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"You Don't Have to Believe Me"

Uzbek Poem 50

Langston Hughes

From the 1934 Uzbek Translation of S.[anjar] Siddiq Prepared in English by Kevin Young, from the notes of Muhabbat Bakaeva


You don't have to believe me,

But we are stronger

Than thunder cutting heaven,

Than hurricane,

Than death's silent eye -

We who feed and dress

Everyone else,

We are miners, laborers, peasants -

The pack mules of the world.

Only now you'll follow us,

Past and Future watching our dust.

detail, Writers Hands, 2023, cyanotype on cotton

Untitled (Ikat Mickey), 2022/23
Untitled (Vintage Lenin), 2022/23
Untitled (Covid lunch), 2022/23
Untitled (Kto na khlopok), 2022/23
Cold Day, 2023
Runaway, 2023
First Love, 2023
Sad Farmer, 2023
Pay Locals, 2023
Calexico Strike, 1933, 2023

I went to Uzbekistan in June 2022 to listen to stories about the cotton harvest from multiple generations of Uzbeks. I wanted to better understand their relationship to this activity, beyond the information that international organizations disseminate. Langston Hughes had spoken of the phenomenon briefly in his memoir, and I had read a few texts from the World Bank, but otherwise I only had a vague sense that this was an important industry for the region. The cotton harvest has been a consistent part of life despite multiple changes in political economy. I wanted to know what people experienced first hand anyway. I wanted to know what kind of agency they had, anyway. 

My plan was to work with other people to enact some key scenes from these stories and record the shadows of these enactments on photosensitized local cotton. I also wanted to hear songs that people remembered from the cotton harvest, hoping that the memory of music would trigger stories. I hoped to incorporate both the prints on cotton and some performance of these songs into an exhibition in the gallery at the Ilkhom Theatre. 

Who to Cotton, 2022, single channel video, 40:03

Who to Cotton: Songs From the Field is a video by Farrah Karapetian, made through a residency at the Ilkhom Center for Contemporary Art in Uzbekistan through the CEC Artslink Art Prospect Network. "I worked with locals to collect oral histories of people's experience picking cotton. The songs that came up in the interviews were quite diverse, including Roma, Soviet, American, and German sources that suggested multiple generations, ethnicities, and transnational connections. I decided to set these songs to video appropriated from the internet that showed the evolution of the cotton industry from the 1940s to the last few years. I made a video that is about 40 minutes out of this collage, including a couple of voice excerpts from the interviews. This resulted in a picture of the people’s experience that was both anonymous and quite specific. It also reveals the evolution of cotton at least since Soviet times, up to the more recent boycott and changed labor laws in the field. The video makes it possible to observe dynamics between different ethnicities and urban/rural populations' relationships to the field as much as the evolution of political relationships to planting and picking over time."

With great thanks to Irina Bharat for her coordination of this residency and for her delightful engagement with the process, and thanks to Арлайим Гувайды and Мохира Мулляджанова for their help with the interviews. Thanks also to Susan Katz and CEC Artslink for the network that has changed my life. 

Social Engagement Project

Oral histories:

I collected eleven narratives via three local interviewers and one email. I paid two of these interviewers, and one volunteered her interviewing labor after I met her while she was volunteering on another project at the Theatre. 

Prints from live performance: 

I purchased ikat patterned cotton fabric in Tashkent and Bukhara and brought photo-sensitizing chemicals from home (cyanotype chemistry), which I painted onto the fabric in my apartment in Tashkent. In the museum in Tashkent and also in artists’ studios in Bukhara, I noticed the way text is incorporated into local miniature painting, and I considered this as I selected excerpts of the stories and decided how to deploy written narrative as part of the photographic exposure. I fabricated clear “negatives” to accommodate the text, and staged a day of engagement with four young participants, who enacted key postures from the stories on the ikat alongside the text. At home afterwards, I worked for a week to round out the prints with other aspects of the stories. Because the process results in silhouettes, the narratives could remain anonymous despite certain textual details from the stories themselves.


I also gave the songs and certain textual excerpts to local musicians – a singer and a guitarist – so that at the exhibition’s opening, they could perform the diverse range of music, accompanied by a dancer who would move improvisationally in concert with the sound and narrative. The dancer moved behind a cotton curtain, backlit, so that her movements too were in silhouette and thus anonymous, but also rhyming with the silhouettes on the fabric prints. 



