Shifting Geometries: Saodat Ismailova and the Davra Collective

Davra – ‘a circle of people who are united for a certain period of time.’1

Saodat Ismailova: Chilltan. Courtesy of documenta fifteen, Kassel. Photos by Nicolas Wefers.

When asked about the origin of the name of the Davra Collective, one of its members, Aïda Adilbek, explains its Persian origin and talks about the circle that can mean not only a geometric figure, but a circle of people, a place to gather, or a group of people with whom you gather.2 I cherish circular structures, so, I will return to the topic of the circle and the impossibility of an escape from geometries, later in the text.

In October 2021, after Uzbek artist Saodat Ismailova was invited to take part in documenta fifteen, under the daring and inspiring vision of Indonesian collective ruangrupa, which had collectivity, sharing and friendship at its heart, she envisioned building a collective of young Central Asian artists and curators who would work alongside her.

The collective, later named Davra, came together through a messenger chat with a few dozen creative practitioners from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, initiated by Saodat and curator Dilda Ramazan3 and at first worked through social media platforms, clouds of shared documents and Zoom, much like documenta fifteen itself, since its preparation time fell in the years of the pandemic. Crystallized to twenty participants, the collective was unique since it was transnational from its inception, operating across the national borders in the region of Central Asia. As Saodat said in a recent conversation, this process “was also about reuniting a region that the younger generation sees as being made up of detached countries, languages and cultures. Davra is an effort to overcome these constructed distances, and to create an energy or synergy from the ancestral knowledge that was transmitted down to us across the region.”4

Saodat Ismailova: Chilltan. Courtesy of documenta fifteen, Kassel. Photos by Nicolas Wefers.

Even though the collective of Davra is the first transnational collective in the region, there is a strong practice of collectivity in the contemporary field, especially visible in Kyrgyzstan. A member of Davra, Diana U, for example, is also a member of the Bishkek School of Contemporary Art, a local collective of artists and curators rethinking contemporary art education, museum practices and addressing environmental concerns. Art group 705 in Bishkek is another local Central Asian collective that is part of the network of the Arts Collaboratory, a trans-local network of organizations from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East,5 where they share knowledge, and it is certainly one root where the network of documenta collectives derive from. Collectivity of course, often emerges as a response to feeble contemporary art infrastructures with lack of public and private funding mechanisms thereof, and through a desire to do things differently than the existing institutions that are often hardly permeable with new approaches and ideas. For some part, it is certainly a case in Central Asia.

The independent Central Asian countries we have now, follow the administrative lines drawn in the 1920s and 30s, when the five countries were members of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan where historically in the region of Turkestan. Turkestan describes the place where Turkic people lived. It wasn’t associated with any one nation state, and different ethnic groups would migrate freely. The region was traversed by active trade routes, such as the Silk Road. In fact, even the term Central Asia comes from the post-Soviet designation “centralnaya Azia,” and follows the Soviet “Middle Asia” or “Srednyaya Aziya.” During documenta fifteen, Davra became a collective body that looks at the region beyond the post-soviet Central Asia and sees and activates the connections that stretch deeper and trespass the borders of the current nation states.

Saodat Ismailova: Chilltan. Courtesy of documenta fifteen, Kassel. Photos by Nicolas Wefers.

The work of the collective was formulated as a response to the research and work of Saodat, circulating around the figure of the chilltan. In Central Asian cultures, chilltan are shapeshifters that take the form of young or elderly women, animals, animate or inanimate parts of nature, and even natural phenomena like wind or clouds. The word chilltan derives from Persian and means “40 bodies” or “40 beings” of no specific gender. This motif has been reoccurring in Saodat’s practice since her debut feature film 40 Days of Silence (2014). As the artist describes in a video interview, chilltan come to protect the world when there is a crisis, when rational solutions cannot help anymore. The last couple of years have been nothing less than a crisis for the whole world, Central Asia being no exception. But the crises that Saodat’s works address seem to be something much deeper, like a cut into the body of land, transgenerational traumas caused by colonialism and the subsequent environmental destruction, which degrades social wellbeing. Through the multilayered installation and programs, Saodat is asking who the chilltan of today are, and whether the young female filmmakers, artists and curators from Central Asia could play that role?6

Perhaps, it is her film Chillpiq (2018) that resonates with Davra collective and the search for the agency of young women the most. The video follows a performance of forty young girls amid a ritual where they are mounting the Chillpiq, ruins of an ancient funerary structure, and circling around a plinth tying strips of fabric as pilgrims do, for good health, wealth, and fertility. The viewing experience became more fulsome and embodied with the kurpacha mattresses that were laid around in the space, for one to rest and indulge oneself in the proceedings of the ritual. According to the artist, to access the spiritual realm and knowledge of the chilltan, one has to be integrated in the local community, so, the artist ruled out presenting the work on the level of everyday life. “It had to go either up or down. From the very beginning I requested that Documenta presents my work underground.”7 Ismailova’s works at documenta holding many pieces and voices, were all situated across the six basement rooms of Fridericianum, the cool, dark and vaulted spaces that were indeed adding that needed additional dimension to immerse in the ritual presence of the installations. 

