A proud smile shines on Irina Burmisrova’s face as she describes a “multilayered” piece by an artist from Uzbekistan, Alexander Barkovsky. The piece is called Gypsy Madonna and depicts a mother gazing with tenderness at the baby in her arms. It’s framed in hand-made Samarkand embroidery and painted wooden posts from an Uzbek child’s bed.
“Barkovsky’s Gypsy Madonna series is rich in color, luminous, recalls the mosaics that can be found in Samarkand and Bokhara mosques,” Burmistrova explains. She will present the stunning piece next week at Art Week Dubai, the Middle East’s leading international art fair as part of an exhibit of Central Asia’s rising art stars.
Her gallery, Dubai’s esteemed Alif Gallery, is currently exhibiting pieces created by a gypsy tribe known as Mugat. According to Burmistrova, “they are a little known community, dispersed in several regions in Central Asia.”
But “little known” is Burmistrova’s specialty. Once a well-known artist in the Soviet underground scene, Burmistrova is now a hunter for emerging talents. She travels to Iran, Qatar, the Emirates and all over South Asia to discover the most revolutionary and talented contemporary and modern artists.
“I was in Burma before Hillary,” she likes to joke.
Burmistrova has always been a pioneer. In the mid 1980s, she was one of the few female underground stars. She created and sculpted costumes, outrageously alternative and barely wearable, from materials as varied as garbage bags her friends sent from Europe to rubber, plastic, metal and other junk. Some of them resembled astronaut space suits, others Russian matryoshka nesting dolls or sad Goya clowns.
In the 1990s, she moved to Europe, turning herself into a punk artist, exhibiting in Great Britain, Holland and Germany, her work touted in Face Magazine.
“I felt bored in the Soviet Union and always looked for strange areas, alternative thoughts and trends,” she told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.
By the early 2000s, Burmistrova had moved into advising clients at London Sotheby's. These days, Burmistrova, with her long blond hair and elegant, tasteful dresses, glides through the United Arab Emirates’ booming art scene. The country is becoming a hot spot for art lovers, as new galleries pop up daily in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and both the Guggenheim and the Louvre build new branches in the desert. Kate Fowle, Chief Curator at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, will curate this year’s Art Week Dubai. Earlier this week, galleries in Dubai International Financial Center presented global contemporary art in a melting pot of the world’s ideas.
“The Emirates is one of the best art centers in the world to be representing young unknown talents,” Burmistrova said in an interview earlier this week.
She particularly enjoys introducing Arab sheikhs to artwork by Muslim women.
“It is not always easy to help the talent to go public, especially if a beginning artist is a local Muslim woman,” she says. One of her recent finds was a young woman artist, who projected photography on transparent fabric. The artist, who prefers to stay anonymous, created floating images with a sense of movement, as if observing two parallel realities.
“I feel especially strong helping female artists on their first steps on the art market,” Burmistrova says, as she champions the women expressing their free spirits through art, just like she did back in Soviet times.