Rosemary Carroll

University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies

Ethnography or Fine Arts - Curatorial Approaches to Central Asian Art

Museums collect, house, and display materials deemed worthy of preservation and exhibition. In the process of selecting and arranging objects, fine arts curators and museums construct narratives that inevitably reflect a particular understanding of fine art, history and society. Exhibitions with regional or geographic themes, such as “New Chinese Art” or “Mexican Folk Art” present a particular view of a region to the public. This paper looks at contemporary publications and museum exhibitions that represent art from “Central Asia.” In fine arts displays, the definition of the region “Central Asia” changes depending on the historical-political period being exhibited and the theme of the exhibition. This paper surveys the shifting trends in exhibitions, with chapters on the pre-modern, modern, and contemporary periods. The paper finds that exhibitions of Central Asian art present multiple definitions of what constitutes “Central Asia,” and in general curatorial approaches emerge from both ethnographic and fine arts traditions, emphasizing visual representations of shared identity and aesthetic value.
Chapter One looks at collections of pre-modern art from Central Asia. Exhibits that focus on the pre-modern period typically form narratives around a notion of “the silk road.” In this scenario, the region is at a crossroads of great empires and is either a mixing pot or a subcategory of another region, such as “Chinese art” or “Buddhist art.” Objects displayed from this period are religious and utilitarian. “Silk road” types of exhibits continue to be the dominant way that the region’s visual culture is presented in publications and museums.
Chapter Two looks at exhibits that display Central Asian art from the modern period (19th and 20th centuries). Exhibitions from the modern period continue to focus on utilitarian objects and textiles. Rather than the silk-road theme of cross culture fertilization, these exhibitions place Central Asian visual culture in a one way and exclusive relationship with Russia, in which the Asian Soviet Republics are recipients of cultural innovation and impervious to other cross fertilization.
Chapter Three looks at European and trans-Atlantic exhibits that display contemporary art from the region. These exhibits are built on a tradition of cold war displays and ethnographic folk festivals. Contemporary regional exhibits continue to coalesce around a narrative of ethnic identity. Common themes include gender, religion, the Soviet legacy, and national identity.
The paper concludes with a selection of self-curated exhibitions from contemporary Central Asian artists, rather than shows put on by outside observers. In self-curated exhibits artists dialogue directly with discourses of representation. Common themes of self-curated contemporary exhibits include the global art market, funding agencies, post-Soviet transition, and identity. These exhibits offer a multitude of definitions for the region “Central Asia” and present divergent attitudes toward the trend of ethnographic displays of fine art exhibitions.

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