New East Digital Archive

Aida Sulova: Bishkek’s pioneering art impresario

Young, fearless and dedicated to enriching public life through art, Aida Sulova is on a mission to shake up the Kyrgyz capital

31 October 2017

Center Asanbay, a multi-purpose events space, is located in an eponymous “mikroraion” in Bishkek, which used to be on the hard-to-get-to outskirts of the city; now it is considered one of the best districts, tucked away from the dusty, traffic-jammed downtown. The Asanbay’s two-story building is an open convertible space of 1,800 square metres. There’s a Georgian restaurant on a second floor (with a wide balcony running around the two sides), a café and a bar by the entrance and a small library room across from it. When I visited in September, a huge HD screen and a viewing platform were being installed on the terrace in front, inspired by an outdoor movie set up at Brooklyn Bridge Park. The plan is to show vintage Italian films.

Aida Sulova, project manager and curator at the Asanbay, has been supervising construction and design from the very beginning and is now developing art programming at the Center.

Where and how do art projects fit into the multi-purpose events paradigm? How do you fund art?

The center is a for-profit space financed by a group of investors. Its spaces are rented out for all kinds of events: trainings, seminars, discos and weddings. About 180 square metres of the total space is separated off as gallery space, though we also put up big shows and events taking up the whole “field”. The budget for art and culture is non-existent, but 50 per cent from the rental of the gallery room supports cultural programming. I also do a lot of fundraising. I spend a good chunk of my time taking powerpoints to the embassies, foreign organizations and local businessmen. It’s not just about getting funding, but building partnerships in a society where there’s no tradition of philanthropy and cultural patronage. I do not sell just the Center’s programming, but the very idea that culture is important. All our art events and workshops are free. When I was starting out, I relied a lot on volunteer help from friends and family who helped with set up, clean up and other tasks. I brought my personal books to launch the art library, and then received some donations.

Can you tell me about your projects?

One was titled “Once upon a plastic bag”. The aim was to confront the waste and garbage problem in Bishkek, and to bring attention to environmental pollution in Kyrgyzstan. It was reviewed in the Huffington Post. I also worked with the American firm HM2Architects, which designed and build the new campus of the American University in Central Asia [also located in Asanbay] and gained a lot of experience on that project.

What are some recent cultural happenings at the Asanbay?

We just took down a show, “No, no, no…”, organised in collaboration with curator, artist and architect Ulan Japarov. There’s so much “no” and “not quite” in our culture, and the show was exploring this. It is focused on the post-Soviet generation, a generation that was brought up in Soviet dogmatism and then was confronted by uncertainty, consumerism and virtual reality. Yet their creativity is rooted in this rupture, and their “no” is actually a positive one. It is about refusing to follow the legacy, yet also questioning the consumer reality. About 20 artists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan participated. This was the first show fully funded by private money. Our exhibition schedule is full for the rest of the year. And we finally launched children’s workshops!

How big is your team?

Well, I only got an assistant last month. I also have several interns, recent graduates in design, putting their first portfolios together. The internships are paid. I want to support creative people, and I hope that exhibitions at Asanbay will provide opportunities for the artists as well.

What was and continues to be the most difficult aspect of your job?

It is the fear of not being understood, working against skepticism. It was a challenge to convince everybody that construction should be documented and was part of the creative process. While the construction was still in progress, I brought in a youth orchestra, which played classical music for the workers.

It was not easy to agree on design. Often, people wanted to replicate something seen somewhere, rather than using that as an inspiration to create an original article or situation, taking into account the local environment. The openness to contemporary solutions, such as disclosed structures and pipes, is hard won. The open convertible space isn’t something people are used to.

And of course, it is hard to find work-life balance. I wish I spent more time with my nine-year-old son, who inspired our workshops for children.

Does being a woman make your job more difficult?

Yes. I handle being put down a lot. I would never wear short skirts or shorts or heels to work. There are enough unsolicited invitations “to drink wine.” When signing contracts I worry about being cheated or duped, as many dismiss me because of my youth and gender.

You studied digital communications and media at New York University for several years. Having lived in New York before taking on this project, how do you see the difference between Western and local contexts?

The difference is huge. We don’t have a culture of gratitude or understanding that everybody’s work, whether a manager’s or janitor’s, is important for the success of any project. We don’t have a culture of feedback, but complaint. So my work is also about changing the culture of human relationships and putting care in creating a beautiful environment on all levels.

What is your dream?

The other day I was downtown in Bishkek, and I saw a huge line for the newly opened KFC. I want a lot of people coming to the Asanbay, standing in line for art and culture.

Text: Dasha Shkurpela