One Fine Show: “Eluding Capture” at MASS MoCA

The exhibition features the work of Saodat Ismailova, Alexander Ugay and Gulnur Mukazhanova—three artists who explore life in Central Asia.

Colorful artwork mounted from the ceiling and on walls in a large gallery space
Gulnur Mukazhanova, ‘Portrait-Reflections (on the history of my homeland, Qandy Qantar 2022),’ 2023–present, at MASS MoCA. Courtesy of the artist. Kaelan Burkett

It’s that time of year when everyone in the art world is buying their plane tickets for Venice for the Biennale Arte, where each participating country stages an exhibition with a citizen artist whose work will be showcased in its national pavilion. This year, the United States will be represented by Jeffrey Gibson, but don’t we all know a little too much about America at this point?

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I prefer the pavilions of smaller countries about which I know much less, and a just-opened show at MASS MoCA, “Eluding Capture,” seeks to provide a similar experience for folks staying stateside this summer. The exhibition features the work of Saodat Ismailova, Alexander Ugay and Gulnur Mukazhanova, three artists who explore life in Central Asia—modern-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—through photography, textile, film, and video. The region has been ruled by khanates, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, which leads to the multifariousness referenced in the show’s title.

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Indeed, the Koryo Saram diaspora is the focus of most of the work on display from Ugay (b. 1978, Kazakhstan), who counts himself among this group of ethnic Koreans who hail from a former Soviet state. In Obscuration #10 (2022) Ugay showcases landscape photos taken with a camera obscura from the geographic coordinates where Koreans were deported to Russia and then what is today Kazakhstan. The results are like a dream half-remembered, subverting even the traditional shapes of photography. Korea has made it easier for the Koryo Saram to return, but Ugay’s film More than a hundred thousand times (2019–2020) addresses this, as the artist began to work in factories in South Korea and filmed other migrants acting out their robotic gestures from the plants in front of their homes. You really can’t go home again.

The museum commissioned new work from Mukazhanova (b. 1984, Kazakhstan) in the form of 75 felted and abstract portraits created in the context of the Qandy Qantar protests that saw a host of alleged human rights violations. The seventy-five velvety works feature colors you might find in a headshop, and perhaps some discernible heads and shoulders, though no faces. Mukazhanova has said that the works in Portrait-Reflections (on the history of my homeland, Qandy Qantar 2022) (2023) are not meant to depict anyone who died as a result of those protests: “I do not want to take their image from them—to speak for them.”

The video piece 18,000 Worlds (2023) by Ismailova (b. 1981, Uzbekistan) takes its name from a quote by the philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, founder of a Sufi order, who proclaimed “18,000 worlds of light and darkness,” all of them illusory. The film’s shifting points of view take us across landscapes and structures like the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Chillpiq Tower of Silence, a Zoroastrian funerary site to show the utterly arbitrary nature of borders, including the mental ones between the built and natural environments. This is an ambitious show that seeks to teach a great deal without becoming didactic.

Eluding Capture: Three Artists From Central Asia” is on view at Mass MoCA.

One Fine Show: “Eluding Capture” at MASS MoCA