Fateful Feminnale: an insider’s view of a “controversial” feminist art exhibition in Kyrgyzstan
A recent feminist art exhibition in Bishkek brought whip-wielding nationalists out to protest. Their outrage shows that art remains a crucial instrument in the political struggle for gender justice.
On a frosty and snowy day in late November 2019, when the city’s deadly smog cleared for a short while, an exhibition of feminist contemporary art was opened at Bishkek’s National Museum of Fine Arts.
As the exhibition floor filled up with the first visitors and journalists, several performances, mostly by Central Asian artists, were taking place simultaneously in the exhibition space. These works dealt with issues of women’s labour (often invisible, never-ending, unpleasant and unvalourised), bodily integrity, gender performativity, sexuality and violence against women - the staples of feminist contemporary art across the world. Yet it was one performance by Danish artist Julie Savery - a “reverse stripping” (initially appearing naked and then gradually putting her clothes on) - that sparked controversy around this cultural event.
Savery’s performance was designed to call public attention to the dehumnisation and stigmatisation of sex workers. But images and recordings of it that appeared in local Kyrgyz press and spread on social media mobilised right-wing nationalist groups, who demanded that the exhibition be closed and the organisers - punished.
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I was part of the Feminnale team, a group of feminist activists in Bishkek. An entirely grassroots project, the Feminnale received minimal funding from international organisations and foundations. Actually, many rejected our applications saying that our group was too radical and they did not wish to jeopardise their relationship with the Kyrgyz government. We therefore had to rely on crowdfunding for most of the financing. All members of the team worked on Feminnale as unpaid volunteers, on top of their day jobs.
This is why when the exhibition became the epicentre of public debates and bitter controversies, when the organisers were threatened, bullied and harassed online, when nationalists brandishing whips demanded that we apologise to the Kyrgyz nation, we had no energy left to write our own version of events. Local and foreign media used us to create their own narratives that served their purposes.
This article is an attempt to reflect on what happened around Feminnale and what it means to us, the feminists who created it. It is important for me to write this piece and create our own narrative of the events.
The Feminnale ran with the subtitle “Kormilitsi. Economic Freedom. Women”. Kormilitsi, a Russian word with multiple meanings, refers to both a “wet nurse” (a woman who nourishes a child with her breast milk, not necessarily a birth mother) and a “breadwinner” - the one who provides both nourishment and nurturing. Kormilitsa is also a feminitive version of kormilets, which refers to the patriarchal idea that it is the man of the family who is supposed to work outside of household and bring money in, while women are resigned to the domestic role of “hearth-keeper”.
Feminnale is a portmanteau word that collapses “feminist” and “biennale’” into one - an event of global ambition, not just of local significance. The Feminnale’s curators, Altyn Kapalova and Zhanna Araeva, describe it as an event that “takes place every two years in any inhabited or uninhabited (!) place of any country and includes events that are aimed at overcoming gender inequality and violence against women”.
The exhibition was dedicated to the memory of 17 women migrant workers who burned alive in a fire at a printing warehouse in Moscow in August 2016. Fourteen of the women were from Kyrgyzstan. This is why the event ran for 17 days until 15 December 2019, despite the controversy that surrounded it, attempts at censorship by the Ministry of Culture, and attacks from Kyrgyz nationalist groups.
The debates around Feminnale are about three core issues: gendered ideas of sexuality, the claiming of public spaces, and the contestation of the meaning of art.
The question of the nude
In her famous essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Linda Nochlin stressed the need for an institutional rather than personalised analysis of art history. Among other things, Lochlin points out one of the ways in which women were systematically excluded from training and excellence in art, namely the ban on women artists participating in live nude drawing sessions:
"There exist, to my knowledge, no historical representations of artists drawing from the nude model which include women in any other role but that of the nude model itself, an interesting commentary on rules of propriety: that is, it is all right for a ("low," of course) woman to reveal herself naked-as-an object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of naked-man-as-an-object or even of a fellow woman."
