"You Don't Have to Believe Me"

Uzbek Poem 50

Langston Hughes

prepared in English by Kevin Young, from the Uzbek notes of Muhabbat Bakaeva, 1934

 

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.

14_Cotton Photogram_detail.jpg

detail, Cotton Photogram, 2022, cyanotype on cotton rag

I went to Uzbekistan 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.

Performance:

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. 

 

Booklet:

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. 

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
Installation view
Installation
Installation view
sensitizing ikat
practicing for exposure
preparing for exposure
exposure
Sickness
exposure
Installation view
Installation view
Detail
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

Future Plans:

I have been asked to contribute a book chapter to an anthology titled , 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. 

I have not yet thought of where or how or when to go back, but my understanding of the cotton situation was greatly amplified by experience in Uzbekistan, and I need some time to think about how I might continue to work on the topic, so that it’s not just two weeks’ research, one week production, and one week engagement, but rather a more long-term collaborative project that can truly be useful to folks’ sense of agency now with respect to how their country develops. I was able to see parallels between my own border region in California and Mexico and the region near the Aral Sea. This made me consider the ecological results of mid-twentieth century industrial agricultural colonial enterprises in transnational terms. Also, my question set began with the relative fulfillment of those forced to labor, but evolved to encompass a variety of roles, and how people’s experience of the harvest month was vastly different. One of the most interesting relationships I encountered but couldn’t fully explore was that of the urban dweller, bussed in for a fun month in the sun, vs. the regional local, who lived full time with the fields, was excellent and swift at collecting cotton, and could earn money fulfilling the urban youths’ quotas for them. The ecological parallels transnationally and the relationships between urban and rural dwellers are issues I’d like to spend more time with.