Wooden noses carved from casts of the artist’s friends simulate a miniature mountain range on a white table against a backdrop of yellow faded postcards. One immediately has the sense of artist Taus Makhacheva’s debt to the ethnographic methods of anthropology. However in a postcolonial era, Makhacheva’s artistic process personalises these practices, turning a critical yet humorous eye to her own Russian culture.
‘Vababai Vadadai!’ is a phrase used in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia to indicate ‘amazement’ and ‘ultimate excitement’. This title seems fitting for Makhacheva’s first comprehensive solo exhibition in the bright airy space of Narrative Projects in Fitzrovia. Makhacheva’s work is inspired by her cultural roots in Dagestan, a republic located in the eastern Russian Caucasus region bordering the Caspian Sea. Having completed her arts training at Goldsmiths University of London and the Royal College of Art, Makhacheva is in the unique position of being both an insider and outsider to Dagestan culture. It is from this vantage point that Narrative Projects’ smartly curated show invites gallery goers through video and objects works to form their own narratives.
Makhacheva presents her observations of Dagestan culture through visual clues that address larger themes of gender, historical archetypes and our relationship to the natural landscape. From a Dagestan male’s muscle flex to a man and woman covered in white sheets wandering absurdly through a wedding hall, the video works in the exhibition play with the perfomativity of gender. Complimenting these video projections are collections of objects that not only bring a tactile quality to the exhibition but also draw our attention to Makhacheva’s broader interest in the creation of cultural histories. Works such as ‘Landscape’ play on the word for mountain also meaning nose in the Russian Avar dialect, and ‘Types du Caucase’, the artist’s collection of historic postcards depicting professionals from Dagestan, address gender but in the context of identity formation. She asks what role do collections play in constructing history and what effects do these constructs have on our everyday lives?
Makhacheva’s use of Dagestan’s specific history as her cultural medium in relation to today’s politics is timely to say the least. Located in the meeting point of east and west, Dagestan has a history of political radicalism ranging from Chechnya separatism to Islamic extremism. Despite the locality of her case study, it is perhaps these underlying historic and present cultural tensions that make the exhibition relevant to a range of audiences. Through gesture, space and the object Makhacheva’s intention, as stated in the curatorial statement, is to create her own language. So as one sifts through noses, postcards and pauses to watch an iPhone video of the artist completing the impossible feat of lifting a massive rock off a mountainous highway, one question remains, do you speak Makhacheva’s language?