Under surveillance: Artworks from Kazakhstan

by Yi Xiaocuo

Across the Chinese border in northern Xinjiang, the Kazakhstan government is in an uneasy dilemma as it is caught between maintaining friendship or diplomacy with China and being responsible for the security and belonging of its own citizens. Many of them, including their relatives, are still stuck in the mass detainment camps in Xinjiang targeting Turkic Muslims. In the past year or so, the anti-China sentiment in Central Asia has increased as the Xinjiang atrocities continue to unfold via victim testimonies collected by the Kazakhstan human rights group Atajurt. The mounting evidence for artificial intelligence surveillance and arbitrary detention in Xinjiang has exacerbated the already tense public anxiety about the worsening human rights condition in Kazakhstan. Surveillance has become one of the key themes in artistic expression in Kazakhstan’s civil society.

by @yangisar

Yangisar is a Uyghur who grew up in Kazakhstan (click here to see his previous contribution to Camp Album Project). In this work, the facial recognition camera locks its focus on the faces of two Uyghur dancers, sorting, archiving, and analyzing their faces through China’s vast database & AI system called Integrated joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), ready to diagnose their criminality. In Xinjiang, Uyghurness becomes a type of racial capitalism, not only their culture is exploitable through ethnic tourism but now it is also used to cover up forced education and labor in the Xinjiang camps, as depicted in the BBC documentary (pictured below).

Image result for bbc documentary xinjiang
A screenshot of the BBC documentary “Inside China’s ‘thought transformation’ camps”
by @yangisar

Another apocalyptic work here by Yangisar portrays Mahmud al-Kashgari, a 11th century Turkic scholar and lexicographer, sitting among the re-education camp detainees in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017. Mahmud al-Kashgari is believed to have been buried in Kashgar in today’s Xinjiang, one of the most important cultural historical centers of Central Asia. With a strong color contrast between the Central Asian garment worn by Kashgari and the dehumanizing prison uniforms worn by the other detainees, Yangisar’s work laments how the tragedy in Xinjiang, a place with previously vibrant cultural diversity and ancient history, is now being humiliated and destroyed.

by @pokazhaspyn

Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, talks about how surveillance capitalism claims private human experiences as a source of free, raw materials for subordination to market dynamics where it is reborn as behavioral data. In Xinjiang, Chinese government apparatuses have employed such surveillance capitalism not only to mine data but also to criminalize and racialize minorities. @pokazhaspyn‘s art perfectly conveys this critique through a folkloric image of a Kazakh mother and child against the backdrop of a Xinjiang camp. The everyday familial scene of mother and child now under state surveillance is reminiscent of the way China surveils Kazakhstan the nation.

by @ shapalaque
“Happy Kazakhs in Xinjiang”

This work addresses the constant, coerced political performance in which people must engage to survive in Xinjiang. Check out @ shapalaque‘s earlier work mocking the Chinese state orchestrated Xinjiang camp tour for foreign visitors here. In today’s Orwellian Xinjiang, one’s emotions no longer belong to him/her but are a prop for power.

by @Murat Dilmanov

This work features Kazakhstan president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev holding a vulture whose head resembles a surveillance camera. The artist is parodying a symbol of falconry that Kazakhs are well known for. Falconry is one of the most glorified national traditions of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Central Asia. In recent years, this tradition has also been listed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and boosted cultural pride among nations with nomadic cultural histories. Is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev toying with a creature whose eyesight is even sharper than an eagle’s? Is he borrowing this tool of power from China to rule Kazakhstan? Is he or Kazakhstan also being monitored by China?

by @pokazhaspyn

In this collage depicting a museum exhibition, a group of children are appreciating the violent routine of police work. The protestor on the ground has the face of a Kazakh man wearing his traditional skullcap. I recognize him as one of the characters in many illustrated national publications of folklore and cultural heritage in Kazakhstan, part of the nation’s de-Sovietization project. One of the most outstanding Kazakh national traditions such as aitys, orally performed improvisational poetry, is said to manifest freedom of speech and the ability to criticize the ruling class. Here @pokazhaspyn seems to be arguing that the state is proud of its own ‘authentic national culture’ but not when its people have critical thinking skills and civil disobedience. Meanwhile, the future symbolized by the audience of children watches on, perhaps learning about the consequences of uprising, or perhaps being socialized into political apathy.


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