Arts Stagnating in Turkmenistan

Arts Stagnating in Turkmenistan

Thursday, 15 January, 2009


Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Although Turkmenistan’s leaders have promised to reinvigorate culture and the arts, they continue to exert a heavy hand, controlling artists, censoring material and imposing ridiculous rules.

The latest set of instructions were revealed at a meeting in the capital in Ashgabat, where according to a January 6 report on the Turkmeninform site, singers were told they should avoid using recorded soundtracks as backing.

In addition, female performers were told they should wear traditional Turkmen dress even during rehearsals, whereas men could wear modern clothing.

Culture and the performing arts have existed in a stultifying atmosphere since the late president Saparmurat Niazov issued a decree in 2001 banning opera, ballet, the circus and variety stage acts, and order the closure of concert halls, theatres, and the national folk dance troupe.

Niazov believed such expressions of the arts were at odds with what he termed “the Turkmen mentality”.

These measures led to declining professional standards among singers, musicians, singers and actors, and many switched to other jobs or emigrated.

In January 2008, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, who had succeeded the late Niazov just under a year earlier, lifted many of the restrictions so that circus, opera and ballet were once more allowed.

The national opera house is currently reviving a piece called “Shasenem and Garib”, and is planning another production, “Tahir and Zuhrah”, later this year.

Despite these liberalising moves, artists and singers in Turkmenistan say true freedom remains a distant dream. The old strictures have been replaced by new restrictions.

An opera producer explained how last autumn, Berdymuhammedov set up a “supervisory body” with powers to assess the artistic quality of literary works, plays and film scripts, and to authorise productions.

“You can count the number of permissible themes for plays on the fingers of one hand,” he said. “True artistic creativity is impossible in an environment of total censorship, so Turkmen arts are unlikely to revive.”

The director added that the only operas being staged were by local composers who have been vetted for their loyalty to the regime. That rules out the classic standards by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.

Things are much the same with other performing arts. Concerts and tours remain the exception rather than the rule. Mostly they are restricted to the capital and are timed to coincide with national holidays and international conferences.

The repertoire is very limited in range.

According to a singer in Ashgabat, the culture ministry encourages “only folklore and patriotic songs” performed in Turkmen. Many artists are reluctant to perform new songs.

“I can’t sing the songs I want, as they would be censored,” said the singer.

An observer in Ashgabat recalled how last summer, the famous Turkmen singer Lachin Mamedova was awarded third place in an international song contest in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, yet her achievement went unremarked in her home country.

“Television and local newspapers ignored it because it did not fit in with Turkmen ideology,” said the journalist. Mamedova sang in Russian and Arabic.

A commentator in Dashoguz region said it was seen as inadmissible for singers to deviate in this way.

“The competition among singers is evident not so much in their performances, but in the content of their songs, which are generally about the current leader [Berdymuhammedov] and his policies,” he said.

NBCentral Asia observers say that if Turkmenistan’s leadership really wants the arts to flourish, it should grant artists the freedom to choose their own songs and costumes, and offer them a chance to pay for TV and radio airtime and concert premises on a commercial basis.

“We urgently need to lead the Turkmen performing arts out of their Niazov-era seclusion,” said a local analyst.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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