I first encountered Saodat’s work in 2020 when showing the Aral. Fishing in an Invisible Sea (2004) at an online screening at the post platform at MoMA that I co-curated with Lukas Brasiskis.8 It is a documentary, radically different from the ones presented at the installation Chilltan, but I see a connection in the deliberately slow pace of it, and the more explicit co-habitation of people with the crisis. The nearly hour long film addresses the environmental ghosts9 of the Soviet time, embodied by the almost dried out Aral Sea. Fifty years ago, the Aral Sea, situated on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was the fourth largest lake in the world. The desiccation of it started in the early 1960s with the expansion of the cotton industry and Soviet irrigation projects. These changes caused profound ecological damage, including the destruction of native fish species, degradation of biotic communities, and climate change, which has affected the former shoreline and its communities. This is only one of the dire traces of Russian imperialism in the region that needs to be unentangled thinking through contemporary politics.

While Saodat gradually departed from the language of documentary towards a more speculative work, both approaches point to the fact that people need to pace themselves differently when entering into the environments surrounded by sound, visual and often, in an installation setting, spatial dimensions. Besides the installations, two rooms at the Fridericianum were devoted to the forth (or fifth) dimension of the work, which was the program that was organized by the Davra Collective. It took place over 40 days, expanding on different aspects of Saodat’s work and difficult pasts and emancipatory potentials of the region’s present, its roots in the pre-colonial history and relationships with neighbors. Davra’s events ranged from lectures involving decolonial theorists to collective cooking, rituals, performances, music and film programs from Central Asia and its neighboring places.

Saodat Ismailova: Chilltan. Courtesy of documenta fifteen, Kassel. Photos by Nicolas Wefers.

In her book on shared histories and current entanglements of Afro-Asia, scholar Joan Kee introduces histories of solidarity between Africa and Asia through works of art, global politics and personal stories of migration. Besides the more common geometric terms, and in order to open up new paths of relationships between regions and countries, Kee is encouraging the readers to apply geometric concepts such as “transversality, angles of incidence, adjacency, coincidence, and topology.”10 I cannot help but think about the region of Central Asia and its newly found relationships as neighbors themselves and with the other collectives, most notably across Southeast Asia, as a space to experiment with those new geometries. To connect differently, beyond the internationalism that is given, to trespass, to smuggle and be smuggled, and to return (to the circle of people that you want to gather with). To heal the wounds created by violent border delineations and cuts (being cut off within the Soviet Union, cut off from South and Southeast Asia) one has to find ways to approach those ties again, trying out if the ground is stable, maybe from a different angle.

The work of Davra is doing exactly that, it continues after documenta, in different ways and geographies (and geometries). The collective organized the winter Chilla in Tashkent and Almaty, bringing the experiences and programs from documenta back to the region in an adapted form, they continue to organize events and screenings internationally, and they take part in exhibitions, in different combinations and numbers. I hope that it sustains the newly found alliances among themselves and with and from Southeast Asia and beyond, and continues to make new re-connections where those have been lost.

Inga Lāce is a curator and writer based in Riga. She was a CMAP Central and Eastern Europe Fellow at MoMA (2020-2023), has been a curator at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art since 2012 and was the curator of the Latvian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2019 with the artist Daiga Grantina (co-curated with Valentinas Klimašauskas). She has also been co-curator of the Allied – Kyiv Biennial 2021 (as part of the East Europe Biennial Alliance) and co-curator of the 7th-10th editions of the contemporary art festival SURVIVAL KIT (with Jonatan Habib Engqvist in 2017 and Angels Miralda and Solvita Krese in 2018-19, Riga). She is also co-curator of a research and exhibition project Portable Landscapes with exhibitions at Villa Vassilieff, Paris, Latvian National Art Museum, Riga (2018) and James Gallery at CUNY, New York (2019) and an upcoming publication. She has curated exhibitions It Won’t Be Long Now, Comrades! at Framer Framed, Amsterdam (2017, co-curated with Katia Krupennikova) and Performing the Fringe at Konsthall C, Stockholm (2020, co-curated with Jussi Koitela, 2020). Lāce was curatorial fellow at de Appel, Amsterdam (2015-2016) organizing a program and editing a publication on the intersection of art and ecology Instituting Ecologies.

What did you learn at documenta 15? is an open-ended issue edited by Dóra Hegyi, editor of Mezosfera, curator, and project leader of tranzit.hu Budapest and Gyula Muskovics, independent curator and artist based in Budapest. If you would like to contribute, please submit your proposal, including a 200-word abstract and your short bio in English at office@tranzitinfo.hu.

  1. https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/magazine/zo-is-centraal-aziatische-videokunst-geevolueerd-in-drie-decennia-van-onafhankelijkheid/923351
  2. https://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/48689_creating_circles_but_not_for_the_sake_of_the_circle_an_interview_with_davra_collective
  3. https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/magazine/davra-een-collectief-opgericht-door-saodat-ismailova-blikt-terug-op-hun-deelname-aan-documenta-15/908274
  4. Saodat Ismailova and Dina Ahmadeeva in conversation, 18000 Worlds, ed. Marente Bloemheuvel, p. 22.
  5. https://dutchartinstitute.eu/page/7340/arts-collaboratory–new-website-launches
  6. https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/lumbung-members-artists/saodat-ismailova/
  7. Saodat Ismailova and Dina Ahmadeeva in conversation, 18000 Worlds, ed. Marente Bloemheuvel, p. 21.
  8. In a screening series From Matter to Data: Ecology of Infrastructures, co-curated with Lukas Brašiškis: https://post.moma.org/screening-series-part-3-from-matter-to-data-ecology-of-infrastructures/
  9. A. Tsing, H. Swanson, E. Gan, N. Bubandt, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p. G6.
  10. Kee Joan, Geometries of Afro-Asia, p. 15.

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