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23 May 2024

Saule Suleimenova: Celebrated Kazakh Contemporary Artist on Life, Family, and Art

Meet the artist who is turning plastic bags into art and giving ordinary people a voice through her artworks.

Saule Suleimenova

Image: courtesy

“What is art?” Kazakh artist Saule Suleimenova asks. “It is to convey the beat of life. To convey something above all this fuss, digging in the ground.” Her works are testimony to her words. Starting at the end of the 1990s, Suleimenova created art in her hometown Almaty by experimenting, using different techniques, and focusing on a wide range of topics. From decolonialism and patriarchy to sustainability and overconsumption—she has shown it all through her works. 

“At some point, any beauty becomes pop, banality. We all love sunsets, but at some point when it becomes the wallpaper on your computer desk, it becomes trivial,” the artist explains her desire to create works that have meaning and don’t turn into a cliché. “I want to convey what I’m worried about. I want to convey this excitement, delight, and ecstasy,” she explains. For her, in order for art not to become dull, “we need to look for a new way to convey it, a new language, a new technique.”

Her works are as far from cliché as possible. She uses such different techniques, such as grattography (paraffin engraving), painting on photographs (using documentary photos of a modern city with its real garbage), and her most famous technique, cellophane painting (using plastic bags, polyethylene, and polycarbonate). 

Forever, Saule Suleimenova. Image: courtesy

Suleimenova first considered using plastic bags to create art in 2014. While she was riding the train from Almaty to Astana, she noticed the amount of colorful plastic scattered on the way. She saw this as a problem of overconsumption. “When I saw these bright colors of the plastic bags—so bright, glossy, intense—I thought, why buy paint, engage in this overconsumption again when so much water and material were already used [to make plastic]?” 

However, three years passed from the idea’s conception to the actual opening of her first cellophane exhibition. “If you know, polyethylene or cellophane, this type of plastic does not stick to anything. Even the strongest construction adhesive will not stick; it only sticks at high temperatures. By the time I came to use the silicone blue gun, some time had passed,” she says.