Interview with Olga Nefedova for Modern Art and Artist Estates: Ways, Works and Archives Issue – Vol I
My interest began in the 1990s when I was in Kuwait and I met Thuraya Al-Baqsami, a Kuwaiti artist. I heard her speaking Russian and was surprised that someone in Kuwait knew the language. She told me that she had been studying in the Soviet Union and I found that interesting. Later, in early 2000, I came across Thuraya’s friend from Iraq, who also had studied in the Soviet Union.
I was in Kuwait for 12 years, learning Arabic and studying at Kuwait University. I worked in the Tareq Rajab Museum for many years then I moved to Qatar and worked at the Islamic Art Museum, before I became the director of the Orientalist Museum.
Throughout things like Art Dubai and Christie’s auctions in Dubai, I would look at the catalogues and I realised there was no information on the Soviet Arabs, as I call them. I was only aware of one scholar who had gone to Yemen and interviewed Yemenis that had studied in the Soviet Union. However, even that scholar did not consult any Russian archives.
Six years ago, I decided to start from scratch myself. I went to institutes and art academies. However, nothing was digitised, so it wasn’t easy. Connections play an important role, but I still needed an official letter, which I managed to have because I taught at university. This gave me access to various archives including personal ones. I went to the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts, to the State Archive of the Russian Federation, that contained the official files of institutes in Moscow and St Petersburg. Now, I am also working on Uzbekistan because we also had students there, including Palestinians and Yemenis.
The state archives gave me access to students’ exams and grades, as well as stipends and financial information. There is no centralised information, so from combining all these archives, I had a complete list of names. I identified around 200 to 250 Arab artists who studied in the Soviet Union from 1959, when the first one came, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. I then started looking for these people, by consulting with friends and surfing the internet. Sometimes, I get answers years after asking. I travelled a lot and during Covid I conducted interviews via Skype.
I think that every Arab country has gone through such turmoil, so these people are not necessarily there anymore. Unfortunately, a number of them had passed away so I had to search for their families, For example, there is very interesting information and archival material which contradicts a lot of previously known information about Mahmoud Sabri, who studied in Moscow. He passed away, but I was in touch with his daughter who then passed away too. Then, I talked to his friend who also later passed away, but at least I had recorded my interview with him. I have done around 35 recorded interviews which I consider extremely rare and important. We have to be in a hurry because we are potentially losing information that we would never be able to source later due to archives being in terrible conditions and artists unfortunately leaving this world. On the Soviet side I am the only one conducting this type of research, but I hope we will have more researchers.
We all want to share the information we are collecting. A lot of artists have families and relatives taking care of their heritage. I share information with family members often about things they wouldn’t know. They tend not to operate as artist estates because often there are very few works remaining along with black and white photos and nothing more. I share a lot through essays and social media. I post on Facebook and Instagram when I find something. I do an enormous amount of lectures, presentations and conferences. Nada Shabout has established a website for Iraqi material and I share some things with her, but I wish we could have a centralised web archive to upload to. I know the Atassi Foundation has something and Salwa Mekdadi is also working on something. I am ready to share images, interviews, and videos that I found from the Soviet years that no one even knows about.
I hate the terms East and West because it is not really East and not really West. All this influence from the side of the Islamic world on European and Russian art was so interesting. But then I was thinking about this so-called Occidentalism and that there must be the equivalent but the other way around. With these Arab artists that started in the Soviet Union, maybe ideas like communism usually come to mind, but when I started working on it, I realised they were normal students in normal dorms living a normal life of love stories, fights and friendships.
In fact, there were three main reasons why Arab artists were interested in studying in the USSR. The first was for pragmatic reasons as a general exchange programme was being offered with free education, a stipend, paid transportation, accommodation, and medical care. This was extremely attractive to a lot of students, especially from rural areas who lacked funding. The second reason was that many of them were members of communist or pro-communist parties in their home countries and they had some romanticised image that made them want to go and study there. The last reason is that a few of them were very fond of Russian or Soviet art and they came to study because they wanted to learn.
Even though it was the Soviet Union, in the early years it was the time of Khrushchev, so the atmosphere was relatively liberal. The first artists that came to study were two from Syria: Abdel Mannan Shamma, who is still alive and lives in Damascus and Milad Chaib, who returned to Maaloula and became an icon painter and a muralist doing a lot of religious paintings. They all lived in dormitories alongside Soviet students. One Soviet student of Armenian origin was fond of surrealism and he painted a number of works that he displayed on his wall. Someone reported him and the committee came to the dormitory and asked who painted them. Iraqi artist Ahmed al Numan came forward and took the blame because he was a foreigner. The committee asked him not to do it again and left. Had it been the Soviet student, he would’ve been directly expelled. It was nice to discover that they all understood the situation and they helped each other.
When I look at the graduation works I found a lot of them are more into abstraction than socialist realism, and managed to graduate with excellent marks. I was surprised to read exam papers, and the way their professors clearly understood this contradiction between the Soviet students that had to follow one way and those Arabs that managed to present a completely different art language, Nazim Irani, this brilliant Lebanese sculptor, presented very interesting work that I published.
I have already published my Mahmoud Sabri research, but I want to finish an essay about his two and a half years in Moscow. I have a lot of documents relating to his life from the day he arrived, where he stayed and so on, until the last day. One thing I discovered is that there is a beautiful sketch called “Watani” that we didn’t know about. I consulted Nada Shabout, and apparently it was supposed to be placed on the other side of Jewad Selim’s monument in Tahrir Square, among the three monumental murals for Baghdad. Sabri was commissioned by the communist party of Iraq for this piece.
In July I have a conference in Berlin at which I would like to talk about Inji Aflatoun. She had two exhibitions in Moscow in the 1970s. They didn’t give us the archives because they said it was damaged in a fire. I am trying to check if anything survived. I am like an archaeologist: I have to dig deeper and deeper. I also just completed very interesting research on a Kurdish artist that studied in the Soviet Union and I have a very interesting essay commissioned by the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit about Palestinian artists that studied in the Soviet Union. Via the Orient Institute in Beirut, I had a major grant for two and half years to conduct major research that is really an A to Z of Arab artists in the USSR. I hope this major essay will be published this year or next because it answers an enormous amount of questions related to Arab artists and the Soviet Union.
I hope that someone creates an umbrella where we as researchers can all find ourselves with our archives and material that makes it available. This is going to be extremely important. I know a number of institutions had started to work on this, like Mathaf and so on, but somehow I hope that someone embraces us. We do need this information, otherwise it will be lost.
Image are courtesy of Olga Nefedova.
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Olga Nefedova is an art historian and the former director of the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar. She has worked for many years with private and government collections in the Far East, Middle East, and the Gulf countries (Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia). Olga Nefedova has been recently appointed as an expert consultant of the Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan. She is also an author of numerous books and articles on the subject of orientalism. She is an associate professor of art history at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Her current research interest lies in the area of modern and contemporary Arab art, focusing on the stories of Arab artists that studies in the USSR.