Fundamental socio-political and economic transformations that began in 1991 opened a new chapter in the history of artistic culture in Uzbekistan. Having attained independence, over a short historical period the country has laid an unprecedented productive foundation for its future development in the twenty first century and created new political framework for the state and society system in Uzbekistan. A symbiosis of the national and universal values has been proclaimed a core guiding principle of the new cultural policy. These two elements have determined the specificity of contemporary aesthetic quest in the art of Uzbekistan.
The development of cultural and artistic processes in early 1990s was largely determined by a number of socio-political and economic factors that emerged as the young, independent state was making its first steps. Thus, the country’s foreign policy – Uzbekistan joining international organizations and establishing diplomatic relations with many countries as a subject of international law – has lifted the “iron curtain” in the domain of culture and art and enabled the country’s creative community and intelligentsia not only to partake from the contemporary global artistic process, but also to present the achievements of the national culture and art in the global arena. Membership in the UNO, UNESCO and other international organizations helped initiate a number of significant projects in the area of education, culture and art, which have been successfully implemented in Uzbekistan and prompted the revival and development of the nation’s spiritual culture.
In its economic policy, Uzbekistan pursued a course to real independence, attaining energy and resource self-sufficiency, boosting the national economy and overcoming the crisis that affected all former soviet republics in the early 1990s. The development of basic sectors of economy enabled the government to take responsibility for the destiny of spiritual culture and become the principal reformer and supporter of change in the domain of arts.
An important factor in the development of art has also been the ideological component reflected in the idea of national independence, in the objective understanding and assessing the country’s own historical heritage, and in designing the prospects of furthering the development of national culture and art.
From the first years of independence the cultural policy of Uzbekistan was aimed at establishing and perfecting spiritual domain, i.e. studying and promoting historical, moral, religious and cultural values.
The role of Islam, the nation’s primary religion, was justly reassessed, and the country started building mosques and madrasahs, and provided believers with an opportunity to make the holy pilgrimage, Hajj. A new, historically objective interpretation has been given to the deeds of the Great Sahibkiran, Amir Temur, who has become a true national hero. All these socio-historical factors together largely determined the cultural policy priorities and vectors, facilitating significant transformations in art. This is clearly evidenced by the development of national painting – its philosophy changing before our eyes. The country embraced freedom of artistic expression and rejected the dictate of government censorship in art. At the same time, during the challenging transition period, the government has remained the provider of economic support to arts and culture.
The second half of the 1990s saw institutional reforms in different spheres of art and culture, aimed at strengthening material and technical facilities and improving organizational and creative arrangements in the domain of arts. In visual arts, it was decided to establish the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan. The main objective set before the new institution was obvious: to give impetus to the development of visual and applied arts in the new historical environment and help the national art of Uzbekistan enter the global cultural space as an independent artistic phenomenon. Boosting the social status of artists and their role in the formation of new society and intellectual culture was one of the important considerations for the establishment of the Academy of Arts, which, to a degree, was determined by economic factors. In the enduring times of transition, the independent nation declared that it would take responsibility for the survival of art culture.
In the process of establishing the Academy of Arts and designing its proposed structure and charter, international experience of historical and contemporary development of similar organizations was studied and taken into account. The optimal solution appeared to be a strong government institution capable of consolidating artistic forces and giving a fresh spur to the development of three core components of creative process in art: art education; exhibitions and creative activities; as well as academic/research work, art criticism and public relations. This type of institution materialized in the form of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan, founded by the Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov on January 13, 1997.
Transformations have been most productive in visual and applied arts. While the development of traditional arts and crafts, which are more market-oriented, depended on the organizational and economic measures taken by the government (lifting export duties, strengthening craftsmen’s social status, creating new institutional structures and associations of artisans), in the fine arts domain more important have been stylistic and personal creative metamorphoses, which in their own way reflected the process of social changes.
Along with the legitimate interest in their own traditional values and rich artistic heritage, artists of Uzbekistan also embrace the achievements of contemporary European and the entire world’s art. This has been particularly evident in the national easel painting.
In the twentieth century Uzbekistan developed quite strong professional art. The sense of creative freedom and unconstrained self-expression that the artists experienced in the early 1990s has changed the look of art. Philosophically unusual pictorial concepts of the 1990s opposed preceding academic pursuits.
Socialist realism as a total approach of the soviet art has yielded its strongholds, yet the realist school in art has not disappeared from the scene – the impact of earlier traditions can still be felt in the art of 1990s. At the same time it was impossible to keep new artistic aspirations at bay. The lifting of the “iron curtain” enabled local cultural activists to be immediately exposed to artistic experience and avant-garde phenomena of contemporary world’s art, and to use them in new creative experiments. In Uzbekistan, the formation of new ideological priorities based on the glorification of the country’s own national history has even further strengthened the value and relevance of memorial concepts in contemporary art. Socially grotesque and socially evaluative tendencies of the early 1990s lose their significance and actually come to naught. Phantasmagoria, a mixture of mythical, epic and folk-tale images, themes and sacral/religious symbols and signs incorporated into the new plastic canvas characterize this stage in the development of painting.
In the 1990s the country saw the emergence of an artists’ group of an original style. The artists of 35 to 60 years old are united by the quest for new creative ideas and incessant interest in their art from the audience and experts. Their works stay in high commercial demand.
