An Inheritance of Paper: the Late Soviet Era Art of Anuar Alimzhanov
(American University of Central Asia)
A prominent artist of the late Soviet period, Anuar Alimzhanov had always been fascinated with immense ethnographic compendium. The Kazakh poet wrote with a thorough knowledge of imperial era erudition. He listed its works and annotated them, collating materials relevant to the Kazakh tradition, and then wove this scholarship into his art. There are references throughout to the compilations of figures like Vladimir Dal', A.I. Levshin, and Petr Semenov, a cartographer and statistician expert in enumerating difference and in indexing Eurasian peoples, plants, and insects. Alimzhanov made similar allusions to Vasilli Radlov as well as to Grigorii Potanin, the latter having spent the last decades of the nineteenth century inventorying botanical species as part of survey missions to Mongolia and Tibet. This fascination with ethnography was not fortuitous. Alimzhanov's effort to sift through the classifications of the imperial era was an attempt to come to terms with the genealogy of his present and with the tangled history of discarded and altered classifications that in some sense shaped Soviet civilization. His art endeavored to make sense of the sediment of taxonomies in the steppe across which the Kazakh SSR sprawled, a geography that was layered with ethnographic, botanical, and linguistic categorizations. He wrote with this inheritance of paper on his mind and while surrounded by gigantic tomes of Soviet erudition like the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which issued its final volume in 1978. The latter assorted the entirety of the regime's heritages into bounded ethnic geographies while detailing the flora, fauna, and geological characteristics specific to each. Ethnic order was never far removed from the natural order of things in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Its entry on the Kazakh SSR listed "155 species of mammals and 480 species of fish" as well as early artistic remnants such as "cliff totem images of animals… and earthenware vessels with geometric designs applied by carving, tooling, and stamping." A reflection on the lineage of this paper empire, his art was also a complex, indeterminate reflection of it. His efforts to make sense of categorizations also reinforced the syntax and grammar of the classificatory heritages he examined. He at times undermined and at others mimicked traditions that imagined it conceivable to create a book consonant with human difference and the multiplicity of existing things. Alimzhanov also envisioned tabulating sprawling realities in minute detail and finding "the ethnic equivalent of Linnaeus's pistils and stamens."
Empires of Paper: Central Asian Literature and the Construction of Imperial Subjectivity