In other words, women were allowed into galleries only as nude models subjected to the male gaze or, in Hannah Gatsby’s words, as “flesh vases for their dick-flowers”. But never as artists. The issue at the Bishkek Feminnale was not the presence of the naked body per se, but the fact that it was women being naked on their own terms. Women’s art has historically been excluded from the definition of great art, devalued, denied resources and institutional access - and the Feminnale is an excellent illustration of that.
As if to prove my point, the male-dominated Kyrgyzstan’s Artists’ Union issued the following statement in response to the Feminnale, following an emergency meeting: “It was unanimously agreed that the performance has no artistic value, is secondary, using banal and outdated formal methods, which have long lost relevance”.
Since the 1970s, feminist art has sought to contest the patriarchal definitions of what art is, reclaiming art forms traditionally associated with “women’s work” as legitimate media. This tradition was reflected in artworks exhibited at the Feminnale, many of which used embroidery, work with textiles, common household objects, crocheting, and other techniques of crafts and tools of work traditionally performed by women.
Throughout the exhibition, artists from all over the world called attention to, problematised and valourised women’s labour, as well as issues of workplace discrimination, harrassment, and pay inequality. Women’s labour comes under multiple forms: the invisible reproductive labour of childbirth and care, nurturing, cooking, cleaning, washing; the emotional labour of maintaining good relationships, creating a positive atmosphere for everyone, always smiling; and the demands on women to perform beauty work by always staying young, attractive, skinny and sexy.
Thus, a graphic story by Bermet Borubaeva and Polina Nikitina entitled “iFood ||The third shift” (a comment on the “second shift”, namely the domestic labour done by women after formal employment) provided commentary on the issues of women migrant workers in Russia’s food industry. “It’s hard low-paid work, and after it, there comes the ‘third shift’: so, these women are forced to do most of the housework for their fathers and brothers who also came to to work [in Russia] or for their husbands if they are married,” they write.
Likewise, Nellia and Mariel Djamanbaeva’s tapestry “Light Industry” brought our attention to the lack of recognition of the contribution to the economy of Kyrgyzstan made by the textile industry, which mainly employs women. Similarly, Zulya Esentaeva’s performance “Laundrostan” is a play on women doing laundry while the government is laundering money: the artist washed 20 Kyrgyz som notes and then sewed them together and painted a Kyrgyz flag on top of them - a metaphor for the back-breaking work done by migrant women to provide livelihoods for their families, while the elite siphons off money into offshore havens amid speeches about patriotism and development.
Aigerim Ospanova’s “Action 1”, in which the artist washed animal intestines in cold water - a job that young brides have to perform to prove their worth and industriousness - is also a commentary on how the country stands on the shoulders of women doing all the dirty work.
Far from being parochial and peripheral, this type of engaged feminist art and activism has been able to challenge not only judgements on the “professional” and aesthetic merits of the exhibition by the Artists’ Union, but to call into question the systems of oppression that are widely seen as “natural”, inevitable and even necessary.
“Our people are not ready for this”
The exhibition’s many opponents, including Kyrgyzstan’s Minister of Culture Azamat Zhamankulov, have appealed to the injured “traditional” sensibilities of the common Kyrgyz people, while many of the Femminale’s “defenders”, including former president Rosa Otunbaeva, portrayed the whip-wielding young men in ak kalpaks (a traditional headwear of Kyrgyz men) as uncultured villagers invading the refined spaces of the capital. Ultimately, both positions represent variations of the same view: the idea that there exists some “authentic” (albeit at times “backward”) Kyrgyz people who cannot or will not accept certain progressive positions and policies, so the latter do not belong in the public space.
To quote further the statement of the Artists’ Union: “Despite the secular orientation of our state, we cannot ignore the feelings and mentality of the majority of Kyrgyz society, who maintain traditional values.” The board members then added: “That being said, the return to the obscurantism of feudalism in Kyrgyzstan’s culture is impossible.”
