The Magic of Childhood, Primitive Art, and Bazaars: in conversation with Kyrgyz artist Roza Dzhangaracheva11 min read

 In Central Asia, Culture, Interview
For Lossi 36, Katherine Leung sits down with esteemed Kyrgyz artist, teacher, and mother Roza Dzhangaracheva to talk about her latest work. The primitive quality of Dzhangaracheva’s paintings first interested us and her positive outlook on her art career and influences makes for the most pleasant conversation!

Tell us more about your educational background and art training.

I was born in the beautiful country of Kyrgyzstan, in the city of Bishkek. It is located in Central Asia, in an amazingly beautiful mountainous country. Ever since I was a girl, I have loved to draw, create, and sculpt dolls out of clay. At the age of fourteen, I enrolled in Art College, in the arts and crafts program, where I studied for four years. We were taught by very accomplished artists and specialists in their field. It was a really enriching time: we studied drawing, painting, composition, human anatomy, art history, sculpture, and general education subjects. I was an enthusiastic student and loved what I did. 

After graduating from college, I studied at the Moscow Polygraphic Institute in the graphics department. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without my time in Moscow, where the courses and professors from the graphics program expanded my horizons. We studied a wide range of topics, such as perspective, composition, illustration, photography, the art of books, and the history of books. My art history courses took place in the halls of the Pushkin Museum of Art, where we got acquainted with world-class masterpieces. I ended up in the field of editing printed art materials. These topics, including illustration, easel graphics, and much more made me a better artist for life. 

Tell us more about your art career. You were a drawing and painting teacher at the KORU studio in Bishkek prior to the COVID-19 quarantine.

My art career is lengthy: I’ve worked as the art editor in a publishing house, taught drawing and painting at the university level, and I also lectured on graphic design. For the last six years, I’ve been working with children aged six to eleven years old in a private studio. I chose this age group because children at this age are full of energy, imagination, and creativity. They are not afraid of anything. When given a blank white paper, they can draw beginning with a single line, without stopping. Children this age are very bold when it comes to working with paint. 

In my courses, each age group had an individualized training program. I worked there for an enjoyable six years. But during the pandemic and quarantine, I reassessed a lot of my values. I realized that I wanted to make art full time, painting and drawing, and that teaching was taking time away from studio time. I’ve dreamed of being a full-time artist my entire life. So I quit teaching and I’m currently preparing for a solo exhibition. 

“Disappearing world” is a series of oil paintings you created based on Kygryz rock paintings that are more than 2000 years old. Tell us how these rock paintings exist in your imagination. How are they important to the Kygyz aesthetic in modern day? 

The first time I saw photographs of rock paintings of Kyrgyzstan was at an exhibition at the National Library. This was in 1991. I had an epiphany. For me, this was the discovery of our history, our ancient history. Rock paintings are found in many places on the territory of Kyrgyzstan: Saimaluu-Tash, on Lake Issyk-Kul, in the city of Cholpon-ata. I first viewed them in an open-air museum and then I visited a rock painting site on my trip to Lake Issyk-Kul. I touched these stones with my hands and felt an instant connection, almost vibration, from the thousand-year-old depictions of ancient people. At the turn of the century, the rock paintings were protected and even entered as a UNESCO historical monument, but the guide said that cattle often graze in the area and that the drawings have eroded since then because of the farming activity.

The oldest examples of human creativity are cave paintings and small art forms. The next stage of world culture and human development is rock painting. Cave paintings or petroglyphs (from the Greek “petra” meaning stone and “glyphe” meaning something carved) depict human and animal characters and various signs. They allowed people to convey their worldview, origin stories,  problems surrounding life and death, and the universality of world phenomena.

The real world was transformed in human consciousness into a world filled with mythical images, ideas, and characters, and in turn, this secondary, derivative world was perceived as reality. Art gives us those storytelling and imaginative capabilities.

For centuries, historians believed that the nomadic tribes that inhabit the Eurasian steppe were an extremely regressive and destructive force that contrasted the highly developed civilizations, and were somehow devoted to the destruction of those civilizations. However, discoveries made by archaeologists over the past half-century have completely dispelled such notions. The culture of the nomads of the “Great Steppe” can be studied in all its splendor – and splendor not only in gold and bronze decorations – from the royal burial mounds, but also in rock paintings. Hunting scenes were depicted in rock paintings. Many elements from rock paintings are today used by our artisans in the manufacture of national carpets, embroidery, national costumes, ceramics, and in architectural decor, and in modern design.

What do you think the rock paintings reveal about Kygryz life in the past?

These rock paintings depict a way of life through hunting and customs. When carrying out agricultural ceremonies and rituals for a plentiful harvest, there are depictions of the favor of mother nature through the spirits of ancestors (Arbak) and the spirit of the she-wolf. Among the major totems of the ancient Kyrgyz were the mother-deer, the she-wolf-mother, the great sky Tengri-umai, and the Father-sun. In the Issyk-Kul localities there are petroglyphs depicting bulls, and scenes with bulls surrounded by dogs. These original images have been done extremely carefully with technique, possibly using copper tools, so that even years later the imprints are still present and lasting.

The production of petroglyphs on granite, the hardest of all stone materials on which many of the drawings were applied, even developed a special technique – surface dot embossing along convex edges and large crystals, so that there were often no solid lines. Often, the drawing is only distinguishable from a certain distance.

