Architecture Prof Helping Kazakhstan Redefine Its Cultural Identity

By Sarah Wilson, Texas A&M University College of Architecture

In the emerging Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, Stephen Caffey, a Texas A&M architecture professor who specializes in heritage conservation and art history, is advising an artist-led initiative promoting the country’s storied history, cultural diversity and aspirations.

Initially recruited in 2010 by the Kazakh National Academy of the Arts to serve on doctoral dissertation committees, Caffey’s role has since expanded to include teaching, advising heritage conservation efforts, and facilitating scholarly exchange. He is also a founding member of the Central Asian Journal of Art Studies editorial board.

Caffey’s seventh, most recent trip to Kazakhstan is featured in a 360-degree video shot in the capital city of Astana. It was one of several such videos featured at Texas A&M University’s activation at this year’s South by Southwest, Austin’s annual mega-event celebrating the convergence of creative industries.

“Kazakhstan is one of the most exciting and dynamic places on the planet,” Caffey said. “And just like Texas A&M is rooted in its traditions, Kazakhstan is interested in rediscovering their very distant past and also being on the cutting edge of future developments in architecture, energy and technology.”

In 1991, Kazakhstan became the last Soviet republic to declare independence. To realize the transition, the nascent country’s leaders turned to their Academy of Arts for help developing a new national identity that included replacing Soviet-era sculptures with art reflecting the diverse cultures and beliefs of the country’s 18 million residents.

Inhabited by Turkish and Mongol nomads in the 13th century, Kazakhstan now has more than 131 ethnicities and many religions represented within its borders. All of these cultures, exhibited at the academy through dance, art, music and theatrical performance, are now celebrated equally.

“Kazakhstan is using the arts in a central role in the formation of their own national art history, almost in the same way we did in the early days of the U.S,” Caffey said. “Because a major theme in my research is the relationship between art and identity, working with the Kazakh National Academy of the Arts is a perfect partnership.”

Caffey is currently leading a project to bring a selection of Kazakh art including 18 paintings and five sculptures to Texas A&M for display in 2020.

“Their art is very similar to Western and Native American art in style and color palate,” Caffey said. “Though occasionally you’ll see a camel in their art you wouldn’t see here, they feel they have a shared genetic heritage with Native Americans and are very interested in art from that time in U.S. history.”

In a reciprocal exchange, selections of early 20th century art from the Texas A&M Forsyth Galleries collection will be exhibited in Kazakhstan.

“Texas A&M is so deeply committed to its global impact, anytime we have the opportunity to reach out, we do,” Caffey said. “Our goal is to create further understanding so we can have more connections with them in the future.”

Another feature in the “Designing Kazakstan” video of special interest to Texas A&M is the Astana Expo Center, a building designed by College of Architecture Outstanding Alumnus Adrian Smith, co-founder of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Known for designing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Smith has designed four other notable projects in Astana, which are in various stages of construction.

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This story by Sarah Wilson originally appeared on ArchOne.


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