Rustam Khalfin, 1949-2008
Sunday, September 9th, 2012.
Dear Rustam Khalfin,
I have been irritable about your having left recently without any utterance anywhere of your passing. How can you, the proclaimed founding father, protagonist, leader, teacher, and prophet of contemporary art, just die, with only the skipping of a few dozen-heart beats that knew and loved you?
You were neither mentioned in the papers, nor in the Sunday columns, nor even amidst the massive abyss of the World Wide Web! I imagined paying for an e-flux ad to announce your death, but I was broke and the idea seemed disproportionate to the kind of loss that I felt your passing was to your community and to generations of artists. Many months later, I found only an old, recycled article about your life and work in Universes in Universe, which made me even sadder.
Please know that art history is profoundly limited and ludicrously slow to awaken. For sure you will be auction material someday, perhaps just as soon as clever dealers organize luxurious tours for collectors to traverse the region where you once lived. For now though, you have many spiritual brothers whose limelight you might share. At least that is not a shame. Your twin brother Beuys, for example, might have already met up with you by now.
I wanted to write you because when we first met I did not speak Russian. Refusing to learn it, I was unwilling to sacrifice my already rusty half-dozen tongues that I had picked up along my traversal of immigration routes to America. By the 1880s my Tajik-Uzbek grandparents had probably forgotten to speak Kazakh. You seemed to have never learned Dari from yours. This is perhaps because you were not Uzbek, though you were born in Tashkent. I remember how we sat at the base of a tree in front of Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCCAA) in Almaty. I was thrilled to be on the grounds of what was in the 1990s a sacred site for contemporary artists. Unfortunately, SCCAA died even before you did. Shut down for lack of funds—or was it poor luck with leadership?
Anyway, during that meeting you opted not to speak. You simply made gestures and stared at me in English.
So I came to know your work by listening to others discuss its novelty. During my last visit to your two-room studio apartment your health had taken a turn for the worse. Your art works were scattered in museum storage rooms and defunct galleries, already the fodder for vicious friend and family disputes. So we spoke through images. With my newly purchased digital camera, I photographed the mostly crumbling remains of your old printed matter. Invitations, documentations of performances, installations and other paraphernalia; translating analog photographs of scenes I had missed by only a decade, my mind conscious of captivated audiences. Their presence still resonated through your messy albums. We drank tea. You shrugged your shoulders, and humbly smiled with glee. I decided you might perhaps be the greatest Sufi-Fluxus wonderer on earth. I plan to explain this sometime, but not just yet; I am still coming to terms with your being elsewhere.
Yours truly, Leeza Ahmady.
Rustam Khalfin was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1949 and passed away in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2008. In 1972 he graduated from the Architectural Institute in Moscow, after which he settled in Almaty where he spent the rest of his career. During that time he became a follower of Vladimir Sterligov, the last survivor of the Russian historical avant-garde. Soon after, he started an artist group with his wife Lida Blinova and other like-minded artists who began organizing underground shows in apartments and basements in Almaty. Khalfin is now considered to be the father of contemporary art in Kazakhstan, having played an integral role in training young artists and intellectuals. A prolific painter, Khalfin’s practice progressed through media to encompass sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and video. Khalfin’s work has been widely exhibited throughout the countries of the former USSR in addition to many cities in Europe of late, including the Venice Biennale 2005.