Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: “My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan”

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Kazakhstani hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov is famous for his incredibly realistic sculptures with their amazing jewelry detail.  This is an art where every stage, even the smallest, requires surgical precision, and with which the sculptor is in love to the core.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

The DimashNews editorial team visited the workshop of Aidos Esmagambetov to find out about the beginning of his career, and how he decided to devote himself to art, which no one had previously done in Kazakhstan.

DN: Aidos, please tell us how it all started?  Where did you get this craving for art?

AE: I was born into a creative family, so art has surrounded me since early childhood.  My mother is a musician, plays the dombyra, and also loves to do needlework and embroidery.  Dad is a sculptor who creates incredible pieces in plaster.  Thus, surrounded throughout my childhood by the delightful art that my parents created, I inevitably absorbed some of their talent.

I think this was most evident when I was in seventh or eighth grade.  That year was the Year of the Horse, and my classmates and I decided to build an ice town in the schoolyard.  I sculpted a foal out of the snow.  It was very cold, but this process absorbed me so much that I literally could not tear myself away from my work.  I didn’t even pay attention to my teacher’s order to immediately return to the building, stubbornly answering him that I wouldn’t go anywhere until I’d finished. And after I finally completed my snow sculpture, all my classmates and teachers were amazed at how clearly the anatomy was observed and how well I managed to convey every small detail.  It was then that I realized this is the very occupation to which I want to devote my life.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: Where did you study?

AE: I studied at the Arkalyk Pedagogical Institute named after Ybyrai Altynsarin, at the Faculty of Art and Graphics. There I was more engaged in painting, creating portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. When I showed my work to the teachers, they commented that I was best at feeling people, their mood, character, and anatomy.  This was a great motivation for me, so I focused my creative activity on creating portraits.

In 2006 and 2008, I took part in the international festival “Shabyt”, but, unfortunately, did not win prizes.  For some reason, the judges made their choice in favor of abstractionism, but I have never liked this genre.  Therefore, I searched for myself for a long time, constantly experimenting… I really wanted to show something unusual.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: And then, being in a seemingly endless search, you discovered the art of sculpture?

AE: Exactly. Anyway, what is most interesting, I came across the art of sculpture by accident.  It was the most ordinary, unpretentious day when I saw on TV a report on Madame Tussauds. That year – I think it was 2009 – they added a wax figure of Barack Obama.  And while watching this report, I thought, why don’t we do the same incredible things in Kazakhstan, because we also have a lot of talented people! So I firmly decided to take it upon myself to carry this out.

To be honest, at first it was very difficult for me, since this technology is not taught anywhere in Kazakhstan. Therefore, I mastered the art of sculpture on my own.  Day and night I read articles on the Internet, watched videos on YouTube, studied, experimented.  And so, in 2010, I finally decided on my first sculpture of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the creation of which took me about a year.

After that, my following works began to appear: in 2013 I created a sculpture of Abylai Khan, in 2016 Barack Obama, last year I made sculptures of the first Minister of Defense of the Republic of Kazakhstan Sagadat Nurmagambetov together with Nursultan Nazarbayev.  In 2020, I created my third sculpture of Elbasy for a new museum in Turkestan, and most recently I finished the figure of Abai Kunanbayev for his 175th birthday.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: What material do you use?  As far as I understand, your sculptures are not made of wax?

AE: No. Wax is a very fragile and terribly capricious material. It can scratch and melt easily at high temperatures. I make my sculptures out of silicone, and it has a lot more benefits than wax.  One of the main ones is that it can withstand absolutely any temperature. By the way, Madame Tussauds now also uses silicone. If we can make a realistic figure from wax, then from silicone it turns out to be hyperrealistic.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: How do you manage to depict a real person in your sculpture so accurately?  How much time do you spend studying its anatomical features?

AE: I create my sculptures only with the help of photographs, which is quite difficult, and, one way or another, makes me act on a whim. For example, in Madame Tussauds Museum, masters invite a star, and about 15-20 people work on one of her figures. They take measurements, photograph the model from different angles, and take casts. When I first made a sculpture of Nursultan Nazarbayev, I had never seen him before in my life. It only helped that there are many good quality photos on the Internet.

The most difficult thing was with the figure of Abai, because he has only one photo in more or less good quality. To get it, I turned to the Abai Museum in Semey, where, fortunately, they helped me without any reservations and sent me all the necessary materials.

