Korpeshe Flags: Said Atabekov Interview


Said Atabekov is one of Kazakhstan’s most acclaimed artists. His work has featured across the world, from New York to Dubai, back to his now home city of Shymkent. He was an original founder of the first avant-garde art group in Southern Kazakhstan, called the “The Red Tractor Group” and since then has grown into an artist operating in a number of different mediums, from installations to photography to sculpture, that finds interest and acclaim with each new exhibition.

His work offers an ideal insight into a Kazakh identity that continues to reconcile itself with its colonialized past and the trauma suffered from Soviet repression and Russification. Kazakhstan has transformed from a predominately nomadic territory, to a Russian/Soviet colony, and finally into a bastion of oil wealth. His work looks at the intersection of those historical changes and how the reverberations of those changes continue to shape the people of Kazakhstan.

His series “Korpeshe Flags” specifically interested me. The word “korpeshe” literally means “blanket” in Kazakh but serves a double function of also being a mattress for Kazakh nomads. Each photo showcases a female wearing traditional Kazakh atire holding up a korpeshe with a flag of a different country printed on it. The limited scope of the flag is contrasted to the endless space of the Kazakh steppe. This project has been interpreted as a hybrid symbol by marrying both western symbols (concept of nationhood and state apparatuses) and eastern symbols (byproduct of nomadic culture and “exotic” design).

He kindly spoke to me about his work and much broader issues! Please, check out more of his work here.


Perhaps because of an element of nostalgia and growing understanding there has been a re-surging interest in post-Soviet culture, specifically with fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy and the growing popularity of gopnik-themed sites like “Squatting Slavs In Tracksuits.” Your work is regularly referred to as a “post-Soviet” and you belong to a generation that came of age during this period. What defines the aesthetic concept of “post-Soviet?”

I’m not familiar with the works of this designer. However, we can explain the post-Soviet aesthetic concept in different ways but I view its as a post-traumatic aesthetics. It’s difficult to self-medicate, but we should. I noticed that abroad people understand that you are from a post-Soviet country because of your walking manner or how you behave on the sidewalk, but medicine, history, science and art all can lie. As for me though, post-traumatic aesthetic is a work with our memory and an attempt to find forgotten forms in our past or present; we need to correct the mistakes of the past.


Regularly, Kazakhstan and the rest of the other Central Asian countries are referred to as a hybrid of both Europe and Asia. This is to say that Kazakhstan is too Asian to be European but too European to be Asian. In this fashion, Western commentators attempt to almost reduce Central Asian identity to a mere clash of cultures instead of a coherent identity. What would you like Western journalists, writers, and art critics to understand about Kazakhstan before they speak about its artists, culture, and identity?

Many people passed through the Vast steppe, from Aleksandr Makedonsky (Southern Regions Partly), Chingizkhan, we were a Russian colony, we were under the control of the Soviet Union with all the repression, deportations and evacuation (not only people but even plants). We have had migration of Koreans and captured Japanese soldiers, we had the landers “tsilinniki” in 50th, nuclear explosions (Semipalatinsk test site nuclear explosions), space rockets (the first and biggest space center in the world), and a lot of another examples. It’s very easy to criticize or humiliate someone, but it’s very difficult to understand someone. The word “hybrid” is not for Kazakhs but it is in the history of Kazakhstan.


Recently, the Kazakh government declared that Almaty is a millennium old, despite the prevailing belief that it was established in 1854. Meanwhile, the TV show Kazakh Khanatehas attempted to establish a more coherent narrative of Kazakh nationhood with dubious historical accuracy. This all comes after Vladimir Putin dismissed Kazakh identity as something that had emerged only in the past decade. As Kazakh culture is both nomadic and was subjected to heavy colonization, it does not adhere to the standard narrative of nationhood. Do you believe that Kazakhstan needs to provide a stronger narrative of what its nationhood is? Or, do you think that it should refuse to attempt to adhere to the Euro-centric concept of nationhood in this period of globalization?

Fortress “Faithfull” was built on the territory where nomads lived and we can’t say that Russians were the founders of Almaty. Usunsky state (Uysyn) was founded 160 years before Christianity. Kanguysky state (Kanly) is also mentioned in written sources in 138 BC.

All these names of Uysyn, Sary Uysyn, Kanly are Kazakh tribes. At the time of the Golden Horde, Turkic tribes were living there. There was also Kypchaks, Kangly, Naymany, Dulaty, Konyraty, Kereity and many others. And all of them are still living on the territory of present day Kazakhstan.

Eurocentrism is for others. I think that Central Asia needs to look to the sunrise, to the East. All these negative moments, which we have now, will be passed. There are people that believe in the future of Central Asia and they will need to take their lessons from the past and make their own future from it.


Much of your work showcases the intersection between traditional Kazakh life and modernity. You’ve spoken in other interviews about your fondness of utilizing traditional materials from your native southern Kazakhstan. It appears you find a certain comfort in a period that is increasingly challenged by a culture steeped in technology and disconnecting individuals from their local. Do you believe that both these traditions and ascetics that pre-date the Sovietization of Kazakhstan are able to sustain themselves in this post-Soviet period?

Since the 90s, we set the task to make art that is close to us in spirit. We don’t want to do something new. The task of our group is to materialize new bases of Kazakh’s modern life through the prism of art. I want to make art that is closer to me with these special materials that I know, which have plenty of non-material values in them.

Today we have a lot of information and everything changes very fast.  Of course, we don’t have such conditions for the development of art and science like in developed countries. We did have a little push in development of modern art in Kazakhstan, but it’s not enough. We need the support of our government, but they are busy with other things.

Translation: Kseniya Filatova