News / 14.10.2015

Umida Akhmetova – guilty of slandering

By Oksana Chelyseva

There were two reasons for the criminal case to be opened. In 2007 Umida published a book  "Women and Men: from Morning till Dusk". Next year she made a documentary together with her husband, Oleg. It raised a sensitive topic of the tradition of checking a new bride's virginity. Both projects were financially supported by the Swiss embassy in Uzbekistan. Umida and her husband were accused of being "mercenaries who defame Uzbekistan and its people".

Now Umida tells, "I'd rather not accentuate the fact that I am "a victim of the regime". We often exchange jokes with my husband and friends, although sad ones. For instance, when we are offered to go somewhere to have rest, we respond, "But who are going to do a business of defaming... Meaning "who will work instead of me..."

Umida sounds laughing but her reminiscences of that time are not pleasant, "Why did they pick up me for their exemplary reprisals.. There are other photographers who take pictures of people in Uzbek kishlaks (villages in Uzbekistan). I am not the only one who photographs people. There are others who do it not worse than me. But they are not targeted. I suppose that there were two major reasons. Firstly, that I am myself an Uzbek and understand the mentality, customs, traditions, mode of life. Secondly, my husband Oleg is not an Uzbek. He is a Russian and he is absolutely independent in his views and approaches. When we work together like it was on the documentary "The Burden of Virginity", he is a director and my task is the camera".

Umida recounts that the idea for the documentary on testing virginity goes back to her own youth, "It was long ago, at the time when I was not even a student. Once I met a young woman who was always sad, very sad. Every time when I met her, she was sad. Then I asked what the matter was. People just waved off their hands at her, "She was thrown out of the family as she happened not to be a virgin".

Umida can't suppress her emotions telling about that even now, "Just imagine how terrible it is. Both a woman and a man are victims of that tradition, in my view. Think how it feels on both when there are complete strangers sitting by your bed and waiting until the final consummation of your marriage".

Umida's face is lit with a smile when she tells, "Being an Uzbek myself, I maybe, could have made a documentary softer. So to say, taking a pity for my people... But I have my own austere karma which is my beloved husband Oleg.  We often work together with him being co-authors. And his approach is tougher than mine, unbendable... Because he is this kind of an artist and a person."

Oleg Karpov was convicted together with his wife. Exactly the same way as they worked together. The system regarded his ethnic background of a Russian as an aggravating circumstance because a Russian can't try to change the way of thinking. His wife's ethnicity and religion were also seen as much aggravating as Oleg's being Russian. The judge stressed out that Umida Akhmetova was found guilty of the crimes, especially "because she is a woman, an Uzbek and a Muslim". "I cherished some hope that thanks to the international attention, the whole case would be closed down. But Oleg remained the authorities' pain in the neck. They would do whatever possible to get rid of an independent and free-thinking Russian person. Could you imagine, he dared to title one of his video-festivals "Art-jihad". You see, how could the authorities put up with him..."

Then, in February 2010, when the judge convicted Umida and her husband, the Uzbek authorities did a lot to silence the public outcry. Though the charges carried a prison sentence of up to three years imprisonment, the judge let Umida walk free saying that the convict was granted an amnesty in honor of the 18th anniversary of Uzbek independence.

The consequences...

When asked if it is possible for the photographer to hold an exhibition in Uzbekistan, Umida Akhmetova gives an immediate response, "No, under no circumstances..."

They neither can make movies in Uzbekistan. Oleg Karpov was removed from the post of the director of the museum of Cinema of Uzbekistan. Umida tells, "After the conviction and the international campaign which followed the sentences on me and Oleg, we were amnestied. For the next four months I was banned from leaving the country. They refused to issue the exit permit for me. But then the ban was lifted. I think that there was someone smart enough to tell, "Come on, we will have more problems with her ban. There will be definitely so much noise about it that it is better to let her go". However, Umida is not considering emigration.

"There were some unforeseeable developments as a positive result of the authorities's decision to pressure us. Firstly, it was the level of the international attention and the campaign which started to unroll in one country after another. When I went to a journalist to go public, I didn't expect the result. But I was so much afraid of what might happen to Oleg if I had not done it", tell Umida. 

