(United States, San Diego, California)
Host organization: The Ilkhom Center for Contemporary Arts (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
‘‘Who to cotton?’ is a multidisciplinary project created by Farrah Karapetian during her residency at the Ilkhom Theatre in summer 2022. The artist collaborated with the local community to represent and remember their experiences picking cotton. In enacting the strongest of these experiences Farrah Karapetian made large-scale cyanotypes on local cotton and transformed the llkhom Theatre gallery, activating it with a song and shadow play created in collaboration with the participants. We talked to Farrah and Irina Bharat, Ilkhom Theatre international program director, about this inter-cultural experience.
Irina, what are your main intent and focus as host organization in the residency program?
Irina: From the beginning the topic that Farrah decided to touch upon was very interesting for us – for my country and especially for the Ilkhom Theatre. Cotton is a very delicate topic in Uzbekistan and we usually try to work with themes that are not very welcome here. The Ilkhom Theatre is an independent art organization, we don’t have either any support or censorship from the government. Officially we do not belong to the Ministry of Culture – that’s why we are very different from the rest of cultural organizations in Uzbekistan. Particularly we are allowed to talk about things that are not allowed in any other places. And this cotton topic that Farrah suggested was exactly like that. Maybe we are among the first who started to talk about cotton in Uzbekistan from a cultural point of view.
Farrah, your research started from the history of Langston Hughes, American poet and social activist, and his visit to Uzbekistan in 1930s. How did the idea first develop into the project?
Farrah: Langston Hughes wrote about his trip through Central Asia in his memoir, ‘I Wonder as I Wander’. He arrived in Tashkent in 1932 and he was so impressed with the way society was changing there. Officials tried to show him statistics, but what impressed him was the visible desegregation of street cars, really educated conversations with children and this issue of cotton. He saw people picking cotton for themselves, when throughout history, they had had to share a lot of profits with the beys, another kind of leadership. Of course, that’s more complicated than it sounded to him in his brief visit, but I was kind of captivated by the idea that cotton has been such a big part of people’s lives there for multiple generations and throughout all of these regimes that have changed. Even as the regimes changed, the cotton was constant. So, I wanted to know how people found agency in that process, even though there was a kind of a constant need to co-operate during the harvest.
Irina, how would you describe Farrah’s approach of working?
Irina: In Uzbekistan the situation is changing now. This year the embargo for the export of Uzbek cotton was removed because we could prove that the child labor hasn’t been used in the fields. Now the country tries to look positive, but cotton is still a complicated topic in society. Maybe Farrah’s approach to talking about cotton in this light and touching manner could be quite timely in Uzbekistan. She took some official articles and public materials, but didn’t go deeply into the global critical moments of this problem. Farrah chose to go from the inside and started to collect personal stories of people who used to work in the fields. This approach gives us a taste of the real situation of what was going on during the last seventy years or even more.
Farrah: In my limited experience, in a lot of post-Soviet places, theaters have always been sites where photographers and artists could go to make kind of really experimental work, even in Soviet times. And I felt that character at the Ilkhom Theater too. There is so much experimentation in their theatre, they change the play every night. So, the environment’s always changing and a lot of interesting, thinking people are coming through. It is the kind of site where – because of the milieu and the atmosphere – the experimentation is traditional. This place is made for something less formal and something more logically participatory. Like it was logical that we do that kind of work there.
How was your communication structured before and after Farrah’s arrival to Uzbekistan?
Farrah: Before the residency, before I got there, it was great that Irina set up a relationship between volunteers. She asked these two women to begin to try to find people to talk to about cotton. That made it so that I already knew a little bit what the flavor of these stories would be. And it was actually very positive. The people whose stories came first were talking about good memories – their first love or a lot of young pleasure out there on the fields. And you certainly don’t hear those stories when you read World Bank articles or The Economist. When they talk about cotton in Uzbekistan, they are talking about forced labor and child labor, they are not talking about singing on the bus. So, I already had a feeling of how different this narrative would be before I get there and that was really helpful. Of course, it would be weird if the stories were totally positive, it would be like a social realist vision of cotton-picking girls with braids, you know. We didn’t go totally organizationally critical as the World Bank materials and we didn’t go glossed-over perfect romantic vision. We just listened and heard about a lot of different things. You heard about some tension between locals and the farmers and the urban kids who were bused in. You heard about people getting sick and running home and then getting in trouble or managing to not get in trouble. So, I think the kind of agency that you do find in real stories, in oral histories, is that the details go beyond what usually get glossed-over by the goals of large organizations.
