Women artists of Central Asia are making waves that can’t be ignored

A new generation of female artists are emerging from deep within Central Asia – and they are embracing Western popular culture to create a new unique style, all of their own.

Society in countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are not known for their liberalism; on the contrary, it could be argued that in these countries, traditional notions of a woman’s place in society persist. Women continue to suffer inequality, which surfaces through gender expectations within the community, and the lack of representation in public life – including government decision making. The disturbing phenomenon of ‘bride kidnapping’ continues to take place in Central Asia, and human rights NGOs as well as the United Nations have expressed concerns around the growing issue of domestic violence in countries such as Kazakhstan. Against this backdrop, young women in the region face an uphill struggle to assert their rights and culture.  

In spite of this, the young women of Central Asia are challenging the status quo, through the mediums of music and art. Perhaps influenced by their Western contemporaries, young female pop singers and artists are making their presence known, in part buoyed by the freedom afforded to them through modern-day internet culture. 

Aya Shalkar, originally from Kazakhstan, is one such example. A multidisciplinary artist with a background in graphic design, she harnesses the power of social media – and her Instagram account is a means by which she can express herself artistically. Now based in Los Angeles, Shalkar is a digital native – and the glittering modernity of her work certainly goes against the grain, in contrast to Kazak traditional culture. 

More than half of Kazakhstan’s population believes women don’t belong in positions of power and should be excluded from political and economical conversations. It has to change.

Aya Shalkar

Her recent campaign ‘AIEL’, conceived during the Covid pandemic and published on her Instagram page, consists of a series of videos tackling the issue of women’s rights. Using augmented reality technology and clever, captivating imagery, she tells us about women’s issues in Kazakhstan: in “The Golden Woman” she laments the lack of female representation in the Kazakhstan parliament, wearing what appears to be traditional clothing with a futuristic twist. She also cites a rather depressing survey opinion: “More than half of Kazakhstan’s population believes women don’t belong in positions of power and should be excluded from political and economical conversations. It has to change,” she says. 

In ‘The Farewell’, Shalkar depicts herself as a new bride, who finds that she can no longer speak – to illustrate that married women in Kazakhstan society are often silenced. There are six video vignettes in all, and the potency of her call to action is absorbing – she succinctly captures a sense of oppression, with her Barbie doll-like motifs, and it is not surprising that the videos have gone viral.

Pop singer Biykech – real name Saikal Jumalieva – from Kyrgyzstan, doesn’t hide her feminist leanings. In the music video for her track ‘Kyrk Kyz’ (which means 40 girls), she is covered in a white headscarf, only to viciously tear it off – which could be seen as a reference to forced marriage and resistance. In another scene she is dancing amongst a troup of women in an art gallery, a reference to the censorship of a feminist art exhibition in Kyrgyzstan that drew criticism from human rights groups. She looks sassy, streetwise, and she isn’t afraid to face down a strong, burly man in a dark room.  

Jumalieva is probably best known for dancing in an internet video to the Bee Gees track ‘Staying Alive’, which went viral in 2017. It is a protest against the practice of marrying off young women and denying them access to educational opportunities. In this lo-fi video, dancing with a broomstick, she mocks the ideal of the housewife, in response to pressures from her family to return to her village and marry at the age of 21 – when she was still a student. The popularity of the video surely says something about the youth of Kyrgyzstan; perhaps that they too are feeling that the country’s traditional cultural values need to give way to a new generation of women, tech-savvy, educated and wanting more for their future than that currently on offer.

Along with singer-songwriter Zere Asylbek, Biykech took part in a feminist art performance called ‘It’s like this in my world’, at Theatre 705 in Bishkek in March this year. Initially based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (with a twist), the play developed into issues of feminists versus ultra-patriots. The theatre regularly hosts productions dealing with socio-political issues, and a community of feminist directors and artists are able to form and express themselves there, free from the fear of any state censorship.

Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, pop singer Lola Yuldosheva courts controversy with her provocative music, as she tackles the issue of censorship in her music video for her song “Sevgingni menga ayt” (‘Tell Me About Your Love’). The song has all the hallmarks of a electro-house track, as she performs onstage for a tightly-wound judging panel. Fittingly, she had previously received a warning from the government for her sexualised image. After disappearing from the limelight for a while, she has returned to the stage. Embracing Western celebrity culture, and with her slick songwriting and sleek, pristine looks, she wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood. 

These women are brave and determined, using their artistic talents to send a strong message to society. They refuse to be silenced, despite the best efforts of the patriarchal cultures that they live in and the potential consequences of their actions. Who would have thought that popular culture could be so controversial? For these women, their art possesses a socio-political significance that could form part of a wider, feminist movement. 

Their voices are calling out for change.