With the spread of Islam, the art of rock painting gradually ceased, since the Islamic canon prohibits images of people and animals. However, the continuity of artistic tradition has prevailed, and many of the patterns in the modern folk art of making felt carpets like ala-kiyiz, shyrdaks have retained their original motifs such as depictions of a mountain goat or deer.

You’ve said in a previous interaction that “cave paintings are slowly disappearing due to the barbaric attitude of people towards our heritage”. Tell me what you mean by that. How are you preserving this culture? How are you bringing it back? How are you helping young people find interest in ancient rock paintings?

Kyrgyz artists periodically return to the depiction of rock paintings in their works, which offer a lot of themes for imagination and creativity: hunting scenes, images of animals, farmers plowing the land. There are also erotic scenes and images of chariots. But it would be too easy for me to merely transfer the drawing to canvas. I prefer to rethink images and plots through my own worldview, and through my inner world, as if at any moment I am among the characters and live their life. Many artists turn to this topic because I think this is genetically inherent in us. In my work, “Disappearing World” I just wanted to make commentary on that concept. Also, any historical value ​​of rock paintings will gradually disappear if we do not take good care of the historical heritage.

“Under the blue sky” is about a fabulous garden in which birds and animals of unprecedented beauty walk, as you’ve described. This work looks like a biblical allegory. Can you talk more about the possible biblical parallels?

The painting “Under the Blue Sky” is my interpretation of a song by Boris Grebenshchikov, a Russian singer and composer. He has an amazing voice and this song is one of the best. When I listened to this song, I imagined this marvelous paradise and fairy garden. In general, the theme of gardens in art is attractive to me, such as the Gardens of Babylon or Gardens of Eden. I imagined the garden in Grebenshchikov’s song like that. 

One of my paintings is called “It was Paradise”. Biblical allegories have become firmly established in modern civilization. These are not questions of religion, but of culture. Almost all cultural and artistic figures in the world quote or interpret the Bible in their works in one way or another.

Sometimes I am inspired to create pictures based on fairytales. Once, while working in a workshop, I heard on the radio that Jacques Yves Cousteau, a great scientist, and explorer of the ocean, had died. Something that he had written in his last book really stuck with me: “When you descend into the abyss of waters, you soar like an angel in the ocean over the abyss…” This immediately inspired the painting “Angel in the Ocean”

I am convinced that enlightenment, education and culture, and respect for one another will save and preserve our world.

You like to use your children’s drawings in your work, such as “Girl on the Ball”. Why does children’s artwork fascinate you? 

When my children were young, they were very good at drawing and I collected their most interesting drawings. I mostly read them fairytales from around the world or sang songs to them. And sometimes I drew from these special practices with my children in my artwork. 

My children did not become artists but they’re now adults who can look after themselves. I also have a grandson who has graduated from the university. I do not technically use children’s drawings, but only draw motifs and themes from the stories we shared.

Speaking from my experience in teaching children, I think that children’s creativity is the most direct and free. Their perception of the world around them is attractive to me as an artist.

You have two children of your own. What fairy tales and fairy tales do you share with them?

In our family, reading books has always been a priority. My children read all the books in the house with pleasure. We had a large library, including fairytales. Then there were no gadgets and our entire family read all our free time. My kids enjoyed reading fiction, art books, and art albums.

Your paintings have a childlike quality. Please tell us more about your artistic outlook.

I think it is important for an artist to convey their perception of this world in their work. I see the world in bright colors and probably this is probably a product of all the knowledge and impressions that I gained from studying at the Art Institute as well as my life: visiting theaters, museums, galleries, and meeting interesting people. I have traveled a lot and have been to many museums in various countries. I am lucky enough to have seen many original paintings from my favorite artists. I am always happy with the success of my fellow artists. I am still surprised by many things that happen in life. And above all, I rejoice, like a child, when I see beauty. For example, when I saw La Gioconda in the Louvre or the Matisse Hall, two of my favorite works – my heart soared. Probably, in my heart, I remained a big child and I see the world this way: big, kind and beautiful.

Why do you think there are elements of magic in the bazaars?

Since ancient times, bazaars have been considered the center of culture and information. The magic of colors, smells, sounds, languages, dialects, and mixing of cultures has always been present in bazaars.

Oriental bazaars are something fabulous and they have an exotic quality to them. When I visit any country, I make sure to visit the bazaar. I’ve been to bazaars in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, ​​Uzbekistan, and here, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the city of Osh. There is a different atmosphere at every single one. Everything has become very modern and urbanized with globalization. Even the jobs within the bazaars are different. The rows of sellers are all arranged with signs and advertisements for Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Until the 90s, there were spontaneous kiosks of traders, noisy with sellers calling out, where they sold all sorts of food, cakes, birds in cages, bright fabrics of national clothes, and skullcaps nearby. There were street performers and tightrope walkers. Bazaars contain an elusive beauty. So I want to quickly capture this beauty until it disappears altogether. I dream of creating enough works to form an exhibition called”Bazaars”, where I can show all the beauty and bustle of life in a bazaar.

The interview with Roza Dzhangaracheva is part of Lossi 36’s new exhibition: Fables, Fairytales and Feminism – contemporary women artists making magic in Central Asia. Click on this link to visit the exhibition.

Featured image: Detail from one of Roza Dzhangaracheva paintings
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