Central Asia creatives are combating the effects of COVID-19 with an online marketplace.
A group of artists in Central Asia have found a way to transcend the isolation and devastating impact of the pandemic on their profession by creating a marketplace for their work on Facebook.

Art Bazaar, by virtue of its name, conjures up ideas of social gathering and community, notes German consultant and curator Philipp Reichmuth, one of its organizers. Reichmuth works in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in international development and scientific research. Living in Central Asia since 2010, he became involved in the Central Asian art community when he met Meder Akhmetov, a Kyrgyzstan-based artist and architect, at the Studio Museum in Bishkek.

Creativity and community have flourished virtually in this art market since its inception. Artists offer their works for sale on a private Facebook group and pledge to buy one another’s work as well.

Reichmuth, along with Akhmetov and Kyrgyz artist Darina Manasbek, launched the group in April – modeled after a similar Facebook group in Moscow, called The Ball and the Cross. It operates by a series of simple rules, which members agree to follow when they request access to the page: sell three works, buy one; buy one, offer two to be sold; sell 10, donate one back for a planned exhibition. The page administrators approve the artworks before they are posted.

Galia and Bota Kussainova – twin sisters from Almaty, Kazakhstan, who make up the artist duo GaBo Kussainovs – are two of the participating artists. The coronavirus “compelled me and other artists to adapt to selling our artwork online,” says Bota Kussainova. They work in painting, drawing, and ceramics – creating detailed, miniature ceramic dishes and plates, as well as fantastical paintings that weave portraiture and family scenes with elaborate patterns and details of nature.

Before Art Bazaar, the sisters sold their works from their workshop in Almaty and participated in various exhibits. Although they have posted works on their Instagram (@gabokz) and Facebook accounts, joining Art Bazaar has been the sisters’ first experience with selling their art online. “At first the interface and rules for the publication of ads were incomprehensible to me,” says Bota Kussainova. “However, with time I figured it out.”

In Central Asia, there are few government grants to support artists, and no relief funding to protect them from the pandemic, says Reichmuth. Galia and Bota Kussainova say that their government does not actively support artists or provide them with any kind of material aid. Especially in Kazakhstan, where Bota Kussainova says there are many prohibitions concerning graphic artwork and freedom of speech, the sisters have struggled to find a gallery that would show their nude figure drawings. But they haven’t had trouble finding buyers for these works in Art Bazaar.

The Kussainovas say they decided to participate in Art Bazaar because they were curious to try it, and also because they hoped to purchase the work of other artists. So far, they have sold two out of the seven artworks they have posted; the group estimates that 350-400 works have sold to date.

Participation in the group has remained constant since it started, with about 800 regularly active members. Lesser-known artists are able to show their work alongside more famous Central Asian artists, and to offer it for similar prices. Because of the price limits determined by the medium of the work – 1,000 Kyrgyz soms ($13) for digital works, 5,000 soms for works on paper, and 20,000 soms for all other works – the work is accessible to a wide variety of buyers.

Art Bazaar recently expanded to conducting online auctions, to sell specific series or styles of work. One of the first was for children’s artwork. In another weekend’s auction, all the proceeds were sent to Chyngyz Aydarov, a Central Asian artist stuck in Moscow during the pandemic with health concerns.

These auctions are the first of their kind for Central Asian contemporary art, Reichmuth says. The Central Asian art market, before the coronavirus pandemic, was “mostly informal,” he says. While there are a few galleries of contemporary art – three to four in Kazakhstan, and two in Uzbekistan – they are “small and cater only to niche buyers.” 

About 30 artworks have been donated back for a planned Art Bazaar exhibition. The organizers hope the exhibition will be in both Bishkek and Almaty, when COVID-19 restrictions allow, Reichmuth says. A virtual exhibition also is a possibility. Reichmuth and Akhmetov are members of the Studio Museum in Bishkek, one of the first independent architecture studios in Kyrgyzstan, and Reichmuth says they might develop a virtual 3-D exhibit.

Anna McColley is a Transitions editorial intern this summer, pursuing a major in art history and visual arts at Barnard College in New York. All images from Art Bazaar.