I printed the stories in a booklet with blank pages, so that anyone who visited the show could also add to our collection of anecdotes.

After the residency, Irina Bharat and I spoke about our experience here

Event, 20 June, 2022

Kama Moon in shadow theatre on cotton. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Event, 20 June, 2022

Arlayim Guvaidi reading excerpts from various interviews about cotton experiences, and singing excerpts of the songs people remembered from these experiences. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Event, 20 June, 2022

Kama Moon in shadow theatre on cotton. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Event, 20 June, 2022

Arlayim Guvaidi reading excerpts from various interviews about cotton experiences, and singing excerpts of the songs people remembered from these experiences. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Event, 20 June, 2022

Ян Добрынин (Yan Dobrinin) singing and playing guitar with respect to the songs people remembered from their cotton experiences. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Event, 20 June 2022

open mic regarding experiences from cotton

Event, 20 June 2022

Scrapbook available for more stories, being filled with pictures as well

Event, 20 June, 2022

Scrapbook available for more stories, being filled with pictures as well

Event, 20 June, 2022

The artist looking through the scrapbook. Photo: Анатолий Ким

Installation view
Installation view
sensitizing ikat
practicing for exposure
preparing for exposure
Installation view
Installation view
The Things They Shared
The Things They Shared, 1
The Things They Shared, 2
The Things They Shared, 3
The Things They Shared, 4
The Things They Shared, 5
The Things They Shared, 6
Cotton Photogram

When I returned from Uzbekistan, I began further experimenting with printing some of the networks of solidarity around revolutionizing labor especially but not exclusively in the cotton context on cotton rag and paper.  

Future Plans:

I have been asked to contribute a book chapter to an anthology titled They Work Hard for the Money, about performative approaches to exploring labor, edited by Colin Gardner and Jennifer Vanderpool. This project will be the focus of the chapter.  I have also been asked to deliver a talk at Harvard’s Davis Center about the project, which follows up on the lecture I delivered there called Centering the Post-Post Soviet Subject: A Study of Agency in Representation in 2020. 

My understanding of the cotton situation was greatly amplified by experience in Uzbekistan. I was able to see parallels between my own border region in California and Mexico and the region near the Aral Sea, as well as with other sites that began to be developed for cotton production through Liberal outreach by states seeking cheap labor after slavery. This made me consider the ecological results of mid-twentieth century industrial agricultural colonial and post-colonial enterprises in transnational terms. Also, while my question set began with the relative agency of those laboring with respect to cotton, it evolved to encompass a variety of roles, and how people’s experience of the harvest differs. 

I have also now read Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, Cristina Rivera Garza's Autobiografía del algodón, and Marianne Kamp's The New Woman in Uzbekistan, plus searched multiple collections from New Jersey to Moscow, and what's missing from a sense of organizing theory is representation itself. We have the political history of cotton after the U.S. Civil War, and we have various micro cultural histories written elsewhere, but a collective look at the ways in which people have represented cotton fields over the years actually provides a better picture of reality than does the news.

Throughout 2023-24, my goal is to reimagine the theatrical productions written by Langston Hughes (Blood on the Cotton, AKA Harvest, 1934, involving Black, white, Mexican, and Philippine farmworkers in California), Umarjon Ismailov (Вредители хлопка, or Vredityeli khlopka, or Pests of the Cotton, 1930, Uzbekistan), Ebrahim Hussein (Kinjeketile, 1969, Tanzania), and others, all of which have to do with cotton and utilize revolutionary theatre techniques to actively engage audience members as critical thinkers and thus active members of the polis. 

My research into revolutionary theatre techniques really began in 2018 on a Fulbright, where I worked on Meyerhold's legacy with contemporary questions of security. See "Security Studies" on this website. Since then, my exhibitions have used the spaces and participants ever more completely, and the work I have conducted since 2022 on transnational networks of women and now on cotton is so essentially participatory as to require staging other than that interesting to the commercial gallery space. 

In Fall 2023, I will participate in Mitch McEwen's BIM (Black Imagination Matters) at Princeton University's architecture program, isolating the sounds associated with these plays en route to a full production. 


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