It is always the case that those who make such pronouncements consider themselves sophisticated enough to make the distinction of who is ready and who isn’t for a particular message. The anonymous “masses” on whose behalf the privileged speak become an alibi for opposition to progressive causes and critique. While it might be problematic for a politician or a representative of the intelligentsia to publicly support inequality, violence against women or hate, speaking from the standpoint of “common sense” and the “common people” is a convenient cover to maintain the status quo along with their privilege.
Another widespread strategy to justify continuing injustice and bigotry is the “Will someone please think of the children!” moral panic. Censorship of several art works at the Feminnale was justified on precisely this premise. The objection to a foreign artist’s nakedness (which was a one-time performance on the opening night) was used to remove artefacts about the right to abortion, such as Nadenka’s washing line with underwear embroidered with the date when abortion was legalised in the USSR, and Ekaterina Nesterenko’s work “An ideal lanscape”, which invited women to share their abortion experiences.
Common domestic objects were utilised in the installations “Invisible Work” by Russian artist Elizaveta Neklessa (tablecloth, a plate, a mug, and a napkin) and “Happy holiday! All rights!” by the Nadenka creative collective from Omsk (garments hanging on a washing line embroidered with a timeline of major achievements in the struggle for women’s rights - remind the audience that most of them are less than a hundred years old, while some are still to be achieved).
Other censored works dealt with the matters of domestic/partner violence, such as Kazakhstani artist Zoya Falkova’s “Evermust”, a punching bag in the shape of a woman’s torso, and Anya Kislaya’s tapestry “Is Yulia the one to blame?”, which depicts the culture of justifying sexual violence against women.
In it, a woman is pictured tied to a chair with ropes shibari-style and her body covered in words of offense used by men to injure women, along with the words “What do you do when a stop-word does not help anymore?”
Other off-limits themes, according to the censors, included issues surrounding women’s body image, integrity and autonomy, like the constant demand to adhere to beauty standards, subject oneself to painful and harmful procedures and surgeries, as well as sexuality, including asking when LGBT people will gain full rights in Russia.
The desecration of the “Temple of the Arts”
Another predominant criticism levelled at us as organisers of the Feminnale was not so much about the content of the message, but rather the method of its delivery. This is a very common phenomenon that feminists and other activists across the world have to deal with, that is, tone policing. “Why so aggressive? You are making people averse to your message instead of educating them!”, we are told by seemingly well-meaning individuals. This line of thinking places blame and responsibility squarely on us, implying that “If you provoke the public in this way, you should be prepared to face the consequences”. So, as a result, we are reported as having “betrayed the trust” of the museum director Mira Djangaracheva, who had to resign under pressure.
The clear feminist answer to this accusation is that the perpetrator of violence is always to be blamed for it, never the victim. Actually, several works at the exhibition dealt with this matter. Elena Nebesnaya’s video art “Hypoxia” is based on her personal experience of being in an abusive relationship: this felt like suffocating, and yet for a very long time she could not find the strength and the means to leave this relationship, all the while blaming herself. Nadezhda Mitskevich’s graphic series “Responsible” reflects on how society routinely blames the victims of domestic/intimate partner violence, reproducing cliche phrases like “The wife has to be patient”, “What were you thinking before?”, “What happens within a family is a private matter”. Studies show that the beliefs that victims of violence must have deserved it by “provoking” the perpetrator are commonly held in Kyrgyzstan.
Appeals to moderation and tone policing only work to protect the oppressors. Audre Lorde famously wrote: “My silence did not protect me. Your silence will not protect you”. Her words are echoed in the slogan of the ACT UP art group “Silence = death” and in the profanities of today’s activists and scholars like Mona Eltahawy and Stella Nyanzi, who not only refuse to be silenced but adhere to the politics of radical rudeness, saying to the propriety police: fuck off!
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