Photo courtesy of Luisa Soipi

Artists as Warriors: The Bearers of Chechen Culture Today

Seeing a community of Chechen artists having meaningful discussions about issues I had struggled with — I knew I had found my tribe. Read about Chechen women artists and an Instagram account that is helping them amplify their voices and art.

Dec 13, 2020

“The most mythical female warriors in the Vainakh lore are the Mehkari, the Amazons of the North Caucasus. They were the first-born daughters, endowed with sacred power and able to provide prosperous descendants. They were raised as horsewomen, trained in archery and only allowed to marry after they fulfilled three actions of bravery, or defeated three enemies.”
  • Extract from Mehkari by Luisa Soipi
I knew that I was Chechen before I knew my own name. Yet, despite majoring in Art History, I knew next to nothing about the history of Chechen visual arts, let alone if there was any type of contemporary art scene. As a young woman who spent most of my life lacking a close cultural community, I look for different ways to connect to my culture and history, which is usually through people or music. This desire to find Chechen artists simmered at the back of my mind, artists who spoke my language in every sense of the word.
My ignorance about contemporary Chechen art seems inevitable when considering the destruction that Chechnya has endured throughout the twentieth century, not limited to Joseph Stalin’s genocide against Chechens or the wars in the 90s that ravaged Grozny. The capital city of Grozny has been rebuilt and is almost unrecognizable, and not even our museums and libraries escaped the violence. Few books exist. All that remains of our past are the stories from our grandparents. The Chechen language still has bullet holes in it.
During the UAE lockdown of April 2020, I created an Instagram account, Noxchi Surt, in the hopes of supporting Chechen artists globally by featuring them and speaking about their works in a language that non-Chechens could also access. Through this platform, I aimed to identify and connect artists to collectors and art historians.
Courtesy of Heda Sardalova. / Parasites, 2020 (Oil pastel, crayon, collage)
The first profile quickly gained traction and I became privy to an online community of Chechen creatives living around the world. A highlight of running Noxchi Surt was the chance to interview the phenomenal artist, Rustam Yakhikhanov, about the history of mysterious runes inscribed on towers and gravestones in the Caucasus mountains, as well as his imagined syllabus for a course on Chechen art history.
Recently, Noxchisurt has collaborated with MIA Art Collection, a private art collection founded and directed by Alejandra Castro based in Santiago and Dubai that empowers female artists. MIA Art Collection has created a virtual museum to support artists through the pandemic. Alongside the permanent collection, space has been allocated for one exhibition every week that displays new artwork from around the world.
As part of the collaboration, I announced an open call for women artists on Noxchisurt and waited. With fingers crossed, I hoped I would find three interesting artists. The response was overwhelmingly positive; I received applications and portfolios from about 40 artists, and countless messages of support from Chechens from every corner of the world, some even forwarding other artists’ information. Eventually, the MIA Art Collection team and I decided on six artists who created original and powerful artwork which have been on exhibition for the last two weeks. The exhibition was titled Mehkari.
Courtesy of Asia Umarova. / Goodbye, grandma, 2018 (Gouache, color paper)
Asia Umarova, Luisa Soipi, Asya Al Sheshani, Milana Alaro, Elona Saidoulaeva and Heda Sardalova are Mehkari. Like Chechens around the world, they live half in today and half in the Kavkaz mountains in a bygone era. Being Chechen today means committing acts of remembrance through language, legends and art.
These artists have been raised around the world; from Chechnya, Belgium and Germany to Jordan. Nonetheless, they know their mother tongue and maintain their Chechen identity; they speak and paint in Chechen. They have a responsibility to their ancestors, descendants and themselves to remember their history and document it, which the artists in this exhibition do in a myriad of ways.
Soipi’s book art and narration draw on the Chechen tradition of oral history and of the origins and legends of our culture. Umarova paints images that Chechens will recognize instantly as they depict the intertwined tradition and trauma that shape the idea of home through everyday items such as countless slippers framing a traditional welcome mat. Mountains and the natural world appear in much of the art, and it is the area of focus Saidoulaeva depicts in an exciting experimental manner, incorporating diverse media like corroding mounts and stones.
Sardalova and Alaro, both Chechen artists raised in Europe, are candid about their personal journeys towards truly understanding their identity and emotion, whether through book art or portrait paintings. Al Sheshani —the only artist in Mehkari from the Chechen diaspora in Jordan — is on a similar path with her interactive installations that urge the participant towards introspection and honesty.
Photo courtesy of Milana Alaro
These women look to the past through the lens of their parents, who have shown them that embracing their language and history comes with beauty and liberation of its own. They act upon their duty to explain the events that their people have bravely faced, because if they don’t, who will? It is important to remember their ancestors, so they do not lack a eulogy. These women are the bearers of Chechen culture today.
The artists are Mehkari because they choose to acknowledge and honour the trauma and the strength of their predecessors. They are not that different in spirit to those lionhearted warriors: our great-great-great-grandmothers that reigned in the mountains of the Caucasus.
To complement the virtual exhibition, I organized an online interview with all six artists, open to the public. Seeing a community being formed that created meaningful discussions about issues I had contemplated, even struggled with, for so long myself — I knew I had found my tribe.
Anita Shishani is a contributing writer. Email her at
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