24 January 2024

Jazgul Madazimova, I Sing Your Tale. Performer Madina Joldybek. At ‘Cyphering, Vibrating, Emanating’. Event by Delfina Foundation, at Young Space, London, 29 November 2023. Supported by M Art Foundation. Photo Anne Tetzlaff

The conversation that follows is a continuation of a discussion that began during Jazgul Madazimova’s residency at Delfina Foundation in autumn 2023. Following a studio visit together, Jazgul and London-based writer and artist Ella Finer continued their exchange through email as Jazgul flew back home and resumed her daily life in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They explored the way perspective shifts through travel, connections between the cosmos and the body, and the song of lullaby and lamentations.

Dear Jazgul, This morning I have been thinking of our studio visit; the wide ranging conversation, underscored by lullaby and lamentation—songs for the beginning and the end. Mostly, I have been thinking about how you reflected on your time in London, this city to which you came as an artist, and how this stretch of time—in which so much has happened and is happening in the world—has crystallised something for you in how you now take your work home.

The way you put this in words is as lyrical as it is acutely aware of what is at stake for you now, maybe more urgently in terms of cultural representation (who is representing who?) and freedoms across life and art. You talked, for example, about how we might find the freedom to dream through, beyond, pain. I would love for us to begin there—in the memory of the most charged parts of our conversation. Could you open up the wider cultural and political context in which you have been developing your work, your experiences in London, and what this time has focused your attention on?

Dear Ella, I am writing this while on the plane, flying back home. It is interesting how being in the air and not feeling the hard ground beneath affects our thinking. We are in between spaces, in between time zones and perspectives. We lose ties to the physical connections which hold us in the everyday and everydayness. I was thinking about the energy of anticipation that planes hold for us. A journey by plane is also how my residency at Delfina Foundation started three months ago. It was my first time visiting London. Now on the way back home, I return with my soul full of gratitude for this opportunity and for the care I received there. I also return with gratitude for the new friendships and souls. And more importantly, I return with gratitude to my community back home, Davra collective, the artists in Central Asia, and how important a community is for an artist.

The residency coincided with a politically tumultuous time in the world, particularly in Palestine. It was a challenging period for all of us and a constant negotiation between what we don’t know about history and what was happening in real-time. I was watching the news and seeing the death tolls rise, watching people mourning. I attended a protest march and remember the sensation of the goose bumps that appeared on hearing the collective chants and the feeling of being immersed inside them. It seemed as if people were burning themselves up in these cries. I remember the helicopter flying above and constantly monitoring the crowd. I remember the sun which was seeing it all at the same time – the people demonstrating and the people dying around the world. I remember thinking that despite witnessing everything, the sun remained neutral with an unwavering presence.

I remember visiting the Barbican Centre later that same day. I spent about three hours watching the film by Julianknxx, Chorus in Rememory of Flight. I thought about the healing power of singing and sounds. I thought about people contemplating, people thinking about what happened in the past, and being able to let go. I thought about unfairness too. I came back to my thoughts about the sun and how it shines despite everything and how vital it is to our lives. We are always guaranteed that the sun will rise. But what if one day it doesn’t?

Would our conflicts over land and power matter if the sun stopped shining? In a number of seconds, the meaning in these wars would be lost. So I thought maybe the sun can help us if our screams are not loud enough. I dreamed about this while walking back home from the exhibition. I remember at night I looked at the pictures I had taken on my phone of the sun and the helicopter, and how much mourning this world has to do. But something about that photo of the sun behind the helicopter kept me thinking that we need to do more than mourning. We also have “dreaming” to do. By dreaming I mean imagining a different future; about the things that are bigger than the immediate reality, bigger than right now. Allowing ourselves to dream can be a powerful thing to do when the world is teaching us otherwise.

Photo by Jazgul Madazimova.

Imagining a different future, yes. Your description of being inside the burning scream, I remember you saying this when we were together — this was the day you joined one of the protest marches, a day sharpening your sense that dreaming, or allowing oneself to dream in the face of sustained suffering and violence, becomes a form of resistance, and maybe also respite. You also mentioned to me that this thinking affected the work you were developing to present later on in your residency. I wonder if you could talk more about that.

Before these thoughts about dreaming, I was working with songs of lamentation, the farewell songs sung after someone passes away. There is a tradition in Central Asia of koshoks – to mourn and sing about the soul of someone who dies. It is a way of saying farewell, remembering, but also a beautiful way of overcoming grief. For a moment I thought this world holds so much violence and grief that I wanted to replace a song of lamentation with a lullaby; the songs that hold hope, the songs which calm us down, the sounds that speak the language of our first instincts, the songs of intimacy and safety, the songs that heal. I remember watching a video of a lady in Gaza holding her baby and singing a final lullaby. Death turned into sleep I thought. The universe turned into an eternal cycle. We and everything about us turned into nothingness at the scale of stars. One day our star will die too and turn into a nebula. After many years her nebula, her death, will birth a new star. Even death turns into a new life and that is what keeps us all going. We might as well sing a lullaby to the sun. Turning everything else off and having only the sound of a lullaby made the most sense to me at that moment, so I created a durational performance piece, where my fellow artist and friend, Madina Joldybek, performed lullaby songs.

