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Artists as Gardeners


16 Apr 2020

Gulnara Kasmalieva & Muratbek Djumaliev

The quarantine for coronavirus has forced everybody to stay within their home. For many reasons, we cannot say that this situation has completely changed our lifestyle. It just allows us to put on ice some of our projects and slow down everything we usually do. A combination of artistic activity with gardening allows us to be in isolation for a long time and connect with our friends, students and colleagues online. Besides, spring is a hot season for a gardener.

We moved to a village in a suburb of Bishkek city more than 20 years ago. We dreamed of having our own land and studio and it was a chance to buy a small house for quite an affordable price. At that time, we did not know that most of the territory we bought used to be on a riverside. The Soviet government decided to change one of the riverbeds of Ala Archa river in the 1970s, dry it, fill it with some construction waste and flatten the land. Later we learned that our neighboors called our place “The House on a Rubbish Dump.”

We realised this when we began to cultivate the land in order to plant some trees. Every time we excavated the ground we found either concrete details or broken bricks and other waste. During the last 20 years we transformed this place step-by-step by putting down a dozen trucks of soil, planting a garden and organizingirrigation. We extended the house by building a studio, and all this process of building and garderning gave us many reasons to think about our relations to Nature.

This has affected many of our artistic and curatorial projects that we have been doing in recent years, from shooting videos at Bishkek city dump, curating a public art festival at the botanical gardens, building an eco-house, following the principles of permaculture, water conservation, waste separation and recycling. This activity has allowed us to become familiar with so many urban activists, architects and eco farmers, to help our students to realize their works in two editions of Trash Festival and participate in their actions against city pollution.

Being in quarantine is not complete isolation for us due to constant online connection with the local and world news for updates on coronavirus. The State of Emergency in Kyrgyzstan has put the spotlight on many problems in our country, such as social inequality, the poor condition of hospitals, religious fanaticism and corruption within the government. At the same time, it is obvious that, since the lockdown, air in Bishkek city has become much cleaner and we can also see a decrease in air pollution at a world-level. It is quite ironic that air for citizens could be cleaner only without them.

We are the second urban generation in Kyrgyzstan – our parents came from the countryside to study at the university and then settled in Bishkek. Most of our school holidays we spent in the highland countryside in a house of our grannies and it gave us some good memories, energy, and probably nostalgia about apple gardens and green grass in a courtyard.

Today, gardening  for us is more than just planting and harvesting. It is something very close to artistic activity. It is rather a philosophy than a farming. Leaving all turbulences behind the fence, the gardener is aware that whatever he does improves this life and there are no alternatives for the future, only building a Garden.

Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev are artists and curators from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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