Kazakhstan’s cultural heritage includes a long line of nomadic traditions. For thousands of years, nomadic herders have survived in the extremely cold winters and scorching summers of the Great Steppe, adoring their mobile houses with ornaments and engraving delicate patterns into wood and metal tools. Bones, leather, horse hair and anything else at hand found a use in crafting instruments and decorations. Archaeological findings confirm the high level of civilisation of the settled agricultural and nomadic cultures of the ancient tribes that inhabited the territory of Kazakhstan – the Scythians, Sakas, Savromats, Huns, Usuns and Kangly in the first millennium B.C., and later the Turks, Karluk, Oguz and Kipchak. The value of goods was based on aesthetic appearance, quality of craftsmanship and, ultimately, practical use.
Cultures in the steppe have always been fluid and adaptive, unavoidably so, influenced by ties to Russia in the north, China in the east and Persian and Islamic cultures in the southwest. As the industrial revolution and the Soviet development programmes came about, songs of warriors protecting their lands from conquering armies were replaced by anthems saluting the prowess of the USSR and its achievements. Statues of Lenin, friezes on administrative buildings and communist canons can still be seen across most of independent Kazakhstan. Art history can offer unique insights into how dearly a ruling class holds its dominions and how strongly it wants to be remembered. The Panfilov Park in Almaty, for example, hosts a larger-than-life size sculpture that inevitably arouses fascination at the heroic characters it is meant to portray.
What Kazakhstan has now is an inheritance of the same grand principles adopted in the Soviet era, a cloudy idea of “traditional” indigenous culture and a wonderful opportunity to express the new philosophies of modern life. Digital works of art and new popular singers and ensembles are radically different from their Soviet predecessors, though sculptures and paintings done in the “official” style can also be found from time to time. The quintessential expression of Kazakhstan’s culture is elusive because of the mixed and mashed nature of the society’s history. In fact, anyone attempting to find essentialism in the culture is bound to fail.
Museums are wonderful places to see collections of Kazakh art and history, exhibiting unique pieces of ancient and modern jewellery, crafts and fine arts. The number of museums has grown from 87 in 1995 to 224 in 2013, indicating an appreciation for preserving items of historic interest. Many of them contain historical relics, part of the national spiritual tradition, the nomadic way of life, expressing the moral and aesthetic ideals of the people of Kazakhstan. Museums actively promote the development of patriotism and love of country in Kazakhstan.
According to Article 25 of the law “On Culture,” a museum is a cultural institute created to store, study and publicly present museum collections, designed to carry out cultural, educational, scientific and research functions and to ensure the popularisation of the historical and cultural heritage of Kazakhstan. The law “On Culture” also deals with libraries, archaeological sites and cultural ensembles and guarantees their protection by the state.
The government is especially interested in the formation of a distinct cultural profile for Kazakhstan for the purpose of building a recognisable brand. Having cultural assets and legal frameworks regulating and protecting them is one thing; bringing them to the world and making them appreciated is another. Kazakhstan has already gained UNESCO recognition for a number of historical landmarks that are now World Heritage Sites, and when the infrastructure around them attains a certain level of development, they will be the future tourist attractions.
Astana Opera is slowly gaining a reputation as a cultural centre with a rich programme of foreign and domestic works. “Birzhan-Sara,” an opera based on a Kazakh legend, fits harmoniously into Astana Opera’s repertoire, along with Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Puccini’s “Tosca.” The world tour of the opera’s artists and guest performances by renowned musicians will add to the revival of performance-based arts in Kazakhstan.
Likewise, the opening of the National Painting Gallery in Astana highlights a new breath for the visual arts culture in Kazakhstan. A great building with six exhibition halls displaying classical artists from the 1940s and 1950s, contemporary works by young artists and an original backdrop of petroglyphs prove that Kazakh artists have much to show. Indeed, contemporary art has become an active market, with investments being made, stocks raised and anticipated financial success and disappointment. Financing art has become fashionable because there is risk but also the chance to earn a decent return on the investment.
It is unsurprising that the then-Ministry of Culture and the Kazakh Cultural Research Institute held round-table discussions on the cultural policy of Kazakhstan and attracted a wide range of specialists, civil society groups, industry professionals, creative unions, academics and prominent figures of culture and art to the drafting of the national Concept of Cultural Policy. The resulting document was approved by the government and is now a cornerstone of further cultural development. Kazakhstan’s culture is in the thick of progress, along with the rest of the country’s industries and political bodies. The process of nation building cannot rest on extraction and commerce alone, because, fundamentally, the art and culture of a society are a reflection of its values. Without values, materials are worthless and the society is devoid of an ideology to bind it together.