Jazgul Madazimova, I Sing Your Tale. Performer Madina Joldybek. At ‘Cyphering, Vibrating, Emanating’. Event by Delfina Foundation, at Young Space, London, 29 November 2023. Supported by M Art Foundation. Photo Anne Tetzlaff

I was so sorry to miss this performance. Thank you for sharing the documentation with me — I can still hear Madina’s voice. Hearing her in my memory, I think of you talking about “the importance of darkness” while making this ethical adjustment to work with the lullaby rather than a lamentation, because a song with “more light” as you put it. Can I ask you to talk some more about this performance and how this now folds back into, or evolves into, the ongoing work you are doing with nebulae?

The work-in-progress was presented as part of an evening of performances by me and my co-residents at Delfina. It was a glimpse of my work Nebula, which I was working on during residency. It aims to build a visual dialogue between a woman and a nebulae; a metaphor for cosmic creation and destruction. It is not an accident that I am contemplating this subject. I am at an age when I have to make decisions about the next phase of my life. I find myself wrestling with a deeply personal and emotionally charged question: whether to have children or not. This decision is not one that I take lightly, as it will have profound implications for my professional life and my experience as a woman. I often find myself grappling with questions like: is parenthood a necessary part of being a woman? Will I regret not having children? What will I miss out on if I don’t? Can I fully embrace my femininity and womanhood without becoming a mother? People say pregnancy is a beautiful period of life, but it is also a very painful process. It ties you to new responsibilities, new feelings, new gains and losses. New changes for lifetime. I don’t think anyone can advise you on these questions, you just have to go with your own instincts. However it feels sometimes as if our instincts have fallen in the clash between different worlds inside us.

I became interested in nebulae while going through this thought process. I first noticed the shapes of menstrual stains. On white textiles they first appear bright red, tracing life, still holding the heat of one’s body. Their shapes are not the same every time. They are reminiscent, as you said, of something geological, yet anatomical, celestial, and yet very much a reminder of where they come from. These are the shapes of our internal nebulae, the madness, the fortune and the curse reflected from the bigger universe. It is the beauty and the pain of existence, a testament to the resilience of life in the face of inevitable loss and change. So I collect such pieces of textile, dry them and scan to observe and work with these shapes digitally first.

Just imagine, stars are born, they grow, get older and they die. However death for the stars is just the beginning in the face of eternity. The stars are so passionate about continuing to eternity that they make a new life out of their own death. That madness is reflected on me as well, as my body bleeds every month, as I’ve heard it said, to cry for an unborn baby.

During the difficult times I like to think about bigger cosmic processes, the bigger home, the endless cycle, the vastness and depth, the scale. It puts me back to the core of our story in which our individual lives, while important, feel as a small part of a much grander tapestry.

These corresponding patterns of life into death into life bring me back again to lamentation— and the lamentation as a song giving voice, breath, life, to the end. When we met we talked about the work you are developing and researching now, and will be continuing: a composition of koshoks, lamentation songs, and whale voice. What is this project for you? What is it seeking to do?

Besides the visual reference to nebulae, I am also considering creating a sound work. This is a new medium for me. It includes koshoks, which is a disappearing tradition. It is a song of grief, while also recognising the possibility of a new life and new beginnings. Its relevance extends far beyond human culture. The cycles of birth and death are a universal phenomenon, experienced by all living beings, including celestial bodies, animals, insects, fishes, plants. In this sense, the performance seeks to create a story beyond humans.

So I am seeking to combine sounds from the ground, under and above the ground. For a long time I have been inspired by the mysterious communication sounds of whales, which very much remind me of lamentations. You speak of whales so beautifully in your book Silent Whale Letters. Whales create a deep vibration in the ocean with their vocalisations which can deliver messages across kilometers. Their language has a haunting quality. However, this is us humans trying to interpret or make sense of the language which we have lost access to. Whales make me revisit the concept of loss and connection in a wider sense, returning to the complexity and yet interconnectedness of our world. I do not know what exactly will come out at the end of this research, but I am enjoying how exploring stars, whales and lamentations are affecting my own instinctive thinking process, which I call the animal inside.

Image courtesy Jazgul Madazimova.

Yes, and as you said in our conversation at Delfina, right at the end actually, “the animal inside moves”. This movement seems particularly important to you for the kind of tender reflection and sensorial knowledge it produces?

It is strange that I am writing about the animal inside, my favourite part, while I am now back on the ground, having landed in my home city and absorbing another reality being back in Bishkek. I am writing this while searching to buy my first apartment, dealing with the everyday realities of living. The animal inside has fallen between these days and the different kinds of work they make me produce. Art residencies are precious for the breaks that they provide from such thoughts and everydayness.

If I think for a moment though, in my practice I refer to the soul, to the intuitive, to the instinctual intelligence as the animal inside. If you ask me to point out where it exists, I put my palm on my stomach area. That is where I feel our most sincere thoughts come from. Thinking through my stomach is what led me to nebulae.

I feel the animal inside responds well to physical, bodily connections. I caress my mother’s hair to put her to sleep when she has anxiety. After fifteen minutes she is asleep like a baby and does not wake up for 8 or 10 hours. I watched my cousin putting her baby to sleep the other night. She explained that babies like rituals which create associations with bedtime. So she sings and holds the daughter close to her chest. This calms us down and helps to practice letting go. Night by night. Watching her this time, took me back to the woman in Gaza, to my mother’s childhood and the love she did not get enough of, it sent me back to the helicopter and to the sun.

Image courtesy Jazgul Madazimova.