Interview: Assel Sargaskayeva

Culturalee visited ‘Enchanted’, the first UK solo exhibition by Assel Sargaskayeva, and spoke to the Kazakh artist about her surrealism, folklore, and using her Silk Road exhibition series to bring Kazakh culture to the attention of the international art world.
Assel has turned her attention to the art world after enjoying a successful career as a top executive in banking and international finance and is now a renowned contemporary artist whose work is featured in private collections worldwide.
Assel’s debut London solo show ‘Enchanted’ is inspired by the relationship between magic and the female image, the conflict between logical and metaphysical thinking, and Assel’s personal spiritual search. The featured paintings include the Enchanted Forest series, The Mystery of the Flying Woman, the Birth of a Family diptych and the mystical Pyramid. ‘Enchanted’ is part of Assel’s Silk Road series of exhibition projects, which explore the problem of a woman’s happy existence and the freedom of her creativity, and also provide a global platform for the culture of Kazakhstan.
Culturalee: You left a career as a financier to become an artist. What motivated you to transition from finance to art, and did the skills you learned in your former career help you produce and market your art?
Assel Sargaskayeva: I have chosen to embark on a sabbatical to realize a long-standing dream. While various reasons led to this decision, a pivotal factor is advice from a wise individual who emphasized that the lifespan of your art correlates with the number of eyes that behold it. I’m eager to share my paintings with the world, as they carry meaningful stories that resonate universally, particularly in the tumultuous world we currently navigate.
Certainly, you’ll observe a meticulous attention to detail in some of my paintings, a deliberate focus aimed at conveying a specific message. These nuances are integral aspects that resonate with the precision required in the realm of finance, corporate world.
In terms of marketing, I believe irrespective of what you do, you have to be simply good at it and the rest it is just matter of time. I started working when I was 13 years old and by the age of 25 I was already appointed into senior positions. So, I guess the best marketing is consistent, diligent work.
Assel Sargaskayev, ‘The universe through the prism of mystics’, 2023
Culturalee: Latin American art and artists from Africa and the African diaspora are having a moment. Do you think it’s the time of Kazakstani artists to have their moment on stage of the international art world?
Definitely, there are so many talented Kazakh artists and I am sure they have something to share and likewise to impress the world.
Culturalee: Historically, the leader board of auction prices for artists has been dominated by white men, and according to Artsy, in 2022, $11 billion worth of artwork was sold at auction, of that number, male artists’ works made up $9.7 billion, while women artists’ works accounted for just over $1 billion: just 9.3% of the overall total. During the past decade there has been a concerted effort by museums, galleries and institutional collections to exhibit and acquire more women artists and non-Western, indigenous, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC artists. Since you started exhibiting, have you come up against any barriers as a woman artist?
As a financial professional, let’s dissect how these numbers were derived – are we comparing like with like or contrasting disparate entities? Consider the artists in question. If we examine the era when Leonardo da Vinci created and ponder how many renowned female artists emerged, the count is nearly negligible. Unfortunately, women faced numerous constraints for a prolonged period, hindering their pursuit of artistic passions.
Therefore, the statistics reflect a notable imbalance, with a predominant majority of male artists having more opportunities to create, gain recognition, and consequently, their works command higher prices. I posit that women have only recently gained the freedom to fully dedicate themselves to this ultimate hobby. I anticipate a levelling out of disparities within the next 50-100 years.
The current shift towards recognizing and appreciating women’s contributions in art is promising. I consider myself fortunate to live in the 21st century, where barriers are fewer compared to my counterparts from two centuries ago.
Assel Sargaskayev ‘First chapter. Series Mystery of flying woman’, 2022
Culturalee: ‘Enchanted’ is your first solo exhibition in the UK. How did you and the gallery come to work together, and who came up with the ‘Enchanted’ theme?
‘Enchanted’ is a part of the Silk Road exhibition series, delving into the exploration of a woman’s joyful existence and the freedom of her creativity within the context of the East, my Motherland. While the concept is mine, I received assistance from my curator Irina Shrainer in refining and shaping it into an artistically humanitarian project.
Culturalee: Your London exhibition is dedicated to the study of mystical female images and their sacred role in religious cultures, and you examine the correlation between magic and the female image. Were there any particular artworks or mythological or folkloric stories that inspired your new body of work?
I can’t pinpoint a specific artwork or folkloric story that influences me. Instead, I might say that the myriad mythological stories I’ve read have become absorbed within me, reflecting in my artistic works.
Culturalee: At the 2022 Venice Biennale there was a big focus on women surrealists, in particular Leonora Carrington, the visionary Surrealist painter and writer who died in 2011, whose work inspired the Biennale’s theme “The Milk of Dreams”, and curator Cecilia Alemani featured Carrington’s work alongside other women artists inspired by surrealism and also by folklore and witchcraft. Would you say that your art is inspired by surrealism or by Carrington’s oeuvre?
Carrington’s artworks, influenced by surrealism, folklore, and witchcraft, delve into the darker facets of these realms. While I refrain from passing judgment, it’s conceivable that her nervous breakdown and time in the asylum impacted her creations. As a surrealist writer, my paintings lean towards exploring the brighter side. They exude mystery while encouraging viewers to contemplate life’s balance, the significance of inner peace, overcoming difficulties, facing situations with resilience, and holding onto the belief in magic.
Culturalee: In your exhibition press release, there is a mention of “The determinative texts of witchcraft considered women more prone to sin than men”. The notion of women depicted as witches was examined in a group show called ‘Big Women’ earlier this year at First Site in Colchester, curated by Sarah Lucas and featuring Maggi Hambling, Gillian Wearing and Sue Webster. Between the mid-16th and 17th centuries, Colchester Castle was employed as a prison, holding hundreds of women accused of witchcraft. Why do you think there is this historical legacy of strong women being described as witches, and an enduring fascination of the imagery and iconography around this subject?
I think that the historical legacy of associating strong women with witchcraft likely reflects societal norms that perceived powerful or non-conforming women as a threat. The enduring fascination with the imagery and iconography around this subject may stem from a complex interplay of fear, superstition, and attempts to control unconventional female strength and independence.
What other exhibitions do you have coming up?
Next year in New York, in June in Sochi and then Beigin.