The overall picture of the development of arts during this period appears, in a sense, ambivalent and often eclectic. On the one hand, one could observe an intensified modernist trend, the search for new plastic forms of expression, and the use of metaphor in artistic language; and on the other there was an explicit appeal to traditional strata of aesthetic consciousness.
In Uzbekistan, painting of early 1990s is characterized by the wide range of stylistic models. This is one of the notable features of art during transition period – that is essentially about searching – when such differing trends as social realism, decorative art, innovative non-figurative painting and installations came together in a bizarre stylistic kaleidoscope. This is largely explained by the deepening and broadening creative worldview and the authors’ desire to go beyond the known standards and traditional techniques.
Overall, the art of Uzbekistan in 1990s experienced a change of certain stylistic priorities: from accentuated attention to the traditions of oriental miniature that some artists tried to raise to the rank of almost the only true national style, to the attempts, however timid, to implement the projects of avant-garde persuasion. Between these two extremes lies an area of more moderate creative pursuits rising from realist tradition that still kept its followers even in the 1990s, as well as modernist solutions related to the search for a new philosophy of art, without any uncompromising rejection of the artists’ own plastic achievements of the recent past. This entire polyphonic range of art styles was made possible owing to the new historical realities – the opportunity to freely express plastic and philosophic ideas, which opened in the past fifteen years.
At the same time, the twenty-year period of contemporary art development in Uzbekistan has demonstrated some ambivalent dynamics. In the very early 1990s we saw an obvious change in art philosophy and dramatic transformations in stylistic principles. New influences captivated most of the artists. Yet by the mid 1990s there settled some stagnation, the more strange in the environment of absolute freedom of creative choice: artists did not go beyond the already discovered patterns and trends in painting and sculpture. By the late 1990s one again could see the influx of innovativeness: spatial solutions distinguished by the awareness of new objectives and original plastic thinking. Held in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, the Tashkent International Biennale of Contemporary Art demonstrated promising potential of the country’s artists.
The establishment of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan noticeably galvanized the country’s art life. The Central Exhibition Hall of the Academy hosts one exhibition after another – both personal and collective.
In 1998 an important event in the development of art history and criticism in Uzbekistan and also a kind of indicator determining their standard was the issue of “SAN’AT” Journal founded in keeping with the Decree of President Islam Karimov on the establishment of the Academy of Arts. Over the 13 years that have passed since the journal was founded, more than 50 issues have been published with academic and critical articles on art history and contemporary art and culture (including cinematography, music, theatre, television, etc.). The journal is published in three languages – Uzbek, Russian and English, which enables expanding its readership. “SAN’AT” is highly appreciated by a wide circle of local and foreign readers, artists, experts, academics, art historians and critics for good printing quality and high academic and analytical standard of most of its publications; their review shows that the situation is more favourable in the studies of art history and crafts, than in researching contemporary visual art. Art history science and research in the area of applied arts turned out to be more active and fundamental – perhaps, due to the traditions of academic research style.
In the 1990s much was done to study folk and applied arts owing to the heightened attention of the government to the revival of national values and the established tradition to study everyday life culture of the Uzbek people. The specificity of folk art and the evolutionary nature of creative transformations in collective art produced an impact on the research process. The past few years (five or six years, more precisely) saw the publication of several books on the history of Uzbekistan’s crafts and applied arts in the twentieth century. These include monographs authored by Elmira Gyul (“The Dialogue of Cultures in the Art of Uzbekistan”), Kamola Akilova (“Applied Arts of Uzbekistan in the XX Century”), Irina Bogoslovskaya and Lyudmila Levteeva (“The Skull-caps of Uzbekistan of the XIX-XX cc.”), Akbar Khakimov and Elmira Gyul (“Boysun. The Atlas of Arts and Crafts”), as well as a collective work “The Atlas of Crafts of Uzbekistan” under the academic review of A. Khakimov. The Academy published albums of N. Sadykova on traditional costume of Uzbekistan, Sh. Shayakubov on contemporary miniature painting, seven catalogue-albums on Uzbekistan’s museums, as well as catalogue-albums on international exhibitions in Germany, Japan, France and other countries, containing a wealth of material on applied arts and crafts; and catalogue-albums of the leading artists of Uzbekistan.
One of the unquestionable achievements of art history has been the publication of the book titled “The Art of the New Uzbekistan” dedicated to the study of artistic process in Uzbekistan during the period of independence (1991-2001). This is the first fundamental work that synthesizes and analyzes the development of national art in the new historical environment, and published in the language of state. The book was prepared by the group of authors from the Research Institute of Art History and presents, in essence, a detailed history of arts of modern times. The art of Uzbekistan of independence period is covered in the book from an objective academic standpoint, free from political agenda and ideological dogmas. At the same time, everything of value in the artistic culture that was created in previous years is regarded as an integral part of the national cultural heritage. Processes taking place in contemporary art are examined in the context of historical transformations and social development.
Nevertheless, despite a significant number of quality publications and titles, there is still an apparent shortage of analytical articles and publications. Today, the development of contemporary graphic arts, sculpture and avant-garde segments of Uzbekistan’s visual arts virtually remain outside the field of vision. With the galvanized artistic process, rather favorable situation in publishing, and the improving printing quality, still relevant is the issue of methodological capacity of art history and criticism in covering the matters of development of fine and applied arts in Uzbekistan in the XX-XXI centuries.