DN: Aidos, tell us about the stages of creating a sculpture.  Which one is the hardest?

AE: After I carefully study all the anatomical features of a person, I start making the frame. It is made from plasticine and is probably the most difficult process in sculpture. It is at this stage that you try to convey the resemblance to a real person. His character, every insignificant feature, micro-detail, pore, protruding vein, wrinkle. This incredibly delicate and very painstaking work requires enviable perseverance.

And the next difficult stage is hair, because you need to stick it in strictly one hair at a time, maximum two.  Just imagine, there are hundreds of thousands of hairs on your head! In no case should you stick in 3-4 hairs, otherwise it will no longer look realistic.

I also want to note that I make many tools for my work myself, especially those that are necessary for small parts, because for such jewelry processes you need special devices. And they, as a rule, are not found in stores.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: How nerve-racking is this job?

AE: It is very painstaking, but I would never call it nerve-racking. Of course, from the outside, it looks like a real nightmare – sticking one hair into the sculpture and displaying it every time. But this whole process, on the contrary, calms and relaxes me. After all, this work, however difficult, is so interesting.

The only drawback is that it’s a pity there is not enough time. Sometimes you start work early in the morning, do, it would seem, one small thing, look out the window, and it’s already night in the yard! But, thank God, I am very hardy and do not get tired quickly, and during work I always get a second wind.

DN: You said that it took you about a year to create your very first piece.  How long do you need now?

AE: It all depends on the complexity of the figure itself.  On average, about 3-4 months.  But I made my newest sculpture of Nursultan Nazarbayev in record time — it took only a month and a half.  It was a very urgent order and needed to be completed as quickly as possible. During that month and a half, I neglected food and sleep, and eventually managed to meet the deadline.  However, it is often impossible to work constantly in this mode, of course, otherwise my health will be in ruins.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: How much does one sculpture cost you?

AE:  Since the necessary materials are not available in Kazakhstan, I have to order them from the USA, and the price, to be honest, is not small. On average, the materials for one piece will cost anywhere from 600 thousand to one million tenge (~1400$-2320$).

DN: Would you like to open your own school someday and share your experience?

AE: Yes, because as I said, at Madame Tussauds they have 15 to 20 people are working on one figure. And, of course, I would also like to have my own team so that I can make as many sculptures as possible per year.

DN: Now we are in your workshop, and it seems as if every corner here is saturated with a piece of your soul and love for your work.  How long do you work in this workshop?  Do you like it?

AE: I have been working in this workshop for four years. Before that, I worked in the military history museum as the head of the restoration department, and now I am a make-up artist at the Astana Musical Theater, which provided me with this workshop. I am a make-up artist, and I also create props, decorations and special make-up for cinema. I really like the workshop, but I would like a little more.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: How is your art perceived by your loved ones?

AE: Since my parents are creative people themselves, they treat my work very positively and with great curiosity.  One funny incident comes to mind.  When I was creating my very first figure of Elbasy, I turned my room into an actual workshop, which I locked with a key.  My parents all tried to look there, but I would not let them in, not yielding to any persuasion or humorous threats.  And all because I just didn’t want to show them the unfinished work.  Now I no longer act this way, of course, but at the time, I guarded my “first workshop” with all possible rigor.

DN: Aidos, you paint, create sculptures, and you are a make-up artist. Which of these activities do you enjoy the most?

AE: I love each of these activities dearly.  All of them are irreplaceable outlets for me, so I don’t think I can choose.  Although, on the other hand, you can add one more activity to this list — photography and video filming.  I like to get out into the city on free days and catch beautiful shots.  This, too, is for me, to some extent, calming.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

DN: And finally, please share your plans and goals for the future.

AE: My biggest dream, which is also my goal, is to open my own museum of sculptures, like Madame Tussauds, so that Kazakhstan also has a place where the figures of our famous and legendary historical figures will be presented. I would like us to be able to visually show tourists sculptures of our great people, or celebrities.

Hyperrealist sculptor Aidos Esmagambetov: "My dream is a museum of sculptures in Kazakhstan"

After all, not everyone has the opportunity to meet them live, or get to a concert.  Therefore, people could take pictures with their sculptures. Although, of course, this does not compare with photography with a living person, but, nevertheless, is that not a good alternative?