Growing Up in Kazakhstan Today: A Post-Post-Soviet State of Mind
Post-Soviet Kazakhstan is a multicultural blend of ethnic eccentricity, charged by the country’s history and traditional values. In her mini-doc, young fashion designer Roxana Adilbekova uses her artistry to explore the perplexities of shaping cultural identity, birthing a new creative revival.
The mini-doc delves into the foundation’s of Roxana’s artistic movement, deriving from her experience growing up in a Post-Soviet cultural vacuum and dealing with anonymity when traveling abroad. Through embracing her cross-cultural roots, Roxana combines traditional central Asian art with the influence of her grandmother’s work as an art historian to create her unique brand, Roxwear. For Roxana, her fashion is more than just a label, as she sees her designs as a reinvigoration of her own identity and an evolution of cultural codes and aesthetics.
How would you describe Roxwear and your vision for the future?
Roxwear came to life when I felt a strong creative urge to tell the world what it is like to grow up in one of the more obscure regions of the world. I grew up in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I am a part of the first generation growing up in independent Kazakhstan. After the collapse of the USSR, my family witnessed huge changes both politically and culturally. The perestroika and and the following chaos of the 90’s were a paradigm shift – after years of socialism we were thrown, unprepared, into capitalism. Though my family went through that change relatively unscathed, the change corrupted and broken many people. The change, be it cultural, political or technological, gave me an open outlook. With open outlook also comes doubt – “who am I?”, “why do I do things the way I do them?” and “what influenced my personality?” – are questions I ask myself all the time. My art is about self-exploration too – exploring my ancestry, and exploring the world I am creating for my son. Thus, in my creative work I try to dig deep into our roots and history in order to create and influence the new culture code. Roxwear is a post-ironic view on the mentality of the people from post-Soviet Asia. I use fabrics and clothes as a canvas to tell the story.
With such a rich cultural heterogeneity, augmented by people displaced from former Soviet countries, how would you define Kazakhstan’s creative scene and culture?
Historically speaking, due to being in the middle of the silk road, Central Asian cultures were heavily influenced by nations that traded along it. Later we fell under Russian Empire’s sphere of influence, and later under socialism. Soviet era was culturally ambiguous. On one hand, a lot has been done to preserve cultures academically, on the other hand our parents were raised to be communists, stripping them of their language and cultural heritage. Then there was a period of consumption – hungry for new things, we were exposed to western culture in large doses through TV and the internet. Only now, the younger generation is beginning to re-discover the knowledge and re-explore our own culture.
Our culture is very unique: we have Eastern values and traditions with a distinct nomadic twist, Russian-socialist past, with a new thin veil of western globalized influences.
Young creatives here are hungry for knowledge and rediscovering their identity. They also feel isolated and lonely. However, this isolation makes them want to explore. Each year I see more and more movements rising, like skateboarders, musicians, DJ’s, tattoo artists and cooks who bring their own unique mix of influences to create something that hasn’t been done before.
The documentary explores the hardships of forming an identity in a post-soviet cultural vacuum - would you say you are starting from a blank canvas or as a reaction to the past? Can you share the challenges faced around this?
I think it’s both a reflection of past experiences as well as a fresh start. In this case you can’t have one without the other. Our generation became rapidly exposed to everything Western - cartoons, movies, music, books, fashion, art, food and even politics. I grew up watching Nickelodeon and reading comic books. It is easy to lose yourself, when you are bombarded with something so vastly different and contrasting to the bedtime stories that my parents and grandparents used to tell me. Only now we are forming an identity by exploring our roots and rethinking, not denying, all the past experiences that our families had to undergo.
With a creative community aiming to reclaim Kazakhstan’s cultural narrative on the global stage, can you share the importance of connecting the world to the birth of a new creative revival?
Our region has had less of an opportunity to present itself internationally, and introduce the world to our culture, but things are changing. In my work I specifically use a lot of Central Asian art not only as inspiration, but also as motifs for my patterns and lookbooks. It’s a unique aesthetic that you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world.
I feel like our region has a lot to offer creatively, and if I can share and make the world a tiny bit better through putting those ideas out there, that would be amazing.
Kazakhstan is one of the youngest and largest countries in the world, yet still a lot is unknown about the many colours of its Central Asian culture and craftsmanship. Can you share a little about experiencing this cultural anonymity when travelling abroad?
When I first went to Europe the contrast of consuming western culture through TV, and then experiencing it firsthand was shocking. Everything was sort of familiar but very foreign. I experienced it in its entirety, without the polished tv treatment. I found it hard to fit in, and was lost when people were asking me questions like why am I from Kazakhstan, but don’t look Asian, why do I speak Russian and not Kazakh, why are people Muslim in Kazakhstan, and not buddhist. This gave me an opportunity to reflect back on myself. It gave me a perspective of how the outside world looks at us. It inspired me to create something that would tell the story of our region and people. This story embodies not only parts of our history and national heritage, but also the constant evolvement of our culture code given all the influences coming from the outside world.
How big is the creative scene? Where do you see it going?
The creative scene in our region is only beginning to gradually expand. There are artists, musicians, designers only starting to experiment and making something unique. After years of copying and imitating already existent Western art, Central Asian artists are moving towards rethinking their own culture code and aesthetics. I really hope this trend is going to bring in new names to the global scene.