Slavs and Tatars

Simurgh Self-Help

16 May - 29 June 2024

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Slavs and Tatars’ upcoming exhibition at Kalfayan Galleries débuts work from Simurgh Self-Help, the collective’s first new cycle of work since Pickle Politics (2016-2023). Works from this new cycle will be featured in museum shows in 2025 in Germany (Kunsthalle Baden Baden) and France (Frac, Pays de la Loire). The exhibition at Kalfayan Galleries features new works of Slavs and Tatars in different media: vacuum-formed plastic panels or signs (‘Tranny Tease pour Marcel’ series), a woolen carpet-door, wall sculptures made of steel and glass and unique glass blown lamps in the form of melons.


 “Simurgh Self-Help” draws inspiration from Marcel Broodthaers’ “Musée d'Art Moderne - Département des Aigles” (1968-1972), one of the most influential works of conceptual art of the 20th century. Slavs and Tatars embark in an inventive ‘translation’ of the eagle, via the mythical bird Simurgh which exists in many variations in Persianate mythology, Sufi literature, oral and written traditions in the Caucasus and Central Asia: a winged creature, female (mainly) or male, often depicted with the body of a peacock and the head of a dog.


Through the juxtaposition of the Eagle and the Simurgh, Slavs and Tatars offer a speculative history, an alter-ego of contemporary societies which face scorching dilemmas about national identity and nationalism. By ‘translating’ the eagle into a Simurgh, the collective expands the limited worldview of Broodthaers’ original critique to include an often over-looked region (Central Asia and Caucasus) sandwiched between fading, former and/or revanchist empires (Russian, Ottoman, Persian). If the eagle serves as a repository for nationalism and empire, matters of this world in the geopolitical, the Simurgh helps us unlock an empire of senses and the dominion of the other-worldly: from the affective to the extractive. On the one hand stands the eagle,  demoted in modern times to a secular symbol of nationalism, a stale short-hand for toxic masculinity. On the other, Simurgh a metaphysical creature and allegory for spiritual elevation and self-knowledge, who is often depicted as flaming if not entirely gender-fluid.


With the ability to fly, to travel, to sing, birds have long enchanted humans as symbols of liberation, from Aristophanes The Birds (Ornithes) to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. Attar’s 12th century masterpiece famously stages an epic journey of several birds in search of the Simurgh. The literary device encapsulates the essence of democracy as a system that honors the voice of the individual while emphasizing the importance of collective decision-making, sharing and action.




Tranny Tease pour Marcel

(2024, vacuum-formed plastic panels or signs, edition of 3)

A series of new Slavs and Tatars works—Tranny Tease pour Marcel—explore how Simurgh has been adopted, syncretized, indigenized across the region. Appearing first in 2009 and one of the rare series  which has continued throughout the 15+ yrs of the collective’s practice, Slavs and Tatars’ iconic series Tranny Tease (pour Marcel) explore the alphabet politics behind the phenomenon of transliteration, particularly poignant in a region where millions of inhabitants have experienced if not three then two distinct changes of script in the past century. These new vacuum-formed plastic panels or signs also offer a knowing wink to Broodthaers’ Poèmes Industriels where the artist skewered the unstable relationship between text and image and notably his own background as a poet-turned-artist.

This Not That is a nod to Broodthaers’ Ceci n’est Pas which itself winked at Magritte’s famous surrealist dictum. Instead of the smoking Pipe one finds a hookah with haze. “Ceci” is spelled out in Perso-Arabic as "سہ سئ” which means 3-30, a reference to the 30 birds who succeed in finding Simurgh at the end of the journey in Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Instead of a bottle of wine/water, Samovar features the traditional tea brewing device found across Eurasia, formed from the silhouette of two birds.



(2024, steel, glass, 105 x 75 cm, unique)

Astaneh evokes the use of steel and wrought iron window-shutters and gates often found in former socialist countries. Referring to the final scene of The Conference of the Birds, where the 30 birds at the end of their epic journey cross a threshold into a fortification to finally meet Simurgh, the steel gates feature different (mis)spellings of Simurgh in English, Persian, Armenian and Ukrainian. Both Astaneh (English) and Astaneh (Persian) replace the last letter Simurgh with a ق instead of the original غ: the letter ق (Qaf) being the name for the mystical mountain where the mythical bird resides, the equivalent of Nirvana in Sufism.


Soffice Power

(2023, wool, 280 x 175.5 cm, unique)

Soffice Power replaces the hard-threshold of a door and door-way with a soft, woolen carpet. Carpets in S&T’s region adorn floors, but equally walls and doorways, as entry-ways to mosques, or portals to common spaces such as kitchens or terraces. Here the carpet is based on a traditional door found in Muslim countries, with a separate door knock mechanism for women and men. 


Dark Yelblow

(2024, hand-blown glass, electrical cable, dimensions variable, unique)

Dark Yelblow look to a variety of melons found in Central Asia, in particular in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang, as repositories of knowledge, as vectors of writing, as well as agencies of resource extraction. Considered to be a rare delicacy, the winter melon is carefully stored in warehouses (ковунхане) to ripen late, amongst the last fruit to do so as the first frosts arrive. So it is that the melon is coveted throughout Eurasia as an exceptional, almost miraculous product of nature: a luscious, sugary yield within an otherwise increasingly barren season and landscape. Each unique melon is made from hand-blown glass (the Slavic etymology of melonдиня in Ukrainian, дыня in Russan–stems from the verb дыть or "to blow”).


Love Me Love Me Not
(2024, acrylic paint on mirror reverse, aluminium frame, 85 × 60 cm)


Each mirror work features a taxonomy of given city’s name: through the various iterations, name changes, different alphabets etc, one witnesses the genealogy of a place, the result of rising or falling empires, states, and/or populations. Some cities divulge a resolutely Asian heritage, Jewish or Muslim so often forgotten in some citizens’ quest, at all costs, for a European, Christian identity. Others vacillate almost painfully, and others with numbing repetition, entire metropolises caught like children in the spiteful back and forth of a custody battle.