In the Soviet Union it was common for group photographs which contained people who were victims of Stalin-era oppression to be retouched to erase them from the images. However, in Soviet Kyrgyzstan these ‘disappeared’ people could actually reappear years later in hand-drawn copies of family photographs made by artists in the 1970s who went from door to door, offering their services to create an enhanced version of reality.
In these portraits the photorealist artists ‘corrected’ the originals, straightening crooked hair bows, adjusting collars and adding brooches to drab Soviet clothing or patterns to monotone dresses. You could have a joint portrait with your beloved but absent father who was a victim of the purges and whom you’d never seen. While leaders removed people, cutting short their lives and even eliminating them from photographs, the ordinary folk resurrected their memories by preserving their images, creating an alternative reality in the two-dimensional plane of the ‘photo picture’.
If you had never managed to photograph all your children together when they were small, you could have a group portrait made of them later. At home we have a double portrait of my older sister and me. In the picture we look about the same age, although there are actually four years between us. As I recall, we had portraits like this of my close family hanging on our walls when I was a child. They were part of our Soviet and then post-Soviet interior décor.
From a young age I puzzled over the way our dreary Soviet childhood was transformed in these portraits and made somehow happier and more colourful. Now, when I look at our childhood photos I feel so desperately sorry for us Soviet children. It breaks my heart and I’m filled with grief for myself and my family because I see in our unhappy faces the deep imprint of the excessive discipline that was meted out to children and the dull monotony and austerity of Soviet daily life.
For me, these portraits are so important because they illustrate the efforts people without privilege, connections or access to resources went to in order to preserve their family history and make their lives brighter and more cheerful. And they did this, despite the pressures and limitations imposed on them by the Soviet state, even if it had to be in the virtual realm of photo pictures.
This photograph shows my older sisters. It was the picture that sparked my interest in these hand-drawn photo portraits. I noticed that in the enhanced picture my sisters’ hair bows had been straightened and looked more puffed up and that the addition of colour somehow conveyed a sense of positive emotions. I started to look more closely at our family photographs. There’s my mum with my brother, her dress drawn in greater detail and with added patterns. There she is with her beloved grandmother, although no photo was ever taken of them together. There are my grandparents on my mum’s side and on my dad’s side. And there’s my sister and me: my sister in a red coat and me in a pink one, me with a yellow hat, my sister with a green one. In reality, all our clothes were brown or grey – they were brought to our village in a truck and my parents bought things for us with their extremely hard-earned cash.
Altyn Kapalova is an artist and academic who transforms the results of her anthropological research into artworks that aim to give vulnerable communities a louder voice in influencing political decisions and the work of political structures.
Aida Musulmankulova is a Bishkek-based photo/video artist who experiments by combining sound art and visual art. One of her most recent works is the Sound Installation “17” which was created for the 1st Feminnale of Contemporary Art.