Azeri artists explore their historical heritage through cutting-edge contemporary practices.
Art Radar profiles 6 contemporary artists from Azerbaijan, who examine a variety of issues within their country’s socio-political environment, inspired by their historical and cultural heritage.
Azerbaijan’s art scene has been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. Through the participation of Azeri artists in international biennial events and exhibitions, the global art world has come to have a better understanding of the art that is emerging from the small Central Asian country.
A young generation of artists – eager to express their views on the contradictions of contemporary life in Azerbaijan – is developing fresh and innovative perspectives and practices. Born in the late 1970s and the 1980s, this generation has experienced their national independence from the Soviets in 1991 and an opening up of the country to globalising influences.
Baku, the capital, is now home to a thriving and evolving art scene – “an energetic community” as Aida Mahmudova calls it – with many new spaces opening as platforms for promoting, exhibiting and developing contemporary art. YARAT (meaning ‘create’) is the foremost nonprofit contemporary art organisation in Azerbaijan, representing and promoting Azeri artists within and outside their own country. Dedicated to the understanding of contemporary art and the development of a vibrant art scene at home, the platform has a roster that includes some of the most important names in the Azeri art landscape.
Since its inception, the art scene in Azerbaijan has gained more and more international attention, especially since one of the most ambitious projects at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. “Love Me Love Me Not” was a collateral exhibition of artists from Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Georgia in the Central Asian Pavilion.
Art Radar profiles 6 exciting artists from Azerbaijan, represented by YARAT.
An artist, musician and filmmaker, Ali Hasanov creates works that merge a variety of media, including performance, music, film and installation. Hasanov is recognised as a pivotal figure in the development of performance in Azerbaijan and his oeuvre ranges from visual and performance art to video and sound installations.
In 2007, Hasanov was among the twelve artists who represented Azerbaijan at the 52nd Venice Biennale in the exhibition “OMNIA MEA“. Hasanov presented an early work entitled Keelcoushe (2000), an installation that featured a video documentation of his performance and the leather costume and strings he used for it. Keelcoushe was one of Hasanov’s invented personas, whose character essentially went beyond human logic. He wore a black raincoat and was desperate to extricate himself from the bondage of threads, demonstrating a certain likeness to invincible superheroes.
Hasanov’s work Arsenium (2012) amalgamates video animation, music and performance. Inspired by the 1923 performance of “Symphony of Sirens” by the Soviet avant-garde composer Arseni Avraamov in Azerbaijan, the commemorative work took place on the docks, with a full choir and brass orchestra.
Born in 1976 in Baku, Hasanov graduated from the Azerbaijani State University of Culture and the Arts and received a degree in Filmmaking from Baku International Film School. He has exhibited widely at home and abroad at important events and institutions, including at the 55th Venice Biennale. He is also the founder and leading figure of the musical collective PG Large Used Project.
Working in a diverse range of media, including installation, sculpture, photography and painting, Farid Rasulov plays with modernity and tradition to comment on the rapid modernisation taking place in Azerbaijan. Rasulov denies any symbolic meaning of his work, but his oeuvre is laden with traditional, ornamental Azeri patterns and elements presented with a humorous approach that suggest his engagement with social and cultural commentary.
Although he trained as a doctor, graduating in 2006 from the Azerbaijan State Medical University, in 2007 he decided to leave medicine and dedicated himself to developing an artistic practice. That same year he participated in the Venice Biennale with his first video Inertia, filmed on Gurban Bayram – an Islamic holiday where sheep are sacrificed, cut up into seven pieces and given to neighbours, friends and people who need food.
Rasulov has since developed a unique practice that makes use of traditional Azeri tapestry: he covers entire rooms, including furniture, with carpets. Recently, he has been adding solid white sculptures of animals to these rooms. In an interview with AMA, he says:
The carpet forms such a large part of the Azerbaijan community; the interiors, street sellers — you see it everyday. It is so ingrained within our culture, it’s so interesting.
His carpeted rooms have appeared at the Azerbaijan Pavilion “Ornamentaion” at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and most recently, in his first solo show in France at Galerie Rabouan Moussion “Dogs in The Living Room” (2014). In this show, he comments on the relationship between East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity, local and global.
