Preserving the Past: An Interview with Umida Akhmedova
By Tiffany Luk
In 2010, Tashkent-based Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova gained international attention after she was charged with slandering the Central Asian nation in two of her works: the photobook Women and Men: From Sunrise to Sunset (2007), which features vernacular scenes of life in the Uzbek capital; and the film The Burden of Virginity (2008), a fictional account of people who have undergone “virginity checks,” common in some parts of the Muslim country.
Under the rule of President Islam Karimov from 1989 until his death in 2016, censorship in Uzbekistan was rife, political dissent was repressed, and the media was dominated by the state. Although Akhmedova was convicted, her sentence was waived and she was granted amnesty to coincide with the 18th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union.
Over a decade later, the exhibition “Clouds, Power and Ornament—Roving Central Asia” at the Centre for Heritage, Arts, and Textiles (CHAT) in Hong Kong presented three bodies of work by Akhmedova: the photographic series People and Their Sacral Objects (2021–22) and Sun Marks (2010–22), as well as the collected textile series Naïve Art of the Dowry (2013– ). I had the opportunity to speak with the artist.
The exhibition “Clouds, Power and Ornament—Roving Central Asia” displayed your collected textiles Naïve Art of the Dowry. These textiles feature embroidery that varies in subject. How did you choose these specific ones?
The idea of People and Their Sacral Objects began the moment I first purchased a simple, “naive” embroidery eight years ago that featured portraits of a man and a woman. I decided then to find similar women who embroidered these objects and I went on a journey to the far-off kishlaks (rural settlements) of Uzbekistan.
What is the importance of photography for you? And how do you use photography in your practice?
Photography, for me, is a means to capture my ideas. It is also a beautiful art form that can show the world from multiple perspectives. For me, photography is a documentation of the ephemeral, preserving people’s face, the ever-changing landscape, and [documenting] events. But in the past year, I have been using photography in my projects to try to do more conceptual things.
Memory is an important theme in your artistic practice. During your talk at CHAT you discussed the fading tradition of suzani (embroidered textiles traditionally given as a part of a dowry) in the context of contemporary Uzbekistan. Can you talk about the importance of the suzani in Uzbek cultural memory?
Suzani is extremely important and there are different forms and schools in Uzbekistan—from Tashkent and its environs to Samarkand, Urgut, Andijan, etcetera. In the past, suzani were mostly a part of a bride’s wedding dowry. They form a kind of “cultural code” for the people. But today it is considered old fashioned to embroider suzani for а wedding. Now it mostly interests specialists, such as ethnographers, not only for its historical significance and relationship to memory and tradition but because it is an art form that women have created in different regions and at different times. I can’t say that embroidery is of the past, but it has transformed into another form, mostly as a souvenir.
The pattern of suzani is simple: the main part features a large circle in the center which is called palak (or falak). It is possible that the women who make these textiles do not reflect much upon the meaning of the patterns they make, but they do bring a vast degree of knowledge about how people lived in the past, much of which depended on their relationship to nature. But I am not a specialist. These are my own thoughts.
In 2010, you were charged by the government of Uzbekistan because your photo album Women and Men: From Sunrise to Sunset and the film The Burden of Virginity were both considered slanderous. Despite this, you continue to work. Do you think that the working conditions have improved or regressed in recent times? And how have these changes influenced your work?
I do not like to think about that trial as it was incredibly dramatic for me. I thought I would never be able to photograph or make films again. The art residency in Bilbao saved me after that trial and I am grateful for all the people who supported me. I must also mention the support of my family, especially my husband, with whom I make films. I found the power to create. It is important to not be scared.
Since then, the situation has not changed for artistic creation. If it was difficult to photograph and people were scared of everything during Karimov’s rule, it is a little better today. Unfortunately, the majority of artists self-censor and this prevents them from revealing their true natures. So, I think that the first step is to stop being scared. But this is difficult.
In your opinion why is the new form of Islam incompatible with the culture and traditions of Uzbekistan?
Some younger Muslims tend to read a range of literature on Islam and watch videos on the subject, a great deal of which is propagandistic. They then start to preach about that which contradicts Islamic teachings. There are those who consider singing to be forbidden in Islam. A number of beautiful rituals, such as wedding traditions handed down from generation to generation, are gradually disappearing. Women have started to wear hijabs and shapeless dresses, both of which are alien to our culture. Women here have always worn clothes made from bright textiles, and yes, many also covered their heads, but the headscarves were different and did not turn women into cocoons.
What are you currently working on?
I am working with a wonderful photographer from Bukhara named Zilola Saidova on a project called “Life of women in remote kishlaks of Uzbekistan.” Saidova and I photograph together and I conduct the interviews. A majority of the women have unrealized potential, but their main purpose in life is to get married. Many of them are forbidden to study in the city, have any kind of a routine, or do hard, physical work. And many stay with their children because their husbands go to Russia to earn a living. We capture their lives and their problems. But there are positive examples in which women find interesting opportunities. I ask them what they dream about and what the memorable events of their lives have been. Through their responses it is possible to understand how happy they are.
Tiffany Luk is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.