world, do you ever see yourself as a nomad? 

I feel we need to differentiate between the contemporary usage of ‘nomadism’ and nomadism as a socio-economic way of organising of the society. Nomadism was a way of living for Kazakh society. And then there is also a theoretical part of nomadism, as a concept and theoretical framework, which differs from historical nomadism.

I wouldn’t blend all these three together. But I do like the idea of nomadism helping us to think about space through connections, and the way that we can work to create connections between different spaces and cultures.

Alexandra Tsay (right) and artist Saule Suleimenova (left)

Can you explain a bit more about historical nomadism in the context of Kazakhstan, and what’s theoretical nomadism?  

Historically, nomadism is a traditional way of living for people who inhabited Kazakhstan. It’s not a settled culture as in cities, but one where people traversed across the land. They live in yurts, which is a movable house made of textiles that you can dismantle and assemble with relative ease. Their movement also revolved around land, eco-system and cattle breeding. Depending on the change of seasons, as the cattle depleted the natural resources, they would move from one area to the next. It’s actually a very ecological, very accurate way of living on the land.

But when the Soviet rule came to the territory, they enacted policies to settle the people: to modernise the region, to build cities, factories and subsequently resettle people to work in those factories. These policy changes saw to the end of that way of living.

Nowadays, there are yurts, but more as remnants of certain traditions, and not as active object to use or inhabit. At the same time, there are some rituals and elements of nomadic life that still exist. For me and other cultural producers, artists, writers who work across creative practices, it is very interesting how you can translate that heritage into certain ways of thinking that can be very relevant to today’s life.

In his book A Thousand Plateaus  (Deleuze and Guattari), the French philosopher Deleuze uses the idea of nomadism to criticise structuralism and top-down structures. For him, nomads do not have hierarchies, are not rooted, but have a spreaded or rhizomatic structure.

There is no very solid theory around nomadism as a concept actually, but that in turn gives you space to work around it and develop your own understanding of what it is.

You have noticed artists are now using nomads as a symbol in contemporary art as a reaction against social realism (prevalent during Soviet rule). Prior to social realism though, how did art function in nomadic communities and culture?

Art in nomadic culture was very different from the European art form. The function of art within that culture was also different.

Tuskiiz, an embroidered carpet hanging, at A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts 

The creative practices in nomadic culture very much revolved around textiles like felt and carpets – ones you put on the floor, or sit on, or hung. They differed in functionality and design. Aside from the functionality, there is an aesthetic element – whether it is beautiful. And there is also the element of meaning – of patterns and motifs that carried significance. There is an interesting terrain of creative practices, from stone sculptures which marked ancestors’ graves, to jewellery, to clothing.

Art form like oil paintings came much later, with Russian and Soviet expansions. And with that, the whole knowledge production framework and the whole epistemological framework shifted to the idea that there was no art form in nomadic life, in nomadic culture. All those traditional creative practices were relegated into the terrain of craft, which were considered lower art form, or not even an art form. When you consider these epistemological frameworks, or even how museums are organised – for example what would be exhibited in ethnographic museums compared with fine art museums – you see what is being reflected are the political hierarchy and power structures that are present in society. That’s why it is interesting and important now that contemporary artists are actually trying to work through those hierarchies, to question those knowledge production frameworks, and instead work with something that was considered not-art, but rather like a craft or design pieces.

Kazakh jewellery on display at A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts

It’s not to say that we need to deny forms like paintings, photography or moving image. But it’s more that maybe you would want to incorporate some practices or meanings that were previously outside the art realm; the idea of looking at culture before Soviet rule and find something that was almost lost or considered not ‘art’, and bring it back with a new language and with the new media that we use now.

Any other thoughts on nomadism? 

I often speak a lot about nomadism but I also do not want to romanticise it, as if there is a land of nomads somewhere and they are exotic and different. As a curator or a researcher, I admire how artists are trying to rebuild or reimagine it with new elements, not merely restoring the old version of nomadism, but trying to bring them into contemporary life, to contemporary world.

It is like with any theory or any way of life. You can take something out of it and try to make it relevant to today. So for me, nomadism is first of all a point of inspiration. It is also a point from which I would like to address critical issues that I see today.  

There are many historical and political burdens to work through in your practice. In your paper, you have a very light and beautiful conclusion of art having a polyphonous role in challenging the single voice system. Would you say that you are optimistic about art’s role and where it is going? 

I wrote the paper a few years ago and now I am more disillusioned (laughs). No, of course we should believe that art can do all these things. Even if it’s not always the case, I think what is more important is that we as art practitioners should assign that role to art: that art can challenge, art can create create new narratives, create new discourse that can survive in different environments, even when it is difficult to survive. If we believe that art can do that, maybe at some points it will do that. I don’t think I am super optimistic, but I think there is a need to be optimistic. It is a choice. You choose to be optimistic no matter sometimes what the reality tells you.

 

Alexandra Tsay is one of the curators of Clouds, Power and Ornament – Roving Central Asia, an exhibition featuring works by 26 art and cultural creators from Central Asia, on view at CHAT from 25 February to 21 May, 2023.

 

All images courtesy of Alexandra Tsay.

 

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