Almagul Menlibayeva My Silk Road to You & Nomadized Suprematism

May 1–Jun 9
    Almagul Menlibayeva, Aisha Bibi, 2010, from the series My Silk Road to You. Courtesy of the artist
Almagul Menlibayeva, Aisha Bibi, 2010, from the series My Silk Road to You. Courtesy of the artist

Almagul Menlibayeva is an award-winning Kazakh-German artist working in photography, multi-channel video, and mixed-media installations. Displayed within the Aga Khan Museum and outdoors in the Aga Khan Park, two series of the artist’s photographs present a glimpse into the multilayered reality of post-Soviet Central Asia. Menlibayeva combines a documentary approach with staged interventions to highlight complex geopolitical realities alongside the enduring mythologies that shape contemporary Kazakhstan. In a bid to reimagine and reconstruct contemporary Kazakh identity, her works bridge the past and present, drawing on a “shared collective subconscious” and archaic atavism set against a background of Soviet remnants and historical Islamic architecture.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Steppen Baroque #XL, 2011, from the series My Silk Road to You. Courtesy of the artist

In her bold, dynamic, and richly layered photographs, Menlibayeva interprets Central Asia for unfamiliar audiences by blending socio-political commentary with her own perspective, born from lived experience. The two-part exhibition highlights the artist’s series My Silk Road to You (2012–23), presented as an outdoor installation in the Aga Khan Park, and Nomadized Suprematism (2011–23), on display within the Aga Khan Museum’s lower-level gallery.

My Silk Road to You immerses visitors in a world where textiles become the connecting thread of Central Asia’s history and culture, extending from China to Iran and into Russia and Europe. The works create environments that invite the viewer to step into a realm where past and future merge. They consider the roles of women and girls in Central Asia today, who simultaneously act as custodians as well as symbols of modernity, culture, and enduring mythology. These women are set against a backdrop epitomizing colossal historical shifts—from the times of Genghis Khan to the Timurids and Karakhanids, the trials of Soviet modernism, and the invisible walls of nuclear contamination emanating from military test sites in the region.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Thermonuclear River Basin, 2014, from the series Nomadized Suprematism. Courtesy of the artist

Nomadized Suprematism represents an artistic analysis of historically momentous shifts that have touched the lives of people across the Eurasian continent. These works invite viewers to reconsider various preconceived notions of the Silk Road, framing it within the context of modern industrialization. They capture the complexity of an era in which an ancient nomadic civilization and its economy collapsed due to Soviet industrial modernization. The women depicted in this series are in search of a new sense of humanity, creating new identities in response to the inevitable dystopia that arose after the collapse of modernist utopian ideals. Their pursuit of self-determination and self-control represents a new kind of futurism, where accepting inevitable realities and seeking new identities becomes a dialogue with an already-arrived future.

Selected photographs in the series on view at the Aga Khan Museum feature a backdrop of the Semipalatinsk Test Site (a.k.a. the “Nuclear Polygon”), and the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea, revealing a profound philosophical perspective on a modern world where women, in particular, experience dramatic socio-cultural shifts. The exhibition as a whole aims to stimulate reflection and provide a thoughtful critique of complex social, technological, and ecological contemporary issues, highlighting how global actions and decisions impact local communities, while condemning the unfair distribution of ecological risk and burden. Menlibayeva’s photographs cross cultures, traditions and entire eras, and provide glimpses into unfamiliar worlds, defying simple explanations. Through her work, the artist foregrounds complicated realities and the resultant identities that have emerged through the many historical, environmental, and geopolitical changes faced by the inhabitants of Kazakhstan. These realities, though contextually unique, connect with the numerous other global circumstances emerging from colonialism and expansive cultural exchange.

Almagul Menlibayeva, The Bus Stop Konehchnaya, 2018, from the series Nomadized Suprematism. Courtesy of the artist

Curated by Dr. Sascha Priewe & Marianne Fenton

Presented by the Aga Khan Museum in partnership with CONTACT

Almagul Menlibayeva (b. 1969, Almaty, Kazakhstan) is a multimedia artist currently oscillating between creative ventures in Germany and Kazakhstan. She specializes in site-specific, multi-channel-video installations; immersive digital media; photography; and contemporary textile art integrations that innovatively overlay tapestry onto video installations, drawing inspiration from enduring mythologies of geopolitics to craft a storytelling medium that resonates across time. Expanding artistic horizons using AI technology, Menlibayeva’s oeuvre critically examines Soviet modernity and post-socialist Central Asian transformations, and offers decolonial perspectives on gender, environmental issues, and Eurasian mythologies.

Dr. Sascha Priewe, Director, Collections & Public Programs, Aga Khan Museum, joined the Museum in 2022 after serving as Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is a Senior Fellow of Massey College and holds appointments at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. Priewe is a co-founder of the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative (NACDI) and co-editor of Museum Diplomacy: How Cultural Institutions Shape Global Engagement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

Marianne Fenton, Special Projects Curator, Aga Khan Museum, is an artist and art history scholar who joined the Museum in 2017. She completed her Masters in Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and holds an MA in Contemporary Art History from OCAD University, Toronto. Since joining the Aga Khan Museum, she has curated numerous exhibitions of contemporary art, including: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (2019), Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s Terms and Conditions Apply* (2021), and Shezad Dawood: Night in the Garden of Love (2023–24).