A Rising Filmmaker Has Accomplished the Rare Feat of Being Shown at Both Documenta and the Venice Biennale
This year marks one of the rare times when the world’s two biggest recurring art exhibitions, the Venice Biennale in Italy and Documenta in Kassel, Germany, coincide. There are more than 200 artists in the former and many, many more in the latter. (Exact numbers are hard to verify for Documenta, which has grown to the thousands as a succession of chosen collectives and individuals have brought on more and more artists to join them.)
Only one person made the initial artist lists of both exhibitions: Saodat Ismailova, a filmmaker whose works about the people of her home country of Uzbekistan are by turns mystical and deeply rooted in reality.
In Ismailova’s films, which unfold in extended shots, viewers watch as age-old fairy tales come to life and religious rituals are undertaken. There are frequently long takes in which her camera pores over vacant, mountainous landscapes; the pace is unhurried in a way that recalls the meditative style of feature films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who specialize in what is sometimes termed slow cinema.
Biennials are places where people typically view art quickly, partly out of necessity—there’s just too much art on view to give most things a proper look. (That’s especially the case at Documenta, which is currently hosting its biggest edition to date.) But against all odds, Ismailova’s slow art has stood out. It spotlights communities in post-Soviet Central Asia, offering a perspective that is rarely seen in Western art spaces. Most importantly, the work is hypnotic—it traps viewers in its sedate rhythms, which sometimes feel as though they’re set to the same tempo as life itself.
“Maybe it’s related to breathing,” Ismailova said of her editing style, speaking by a WhatsApp phone call in July. “I think that if we pay attention to our breathing, we contemplate—we contemplate outside and then maybe we contemplate inside. I think that through contemplation, you can be more faithful to reality.”
It felt as though Ismailova were reminding herself to breathe during a whirlwind summer. Ismailova, who splits her time between Tashkent and Paris, was speaking from Kassel, where she was facilitating a collective of her own making that was composed of artists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Titled DAVRA, the collective was a response to the concept by the show’s curators, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, which put a focus on artist groups.
As we spoke, Ismailova was gearing up to perform a work called Precious Drops, which she created with Intizor Otaniyozova, who was invited to sing a Uyghur song. As Intizor intoned, she poured tea from 40 cups into one and then drank it. The performance was dense with allusions. Forty, a recurring number in DAVRA’s work, is a reference to the 40-day chilla period in Islam in which observants spend time alone in religious contemplation, and to the decade of a woman’s life that is believed in Central Asia to bring prosperity. The tea was an allusion both to tea ceremonies, which are led by young women in Central Asia with the aim of offering guidance when they get married, and to a water crisis currently impacting the region.
Later in the month, Tokzhan Karatai performed Patterns from the Past, a piece in which traditional Kazakh patterns were transformed into musical notation and then played near wooden figures that in some way shared aesthetic affinities, in the artist’s view. Both the Karatai and Otaniyozova events appeared in the context of a new work by Ismailova that dealt with chilltan, or shapeshifters.
That these artists differed in nationality, and that their approaches differed vastly, was part of Ismailova’s point—she wanted to “rebridge” the Central Asian scene, as she put it. But she wanted Central Asians to be the ones unifying themselves.
“After the collapse of Soviet Union, in the art scene and cinema scene, we were connected through festivals or events or exhibitions that happen outside of Central Asia, most of the time in the West or in Russia,” she said, adding. “We speak to each other, which I think is crucial, if you think about our future.”
Despite the fact that Ismailova’s films have minimal on-screen dialogue, a similar ethos guides her own work—and, to some degree, her life.
Born in Tashkent in 1981, Ismailova was well-acquainted with film early on because her father was a cinematographer on films made within the Uzbek cinema system. But it is her grandmother, with whom she shared a room for 21 years, that left the greatest mark on her. Having been born to religious clergy in Kazakhstan, her grandmother offered “stories that were transmitted from a female world,” Ismailova said. “They inspire me.” Still today, many of Ismailova’s films are devoid entirely of male characters, although she insists that’s not on purpose.