Then Umida and Oleg's situation produced a counter-effect on young artists, "Young people got to know me and they started to reach out for me. Invitations began to come to conduct master classes, not in Uzbekistan. Mostly, in Russia: in Uglich and Nizhny Novgorod. After the master-school in Uglich we decided to try to hold an exhibition in Uzbekistan. We got all ready in Russia, including prints. We even managed to get the permission from the president of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan".

However, on the day of the opening of the "One Space" exhibition in the House of  Photography in Tashkent on January 25,  2014, problems occurred. The photos with images containing symbols from the Soviet period were removed. And then just two hours before the opening all photos made by Umida and Oleg's son Timur Karpov and Svetana Ten, one of Umida's disciples, were banned to be exhibited.

"As for Timur's works, - Umida tells, - those were black-and white photos of "vanishing towns", the towns built in the Soviet time and then abandoned. Svetlana Ten made also photos of people in the village she herself comes from. What the authorities disliked were the captions. Otherwise, they would seem innocent. Just images of women doing their household chores or working in the fields. But the explanation attached to the photos stated, "There has been almost no family left in Uzbekistan not affected by labor migration. In the village there are just two men left: one of really advanced age and the other one who is mentally handicapped. It was enough to be ordered to remove the works".

What is the reason? It is fear, Umida is sure of that. She is still in search for the causes of fear, "Once someone commented to the article about me by writing, "Totalitarianism is not hundreds of thousands of people in prisons. It is a million of those who are free but live in fear".

"I don't know what fear is. Because when a problem comes, you just have two options: to submit or fight back. Besides, people in my country are in fear not because they were personally intimidated. They have developed timidity of someone who just apprehends some trouble without ever experiencing it. So-to-say, they fear in advance", Umida tells. In some of her previous interviews both Oleg and Umida stated many times that before the first blow from the authorities they never regarded themselves political. They had not even had time to check some already banned opposition webpages. "What have those who staged that show trial reached?, - Umida's voice raises. - Nothing to their advantage. They have made me an angry woman. Some kind of a "dissident in art"

Despite all the constraints created by the authorities, Umida continues to work. One of her favorite projects already exhibited at the 5th International biennale in Moscow is photo series "Daughters and Mothers-in-Law". Umida is telling me, "Just have a look at those photos. All women there are very beautiful".

Her other project is connected with the architecture and monumental art of the Soviet period. "My goal is to save memory of all pieces of art from that epoch. Many buildings of the soviet period are inlayed with mosaics. Some of those are absolutely fantastic. There is also rubbish. But I am fixing all still surviving pieces because that period was an epoch. If can't be compared with the visual propaganda of nowadays. It is just posters who are made by young guys without any education in art. No matter how we feel about the Soviet time, the pieces of art created by its artists remain unique", Umida doesn't hide her indignation with the fact that Karimov erases all the hints that Uzbekistan was a Soviet Republic.

"This is not surprising. You know that Karimov was a leader of the Uzbek communist party. One of its functionaries. Then the time changed and he converted himself from a devoted Communist to a "padishah", the owner of land, bodies and souls", Umida tells. At that, in her opinion, Karimov is what he is at his age, because "he does understand what "his population" is like..."

"In my opinion, the people of Uzbekistan were just forced by historical waves from backwardness to the Soviet time and than again backwards. They are again timid and shy an ever questioning the power. By saying that, I feel important to state that despite all negative Karimov has managed to keep the best of the Soviet period, that is secondary education for all, boys and girls. And girls in Uzbekistan are free to dress the way they want which is really great", admits Umida. She explains that the surface of the temporary reality of Uzbekistan is very nice. The towns are clean and tidy. People can afford driving cars. "Despite all my feeling of the situation is as if all the people, regardless of their ethnicity, a driven into some stall", Umida concludes.

To interview Umida Akhmetova, the first challenge was to find a possible channel for communication. There is one specific reason for that: Umida and her family live in Tashkent. It means that there is no Skype to communicate. As Umida Akhmetova is regarded by the authorities of Uzbekistan as "an art dissident", her phones are tapped. Facebook calling system neither functions in Uzbekistan. Karimov's security services are pretty well equipped to keep a sharp eye on their journalists and dissidents. To all appearances, the high-tech surveillance equipment sold by the Swedish giant Teliasonera provided Karimov alongside leaders of other undemocratic states with best  possibilities to spy on the citizens. Finally, we found a channel for our communication. Google hangouts still work in Uzbekistan.


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