On the fifth floor of an iconic Soviet-era building now occupied largely by wedding dress parlours, overlooking the site of the first stirrings of unrest which eventually metastasised into Tajikistan’s five year-long civil war, Jamshed Kholikov flips through a glossy magazine of Central Asian art. Kholikov is one of the founders and directors of Dushanbe ArtGround, an arts centre with the goal of elevating digital media techniques and modern art practices. This is ArtGround’s studio and it is suffused with tenacious early-spring sunlight and the odour of instant coffee.
“He’s left… He’s left… She’s still here… He’s left but comes back to visit often.” The litany is of Tajik artists who no longer reside in Tajikistan. Lack of economic opportunity, an upswell of authoritarianism and cultural conservatism and Tajikistan’s virtual isolation from the global artistic community have forced the majority of the country’s best and brightest outside of its borders.
It’s likely that many of those who’ve left Dushanbe wouldn’t recognise the city if they came back. Over the course of 25 years of Tajik independence, but especially in the past decade, Dushanbe has transformed radically. Long-term residents – prone, perhaps, to idealising the past – decry that what was once a cosmopolitan Soviet oasis known for its trees and fountains has become a polarised city of opulent high-rises and hardscrabble shanty-towns. They point to Tajikistan’s bitter 1992-97 Civil War, and the concurrent exodus of the majority of the city’s intelligentsia, who took with them decades of cultural memory and praxis, as the main factor in the city’s decline. Those who are left are cursed to exist in a living palimpsest, eternally comparing the city as it once was to post-war realities.