More Than 200 Artworks by an Eminent Kazakhstani Art Collective Are Being Held Hostage by Unpaid Contractors After a Splashy International Exhibition

Last year was supposed to be a monumental one for Kazakhstani art. Not only was the country poised to participate for the first time in the Venice Biennale, it had also set in motion a worldwide tour of hundreds of important artworks to Asia, Europe, and the US. But months after the Venice pavilion was abruptly cancelled, the reputation of its ambitious art platform has crumbled. Hundreds of artworks have been impounded by an unpaid contractor, a number of artists claim their works have been damaged in uninsured transit, and some curators say they have still not been paid.

Those involved with the exhibitions, as well as the curator of the country’s canceled national pavilion, are now taking to social media, calling on the National Museum of Kazakhstan and the country’s Ministry of Culture to atone for the situation, which they fear has done irreparable damage to the country’s reputation in the cultural sphere.

Most startlingly, around 200 works made by the celebrated Kazakh art collective Kyzyl Tractor were seized upon their return to Kazakhstan following an exhibition at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. They are now sitting in a subcontractor’s warehouse while litigation is ongoing over a lack of payment.

The works were showcased in last year’s multinational touring art project “Focus Kazakhstan,” which orchestrated shows in Suwon, South Korea, Jersey City, London, and Berlin. In total, some 400 artworks by 94 artists traveled the world to these four exhibitions, each of which focused on a different angle of Kazakhstani art. It was the first time that Kazakhstani art was presented so prominently outside of its home country.

Kyzyl Tractor Art Collective, Live Performance at Thinking Collections: Telling Tales, ACAW Signature Exhibition, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City (14 October 2018). Courtesy Asia Contemporary Art Week. Photo: Michael Wilson.

The Trouble Begins

Back in 2017, Kazakhstan’s culture ministry and the country’s national museum contracted the company BBK Pro LLP to handle the massive international art project, which reportedly had a $1 million budget. The company was hired to manage transport, storage, and payment to artists and curators.

But an investigative report in the Kazakh magazine Vlast reports that BBK Pro has not yet made good on all of its pledges. Although a significant portion of the money was distributed and expenses covered, the company reportedly is still in debt to its local and international partners to the tune of somewhere between $53,000 and $100,000—not to mention money owed for artworks that were allegedly damaged in transit.

The New York-based Kazakhstani curator Vladislav Sludskiy, who co-organized the US exhibition,  had felt confident the project would go smoothly due to the involvement of the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum. “We could not imagine that it could screw up,” he tells artnet News. “I also know first-hand that this is often how things work in Kazakhstan. There is an unwritten rule that you will get your money, but not on time.” Still, the delays were substantial enough that he ended up paying the artists’ fees out of his own pocket.

Roza Abenova, former head of contemporary art at the National Museum in Kazakhstan.

Now, many are getting impatient. Kyzyl Tractor’s artworks have been impounded since December 2018, according to curator Roza Abenova, who spearheaded the “Focus Kazakhstan” project and says her repeated appeals to the museum for help have gone unheeded. Abenova previously served as head of contemporary art at the National Museum, but stepped down after it came to light that the Venice Biennale pavilion, overseen by the institution, would be canceled.

“It is outrageous that this gigantic, flagship museum and government structure should act so unprofessionally with regard to external suppliers, and treat senior artists so badly,” says curator Nadim Samman, who was originally appointed to organize the Venice pavilion. “The utterly unaccountable managerial class are ruining the good work of talented and passionate curators and insulting the very artists and culture they are meant to serve.”

Neither the Ministry of Culture nor the National Museum immediately replied to a request for comment from artnet News.

Kyzyl Tractor Art Collective, Live Performance at Thinking Collections: Telling Tales, ACAW Signature Exhibition, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City (14 October 2018). Courtesy Asia Contemporary Art Week. Photo: Michael Wilson.

Kyzyl Tractor Art Collective, Live Performance at Thinking Collections: Telling Tales, ACAW Signature Exhibition, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City (14 October 2018). Courtesy Asia Contemporary Art Week. Photo: Michael Wilson.

Art Held Hostage

Perhaps the most dramatic problem, which has only now been made public, is the seizure of 200 works by one of Kazakhstan’s most important art collectives, Kyzyl Tractor, by an unpaid logistics company. The show in New Jersey was the esteemed group’s first US retrospective and included irreplaceable archival material. “This situation damages the reputation of Kazakh art institutions among foreign partners on contemporary art scene,” the art collective wrote in an open letter published on Facebook last week. 

Co-curator Vladislav Sludskiy says that the logistics company called him to ask how to better climate control the warehouse to preserve for the works while litigation is ongoing. (Their unpaid bill is worth a reported $53,000.) But he fears that, depending on the outcome of the lawsuit with BBK Pro, the works could be destroyed.

View from the opening of “Bread & Roses: Four Generations of Kazakh Women Artists” from the “Focus Kazakhstan” series. Courtesy Momentum.

artnet News reached out the two individuals reportedly behind BBK Pro, Arman Tursunkulov and Bauyrzhan Kurmanbekov, but did not hear back by publishing time. Both men denied wrongdoing to Vlast. Tursunkulov told the magazine he did “everything I was required to do” and that the financials had “nothing to do with me.” Kurmanbekov denied having been director of BBK Pro and any connection with the Focus Kazakhstan project.

The seizure of art is just one chapter in the prolonged saga, however. Curators say BBK Pro made exorbitant requests while cutting corners on important aspects of the project in Berlin in particular. The curators behind the German chapter of the show, David Elliott and Rachel Rits-Volloch, said the company requested an armed motorcade to transport the art, which Rits-Volloch says she refused.

Later, the curators claim they witnessed BBK Pro employees handling the art with bare, ungloved hands. Rits-Volloch also says that the artists flown in from Kazakhstan for a residency program tied to the exhibition were not given enough per diem as they had been promised. “We found out that they couldn’t afford to eat, but they were too embarrassed to tell us,” she says.

View from the opening of “Bread & Roses: Four Generations of Kazakh Women Artists” from the “Focus Kazakhstan” series. Courtesy Momentum.

The Berlin organizers say they are still struggling under the weight of a devastating €20,000 debt accrued from the project. In a March letter shared with artnet News, the National Museum confirms that it gave the promised money to BBK Pro and that, as far as the museum was concerned, the project had been completed.

“The Kazakh Ministry of Culture entrusted a huge budget to BBK Pro for four international exhibitions intended to bring Kazakh contemporary art onto the international stage,” says Khazakhstani artist Almagul Menlibayeva, who helped organize the Berlin exhibition. Now, she says, “before the Kazakh Ministry of Culture can even think of making any other international exhibitions,” it must “hold BBK Pro accountable for their actions.” 

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