The first part of the playable point-and-click video game Nobody Knows for Certain is the result of a research project whose departure point was Afrah Shafiq’s inquiry into the cultural exchange between the USSR and South Asia during the Cold War. Decades of intense Soviet diplomacy in the region have led to the formation of a virtual common space where culture was shared by South Asian and Soviet peoples living in a vast geographical expanse stretching ‘from Volga to Ganga’, to borrow the title of Rahul Sankrityayan’s short-story collection of historical fiction. A patchworked space of fantasy, Nobody Knows for Certain traces the phenomenon of Soviet children’s books translated into multitudinous languages spoken across South Asia. Conceived before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the game is nevertheless wary of the easily weaponizable soft power of cultural propaganda and conjures a world where the act of storytelling is both playful and dangerous, a site of subversion and control. The game is imagined in the form of a multiverse of interconnected stories and speculations departing from archival material, while simultaneously serving as a container that hosts a selection of original children’s books, their illustrations, and associated worlds. Some of these worlds have existed in parallel, often in spite of the oppressive pseudo-unity imagined by the Russian Empire and USSR—among them, republished folk tales and short stories from Armenia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, as well as from the Indigenous lands of Sámi and Nanai people. Creating space for scepticism of Sovietophilia, Shafiq goes beyond and sometimes subverts the iconography solely associated with communist propaganda as well as the artistic language of the pre-Soviet and early Soviet avantgardes by decontextualizing it or exploring other aesthetics that influenced children’s book illustrations, including lubok prints, lacquer miniatures, textiles, and decorative art.

Work in the exhibition: Nobody Knows For Certain (2023), video game installation. Courtesy of the artist