Exploring the art of rug weaving in Azerbaijan, Faig Ahmed creates carpet paintings and installations that transform the two-dimensional decorative craft into contemporary three-dimensional sculptural works of art, such as Carpet Equalizer (2012). Ahmed says that “the carpet is a symbol of invincible tradition of the East, it’s a visualisation of an undestroyable [sic] icon.”
His work is a reflection on modern life, through the mutation of a traditional cultural element – the carpet – into a modern shape that merges Azeri heritage with western and global imagery. Ahmed claims that he is not interested “any kind of merging between the past and present”, but just “in the past because it’s just the most stable conception of our lives.” He says:
The main things that interest me are the old traditions, ancient cultures and standard canons, stereotypes that end up being broken by me.
Ahmed’s stretched, distorted and reinvented carpets are “destroying the stereotypes of tradition to create new modern boundaries.” His work is thus suggestive of the restructuring of physical and political boundaries in the Middle East.
Ahmed was among the artists who represented Azerbaijan at its first appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and was featured in YARAT’s exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. His work has been part of important events and institutions worldwide, including the Sharjah Islamic Art Festival and National Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the V&A’s Jameel Prize 3.
An artist, designer and photographer, Fakhriyya Mammadova graduated from the Design Faculty of the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Art in Baku in 2005. She is a professional restorer of ceramics and sculpture, and in her artistic practice she also experiments with macro-photography.
Her first photographic installation was presented in “Wings of Time” (2000) in Baku, an exhibition of post-Soviet new media and photography. In recent years, Mammadova has focused on developing a conceptual photographic practice that aims to capture the transitory moments of life.
At the Venice Biennale in 2013, she presented a photographic installation comprising two opposite walls laden with round-framed images of an Azeri wedding, and music and sound from the festivities coming from hidden speakers. Entitled Wedding: Girlish Dreams, the work presented a ceremony reflective of the state of contemporary society and culture in Azerbaijan – a mixture of tradition and modernity. The work sits between a documentary and an intimate account, between the anthropological and the personal.
Aida Mahmudova is the founder and director of YARAT. Deeply engaged with the expansion of the art scene in Azerbaijan, she is also a leading figure in the development of contemporary artistic practices. A multimedia artist, working in sculpture, painting and installation, Mahmudova is concerned with the rapid modernisation of Azerbaijan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Her work engages with concepts of memory and nostalgia, often recalling the memory of specific places or a sense of place. The artist considers how memory is deeply tied to the debris, the ruins and the materials of the past, as seen in Recycled (2012-2013), an installation presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and now standing by the site of an old puppet theatre in Baku.
The work repurposes fragments of window grates from old buildings in Baku prior to their renovation. Stainless steel silhouettes conceal the lattice work below, rising on metal rods above it and creating a three-dimensional effect – a ‘shadow’ of the past transposed into contemporary life. Mahmudova alludes to the effects of modernisation and the yearning for the preservation of material traces of the past, which contribute to the shaping of contemporary identity.
Mahmudova graduated in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, London, in 2006, and has exhibited internationally, including at MAXXI (Rome) and a 2013 solo exhibition “Internal Peace” (2013) in Zurich.
A trained psychologist born in 1984, with a degree from Baku State University, Sitara Ibrahimova turned to art and graduated from Prague’s FAMU University in 2010 with a degree in Still Photography. Her works capture the everyday, revealed through the emotions of an individual’s expression or pose, a fragment or an absence.
Ibrahimova’s photographs record the human experience beyond political or geographical borders, and her compositions often allude to forms of historical and collective memory, such as in The Edge (2012), presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. The project comprises scenes of a now abandoned town that exists on the border of multiple political, cultural and social groups in the Karabakh region. Glimpses of life slipping away from law and order appear in images of a street or a building without its urban context.
The series Molokans (2014) documents the life of the Molokans, dissenters banished to the edge of the Russian empire following an edict published by Tzar Nicholaj in 1830. Ridiculed as “milk drinkers” (in Russian, molokane), the Molokans, who did not observe fasting on Orthodox saint’s days, were exiled as heretics and settled in the village of Ivanovka, now a rural community of 1,000 homes and over 3,000 people, functioning as a collective farm.
Ibrahimova is especially interested in social documentary through her photographic work, and among her projects are stories from mental hospitals and women in prison.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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