The sunny rooms faced leafy Erkindik Prospect in central Bishkek. Their walls were splashed with art, the space buzzed with activity.
On a recent summer's day, visitors to the recently opened Koldo Art Gallery watched professional artists create new work, inspired by the art of children with physical and mental handicaps. The event was designed to foster interaction between children, artists and the public, enabling all involved to find new strengths, and to help open minds.
Koldo's "Re-Make" project aimed to "widen the borders of opportunities." Much more than an exhibit, it is also a happening, an educational program, a fundraiser, and an open conversation about abilities and community. "Re-Make" has tapped into the power of art to address a practical problem: how to stimulate activity in rehabilitation centers for children who were commonly seen in the past as "invalids," but who are now increasingly known as "people with limited abilities" (PLAs).
To launch the project, 10 young artists each selected the work of a child and then re-interpreted it in a new work of their own.
"The idea was to join the two spheres -- artists and children in institutions -- to help each other," explained Anar Madalieva, the gallery director and project organizer. "The government needs to solve practical problems, but we also have to support aesthetic and spiritual needs. Art gives people some inner richness. I don't want to say 'let's only help solve practical problems' because, if we lose our spiritual meanings, we will become like someone who doesn't remember their mother. Our lives need balance."
The project's core idea came from artist and Koldo board member Ulan Djaparov. "We are used to not taking the work of children seriously. But when artists really look at children's work, they see their great potential and need to create. This helps the artists explore their own perspective and maybe help them find a new style," he told EurasiaNet.
Koldo describes itself as a space for cultural dialogue and cooperation. Its goals are to display new artistic ideas and trends, encourage interactions among artists and the community, and find innovative ways to support artists' creative development.
Madalieva and Djaparov expressed hope that the Re-Make exhibit project will benefit the children, the institutions they live in, the community and, ultimately, the whole nation.
In the eyes of many activists and educators, the program had an immediate and positive impact. "The children are very glad about this exhibit because now people are looking at their pictures. It lets them show their ability and also feel part of the community," explained Gulbarchyn Takyrbasheva, director of the "Manas Social Village" project. Along with supporting Koldo and Re-Make, her organization is creating a village for PLAs.
Teacher Viktoria Tsaran, a visitor to the exhibit, said the program helped make developmentally challenged children feel confident. "When they have the ability to display their own artistic and spiritual values, this also encourages them to say 'I am a citizen.'" Tsaran said.
Anara Ainetenova has worked more than 10 years with children with disabilities, and is now a UNICEF consultant on the issue. In state institutions for orphans or children who have suffered violence, she said, "there aren't enough tutors and staff to give the children the activities they need to enrich their lives. Working closely with staff, volunteers could help provide valuable alternative services like art therapy."
Another problem that confronts PLA children, and those who work with them, is public suspicion and rejection. The Re-Make project hopes to erase negative impressions by emphasizing what the children can do, not focus on their limitations. As Takyrbasheva said, "I hope that this helps people in the community change their attitudes and behavior and culture, so they understand and support people with limited abilities."
In the end, the goal of the project is to improve the lives of everyone in Kyrgyzstan, said gallery director Madalieva. "We are all in one society. Change has to start from one person who does something in their work -- as an artist, a journalist, a state employee," she said. "If we start to spread the understanding of the abilities of people with disabilities, we will have progress because we will also widen the opportunities to improve our own lives."
Koldo board member Djaparov admits that no single project can transform society's attitudes, "but if we create a hundred, or a thousand projects like this, it will change the situation."
Artist Rasul Kochkorbaev created a painting of a huge, impressionistic butterfly that took off from the work of a young PLA artist. He understands intimately how art can transform lives and communities.
"When I was a child, I didn't have the chance to draw because I didn't have the tools. Then someone gave me a set of paints, and that let me become an artist myself. That's why, when I heard about this project, I immediately agreed. If someone buys this painting, I will give the money to buy paints for children in these institutions, so they also have the opportunity to change their own lives," he said.
John Couper is an educator and freelance writer who lives in Central Asia.