Fellow travellers

Mike Oades’ involvement in Kazakhstan has been a voyage of discovery. His London exhibition shows a new nation looking outward and to the future

Shapan by Assel Nusipkozhanova
Shapan by Assel Nusipkozhanova

Two years ago, Mike Oades, the director of London-based Atomik Architecture, visited Kazakhstan for the first time. The month long visit to the former Soviet republic had a huge impact, leading to architectural projects in Almaty and the establishment of a collaborative practice there with Kazakhstan architect Asel Yeszhanova. Atomik’s latest venture is City Nomads, an exhibition on emerging Kazakhstan contemporary culture at the British Council in London.

‘I fell in love with Almaty,’ says Oades, who is fascinated by both the architectural heritage and the work of the new cohort of young creatives that is now developing in this former industrial city.

‘In Kazakhstan, it’s been about 20 years since independence. The first generation of people not to have grown up in the Soviet system are now asking a lot of questions about their identity,’ he adds.

Always cosmopolitan due to its position on one of the silk routes, the city was a colonial outpost for the Russian empire before its development under the Soviet regime, which left their modernist architectural legacy. While the nomadic tradition is greatly reduced, it remains within living memory for most Kazakhs, with a strong oral tradition persisting. 

  • Design by Tolegen Batentayev. Photography Marina Karpykova, Model Maria Popova
    Design by Tolegen Batentayev. Photography Marina Karpykova, Model Maria Popova
  • Coat by Khan Kuchum.
    Coat by Khan Kuchum. · Credit: Aibek Boranbayev
  • Day Bed by Liza Kin.
    Day Bed by Liza Kin. · Credit: Aibek Boranbayev
  • Destinations section. Shapan by Assel Nussipkozhanova.
    Destinations section. Shapan by Assel Nussipkozhanova. · Credit: Kairat Termigali/Aibek Boranbayev

Rather than dwell on traditional nomadic architecture, this exhibition looks instead at the impact of the travels of young Kazakhs, who are funded by the state to study overseas on the condition that they return to Kazakhstan for at least five years. These contemporary city nomads bring back a new perspective and sense of cultural identity that references the past but avoids a pastiche of nomadic heritage.

‘I’m really inspired by them,’ says Oades, who detects a sense of possibility for those with drive and ambition.

The graphic designer Dias Murzabekov, for example, whose work is in the show, set up his own design school after returning to Kazakhstan following his studies abroad.

The exhibition encompasses Almaty fashion, art, film, music and design. Assel Nusipkozhanova and Kairat Temirgali’s quilted denim gown is based around the narrative of a young woman moving to the city. Inspired by traditional shapan robes, the design is patterned with references to episodes in her journey. The concept of mobility is also referenced in Liza Kin’s ‘micro-home’ folding day bed made from components found in Almaty’s flea markets. The project was inspired by her experience of having to leave her possessions behind when she returned to Almaty after her studies. After that, she tried hard not to accumulate possessions. 

‘It is quite something, to feel light,’ she says.

  • Home (yŭ) by Atomik Architecture.
    Home (yŭ) by Atomik Architecture. · Credit: Aibek Boranbayev
  • Almaty Circus.
    Almaty Circus. · Credit: Mike Oades, courtesy of Atomik Architecture
  • Bazaar by Dias Murzabekov.
    Bazaar by Dias Murzabekov.

Products designed for the Experimentarium design concept store include a versatile bag conceived for a modern nomad that unfolds to become a tablecloth.

It’s a relatively small display. But it does much to whet the appetite for discovering more about this still little known country.

‘Hopefully this exhibition will give a slightly different view of the country as forward-looking rather than dwelling in the past,’ concludes Oades.

City Nomads, until 23 September, British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN