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Opinion / Stella Roos

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It all started with a tote bag. During the opening days of Venice’s Biennale Architettura in 2021, the chicest people were carrying a sturdy, pink-and-green canvas bag printed with the word “Mahalla”. It came from the first national pavilion of Uzbekistan, which turned out to be one of the must-see shows of the festival.Back in Venice two years later, I bumped into Emanuel Christ of Basel-based firm Christ & Gantenbein, which had curated that exhibition in 2021. Over impromptu bellinis at Harry’s Bar, he told me how the project had come about. Asked by Uzbekistan’s Art & Culture Development Foundation to submit a proposal for the pavilion, the architects had suggested a study on mahallas, the country’s traditional low-rise neighbourhoods, which were being demolished at a fast clip.Since then, major exhibitions about Uzbekistan have been springing up in cities across Europe. Earlier this year, Paris hosted two shows on Uzbek cultural heritage at the Arab World Institute and the Louvre, respectively. In April an exhibition on Tashkent’s modernist architecture opened at the Triennale Milano, while Berlin’s James-Simon-Galerie currently has a show on the country’s archaeological treasures.This formidable cultural push has been orchestrated by Uzbekistan’s Art & Culture Development Foundation. The state-funded initiative makes sense: the authoritarian petrostate started opening up for international travel and business in 2016 and is now seeking to change its international image. And when it comes to PR of that sort, an exhibition at the Louvre or a viral tote in Venice is about as good as it gets.Perhaps the most curious thing about this pan-European publicity drive is that, despite the Uzbek government’s questionable objectives, it is having a positive effect inside the country on its architecture and for people living under the regime. Milan’s exhibition on Tashkent’s modernism campaigns to protect and reuse the capital’s Soviet-era buildings and it’s already yielding results. Christ & Gantenbein’s show on the mahalla prompted a national ban on the demolition of these neighbourhoods and the architects are now studying ways to adapt and regenerate them. That achievement was worth clinking glasses to: rarely does an exhibition produce not just a coveted tote bag but also meaningful changes on the ground.Stella Roos is Monocle’s design correspondent and a contributor to ‘Monocle on Design’.

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