Farrah, did you have a chance to communicate with respondents personally?
Farrah: Only a few of them. First of all, language difference. Second, I think there is more trust between people when they are from the same place. I may have two grandfathers who left the Soviet Union, but I am not Uzbek. I think it was much more free conversation. Even if I had been fluent, I think it would have been good to have locals as intermediary in that way.
How was the local community engaged in the project?
Farrah: As an artist you engage people in different ways. Even for the Interviewers, even for the first moment there was a learning process, because the people who did the interviews were younger than me. So, they haven’t gone through the same experience that the people they were interviewing had gone through. I think even they were learning about their own place and people a little bit more, asking questions that they had wanted to ask for a while, but just didn’t have a reason to. Making the print – of course they are going to learn something about photography. Cyanotype is one of the first methods of making photographs that existed in the 19th century. It is an interesting process, it’s one that doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure and it could happen in a country like Uzbekistan where there are not photographic darkrooms everywhere. Then even the question of song – appropriated songs were from Katusha to American and German contemporary music. In the opening when people arrived, I think it was funny to see this bizarre mélange of music and time periods and representations. And in the music and video, you can see and hear how the community has changed over time. I hoped that the project would trigger other people to think of what they had gone through. So, my goal really is that this continue and turn into a local conversation.
What have you learnt about inter-cultural exchange during the residency?
Farrah: As I am an artist, I am often in the position to represent people. The only way you can be entirely safe ethically in that game is if you only represent yourself. But most of the time we represent people around us, our families, our cities, other communities inside of our own countries and etc. Even if you do that where you most identify, there are ethical questions. Every time I do a project the questions evolve. This project started with the question motivated by this black American poet and people asked me: ‘Are you going to look at the history of black Americans in Uzbekistan? You are not black. What is your relationship to this subject?’ And so that was my question – what is my relationship to this subject? And I felt like I came out of the process with a healthy answer to this question. We have an area here that is between California and Mexico where cotton and food production had been a goal of the government and the economy. And so, in the 1950s they came in and changed nature and ruined it. I do see a similar construct up at the Aral Sea – same period, same strategy, same result. And there is a room for me to now go to my own community and ask similar questions.
Irina: As for me, I had never heard about this type of making photos on a fabric before. So, it was really interesting for us, especially that Farrah used ikat – Uzbek traditional printed cotton. The new way of looking at this fabric from a contemporary point of view reminds people that traditional things can be very actual. That is what I really loved about this project – Farrah brings together tradition with history, with her personal view and with modern approach.
Farrah: Ikat fabric is so beautiful and I think when you are dealing with the idea of an identity that is not yours weather it is Uzbek or black American or whatever, it’s important not to hide your voice. I didn’t want to be invisible, but I wanted it to be very clear that we are speaking together. There is a transparency around that – printing my pictures of their stories on their cotton and seeing how those designs and histories could intersect. I think it is a healthy way to acknowledge everyone who’s involved.
Farrah Karapetian works with photography in an expanded field. Her applied theatrical strategies posit that working with narratives of the agency of individuals in the face of political or personal change can honor the experiences of participants, slow down and capture elements of contemporary life’s slippery photographic circulation, and reveal parts of micro-political culture that evade the dramatic binaries of media’s algorithms. Her work is influenced by the Russian avant-garde tradition which strongly ties abstraction, photography, and political expression.
Founded in 1976, the Ilkhom Theater remains today the only independent theater in Uzbekistan. The activities of Ilkhom extend beyond theater and focus on the broadening of the cultural border in the region and the exchange of information, including internationally, between artists and other cultural players. The theater houses the School of Dramatic Arts, the theater gallery “Ilkhom,” the contemporary music ensemble Omnibus, and the Central Asian Laboratory for Young Directors, and also conducts international masterclasses and concerts by musicians from around the world and rock and jazz festivals.