Melodies of the Steppe in Stone
The sculptures of Tleuberdy Binashev are like the drawling melodies of Kazakh songs – undulating shapes and smoothly curving lines echo the pale shades of the steppe and the bitter smell of wormwood. The story of the nomads is told by figures cast in bronze or stone.
How has your work led you to be become known as the ‘singer’ of Kazakh domestic life?
- It is quite natural for me to use Kazakh themes because I was born in southern Kazakhstan, where people have always been able to keep their traditions and customs alive. When I was a child, my imagination was fed by the petroglyphs and stone balbals and kulpytases, the ancient sculptures and graveside statues found in the steppe. Playing on the banks of the Syrdarya River, I loved modelling animals from sand and clay. When I left school I worked as a stonemason, and it was at about this time that the neighbouring village of Temirlanovka decided to set up a monument in honour of Khadzhimukan, the famous paluan (strong man or wrestler), who lived there some years before. When the local akim (mayor) discovered that I was an amateur sculptor, he commissioned me, despite my youth, to create this monument to a local legend.
The result was such a success that the wrestler’s descendants thanked me with tears in their eyes. Inspired by this I went to Alma-Ata to study and enrolled in the art school, where I was spotted by Khakimzhan Nauryzbayev, the first Kazakh sculptor. He became my mentor and I learnt so much from him as we worked alongside each other in the studio. I strive to make my sculptures express the character of the Kazakh people — generous, kind and hospitable — as well as our values: love of home and family and respect for the elderly. My teachers trained me in the art of classical sculpture, but gradually I began to develop my own style. Almost all my friends went on to study in universities in Moscow and St Petersburg and became fine artists, adopting the best of the European traditions, but I couldn’t go with them because times were hard for us. I had lost my father at an early age and my Russian was poor. I was very upset about this at the time, but in the end I came to appreciate the words of my mentor: “It is good that you did not go away to university. You have managed to keep close ties with your native land; you have not lost your national spirit by travelling far from your motherland”. It matters very much to me that Kazakh people should preserve their unique culture in the face of increasing cultural globalisation. If our society continues to respect its native traditions, it will maintain its intergenerational continuity. I have created a work dedicated to this subject called: Grandfather of the 20th century, grandson of the 21st. It depicts a conversation between two generations, two worlds with different values, showing how the aksakal (senior clansman) feels bitter about the loss of the traditions and the sight of his air-headed, gadget-obsessed grandson.
- What do you think about the modern fashion of putting up statues of our ancestors?
- I want to believe it will pass as any limited and fleeting fashion does. As an artist, I am interested in creating sculptures of subjects that excite me. Sadly, the most popular orders in studios today are the figures of batyrs (warriors), khans and famous historic figures. The subject of exploring Kazakh history in creative work is very close to my heart, but it should be re-thought from an artistic point of view. I have ventured to hope that my works reflect the spirit of the Kazakh people, much of which is based on the fairy tales, legends and myths with which I grew up. The impressions of my childhood and my memories of growing up in the aul (village) continue to be the central and living themes of my work. For instance, a composition of a stone circle with cord of wood through the centre represents a hearth in the evening surrounded by a large family. I have always regretted that our country does not have monuments that capture the dreadful pages of our history, such as the Great Jute and the Holodomor of the 1930s that took millions of lives. These events inspired my sculpture Jute in the Year of the Snake. These works are not, however, in great demand. At the moment they are exhibited in the private museum in my studio, but of course I dream that one day they will adorn the parks and squares of our cities.
- What is the purpose of your private museum?
- It exhibits not only my own works, but also many of the interesting pieces that I have collected throughout my life. One wall, for instance, is dedicated to my fascination with the civilisation of Ancient Egypt. I collect anything that is related to this subject. Corners of my museum are dedicated to people whom I consider the pride of our nation, such as the worldchampion wrestler, Khadzhimukan Munaitpasov, and Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the outstanding statesman so loved by our people and whom I knew well. Also, my teacher, Khakimzhan Nauryzbayev; I have exhibited things he has given me such as his personal belongings, tools and lathes. I have dedicated a space to my friend, Asanali Ashimov, which includes exhibits from the making of the film Kyz Zhibek. Other sections of the museum are dedicated to art books, collections of ancient lanterns, oil lamps and artefacts from archaeological exhibitions that I helped set up.
-Have your children followed in your footsteps?
- Yes, my two daughters. Initially I was very against this, but I am happy about it now and have no regrets for them. For a long time, however, I tried to dissuade them because I knew just how hard a sculptor’s work is. It is a long, laborious process that involves many people, starting with the delivery of the raw material to the studio and finishing with the casting and moulding at a special foundry. Materials are expensive: marble, granite, bronze and fire clay particularly so. But my daughters are stubborn: one has become a professional sculptor and the other is still studying.