Ismailova ultimately followed her father’s line of work, attending the State Institute of Arts in Tashkent, where she studied film and TV. Her schooling there was predominantly focused around the Soviet mode of filmmaking, which, during the ’60s and ’70s, was changed forever by directors like Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky, two of Ismailova’s favorite filmmakers. These filmmakers ripped Soviet cinema from the vises of a socialist-realist aesthetic, ushering in a more contemplative mode that broached religious and existential concerns. In their films, psychological states are not portrayed directly but more expressively, through sustained shots of landscapes and other imagined worlds that look like ours—with slight edits. Of these filmmakers’ influence, Ismailova said, with a laugh, “I have to say that I started sensing it more in my practice during the last few years and accepting it.”
A creative breakthrough came in 2004 while on residency via the Benetton Group in Fabrica, Italy. With Carlos Casas, Ismailova made Aral: Fishing in an Invisible Sea, a documentary about the fishermen who inhabit a diminishing body of water between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. (Since Ismailova made that film, it has now almost entirely dried up.) Although climate change is implicitly a concern in Aral, Casas and Ismailova centered people. “Aral doesn’t speak about politics or ecology it speaks only about the human survival strength,” they wrote in a statement accompanying the film. That documentary—and works by Ismailova, including her only completed feature, 40 Days of Silence (2014)—have been seen at some of the world’s biggest film festivals. (She is now at work on another feature, and this month traveled to the south of Kyrgyzstan to begin shooting.)
It wasn’t until 2013, however, that the art world took notice of her. That year, Ismailova’s work was shown at the Venice Biennale in the Central Asian Pavilion. The installation that she was showing, Zukhra (2013), was an unconventional portrait of an Uzbek woman who, while lying in bed, recalls her nation’s past and present. Adding to the dreamlike quality of the film was its projection—the images were shown not on a screen but a piece of cloth that swayed as the air within the space pushed it back and forth.
Sandra den Hamer, director of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, said she chose Ismailova as the winner of the institution’s $30,000 prize this year because of works like Zukhra, which she praised for its “mesmerizing” ability to have just as great an effect in a single-screen version as it does in an installation.
“The narrative in her work is not a plot that goes from A to B,” den Hamer said. “There’s this fluidity in its movement from history to memories to rituals to spiritual forces.”
You could say the same of Ismailova’s current work at the Venice Biennale, Chillahona (2022), a video installation that was shot in underground chambers built near saints’ tombs in Tashkent. The film is in essence a retelling of the Central Asian version of the Cinderella narrative—but Ismailova’s rendition is so abstract, she said she would not even bother explaining it. “The main elements are there,” she said. “But if you look at it a bit more carefully, it’s way more animalistic.” In Ismailova’s reading, the female protagonist is liberated not by marriage but by her own choices.
“I was very much interested by the fact that the ritual is still performed and the story is still recited,” Ismailova continued. “The story didn’t just become a tale for us.”
In other words, in Ismailova’s universe, cultural memory is hardly dead. This plays out in Her Five Lives (2020), a film Ismailova produced for the Asian Film Archive. In a matter of 13 minutes, Ismailova charts the progress of women in her home country over the past century—from being ground down by the patriarchy to liberation under Communism to sexual realization during perestroika—using images culled from Uzbek films. Her Five Lives starts with grainy shots of women being thrown down staircases during the silent era and ends with images borrowed from Ismailova’s 40 Days of Silence.
It’s an example of how Ismailova fights to keep history alive, collecting it for viewers in unusual ways. She’s done this literally—she owns old prints of Uzbek films and related ephemera—but she’s also done it on a metaphorical level by transposing timelines.
“It is important for me to state that these traditions and knowledge are not limited within the past,” she said. “They can be translated for our contemporary lives, and also construct possible futures. It goes beyond time.”