Convergence of cultures leads to flourishing contemporary art scene in Baku.

As the capital of Azerbaijan and the largest city in the Caucasus, Baku has much to offer due to its unusual mixture of cultures and traditions. Baku welcomes the 1st European Games on 12 June 2015 and its streets are simultaneously being transformed by the 3rd Public Art Festival organised by YARAT Contemporary Art Space. Art Radar looks into this intriguing city and the spaces you must see while you visit. 

Mosque Of The Martyrs And One Of The Flame Towers, Baku Highland Park, 2013. Photograph by Lyokin.

Mosque of the Martyrs and One of the Flame Towers, Baku Highland Park, 2013. Photograph by Lyokin.

Due to its close proximity to Europe, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan has been influenced by a tapestry of contrasting cultures including the Islamic Shirvan Era (12th-14th centuries), and was once part of the Soviet Union (1920-1991). This melding of traditions has resulted in the profoundly unique flavour found in the country’s visual art.

Art Radar asked Iranian-born Dina Nasser-Khadivi, an independent consultant and curator of the region’s noteworthy “Love Me, Love Me Not” exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, how relevant contemporary art from Azerbaijan is in both a regional and global context. Nasser-Khadivi noted that:

Azerbaijan is a hybrid of all the different cultures that have surrounded it over the years and this is what makes it such a unique and special place. Located at a crossroad between three major historical empires, the various influences that have touched it over the years are visible in its architecture but also through the contemporary art scene, which is quickly flourishing thanks to organisations such as YARAT. As such, I find Azerbaijani contemporary art relevant in both a regional and global context as it has certainly helped [in] understanding the country better in addition to its fascinating history and evolution.

Faig Ahmed, 'Oiling', 2012, woolen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Faig Ahmed, ‘Oiling’, 2012, woollen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Museums, galleries and independent arts spaces to visit

YARAT Contemporary Art Space

YARAT is one of the most internationally recognised art organisations in Baku. Established by Aida Mahmudova in 2011, the non-profit organisation was created to provide a platform for Azerbaijani artists in the region and globally, through exhibitions, festivals and extensive educational programmes. Since 2011, the YAY Gallery Space (“share” in Azerbaijani) and the Young Artist Project ARTIM (“progress” in Azerbaijani) have been established, in addition to 13 artist studios and lodging for artists-in-residence. In 2015, the organisation opened its first permanent space, located in Soviet-era naval headquarters, with an unprecedented exhibition of commissioned work from celebrated Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. On 13 June 2015, YARAT launches “A Drop of Sky”, the 3rd Public Art Festival in Baku (PDF download).

153 Neftchilar Avenue, Port Baku South Towers, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 437 39 70

Baku Museum of Modern Art

The Baku Museum of Modern Art was established in 2009 by First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva and the Heydar Aliyev Fund. The concept of the building was the brainchild of artist Altay Sadikh-zadeh, and reflects a profoundly open space and “moving abstract sculpture”.

Azerbaijani painters and sculptors of the past 70 years are highlighted, with an emphasis on the Azerbaijani School of Painting and Figurative Art, including artists painting during the Soviet period and the 1960s-1970s. European Masters are also exhibited.

Baku, AZ1025, 5 Yusuph Safarov, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 490 84 04

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

The 619,000-square-foot Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center consists of a conference hall (auditorium), gallery hall and museum. It is named after Heydar Aliyev, the head of Soviet-era Azerbaijan (1969-1982) and President of Azerbaijan (1993-2003). The architect of this ultra-modern building is Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, whose other noteworthy buildings include Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup Stadium and the Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage Museum.

Two important contemporary art exhibitions at this venue, both held in 2013, were “Life, Beauty and Death”, celebrating the 85th Anniversary of American cultural icon Andy Warhol, and “At the turn of the Century”, commemorating the Vice-President of the Russian Academy Tahir Salakhov. In 2015, the museum has added two permanent pieces by prominent artists Anish Kapoor and Yayoi Kusama.

Baku, AZ1033, 1 Heydar Aliyev prospekti, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994125056001

Before Sunrise, Baku Highland Park, 2013. Photograph by Lyokin.

Before Sunrise, Baku Highland Park, 2013. Photograph by Lyokin.

Miniature Book Museum

One of only two such museums in the world (with the other residing in the Ukraine), Zarifa Salahova opened the Miniature Book Museum in 2002, with the intention of interesting young readers and to promote literacy in Azerbaijan. To date, the museum has collected, mostly through gift-giving or exchanges, over 6000 copies from 64 countries. Of particular note is the museum’s contemporary post-revolutionary Russia and Soviet period collection and a 17thcentury copy of the Q’uran.

1 Gala Street, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 492 94 64

Museum Centre and Art Gallery

Housed in what was previously known as the Soviet Lenin Museum, the Museum Centre and Art Gallery was renamed and reopened in 1991, with funding and support from the UNESCO Moscow Office. The fourth floor of the building houses a modern art gallery, with five distinct halls of work, all displayed with natural lighting.

Netfchilar Avenue, 123a, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 598 37 31

National Carpet Museum

Established in 1967, the National Carpet Museum holds over 10,000 objects from the Bronze Age to contemporary times, and has the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world. The venue held its first exhibition in 1972, and each year organises local and international exhibitions. In addition, experts are on hand to provide advice on purchasing carpets, as well as giving lectures and courses about carpet art.

Mikayil Useynov, 28BakuAzerbaijan, +994 12 497 20 57
Olympia Scarry, 'Himalayan Salt Sculptures' installation view at "Self Graph" exhibition, 21/09/2013 - 21/10/13. Image courtesy Gazelli Art House.

Olympia Scarry, ‘Himalayan Salt Sculptures’ installation view at “Self Graph” exhibition, 21/09/2013 – 21/10/13. Image courtesy Gazelli Art House.

YAY Gallery

YAY Gallery, meaning “Share” in English, certainly lives up to its name. It is an result of YARAT’s success and brings together Azerbaijani artists and dealers. In addition to strong representation of local artists, international artists are encouraged in the gallery’s exhibitions and programmes. YAY has exhibited works by some of Azerbaijan’s most recognised artists including Farid Rasulov and Faig Ahmed.

5 Kichik Qala Street, Icheri Sheher, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 505 23 23

Art Group

The Art Group was founded in 1995 by Elmar and Jamelya Gashiev. This venue is unusual – it is a design house, working on interior and exterior design. In addition to design, paintings, photographs, ceramics, carpets and antiques are offered for sale to the public. There is also Art Garden, a restaurant associated with the organisation, featuring traditional dishes and a contemporary art space.

Murtuza Muxtarov, 7, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 492 20 13

Gazelli Art House

Although the Baku-based branch of the Gazelli Art House is closed for renovation until January 2016, it’s sister gallery remains open in London. Established in 2003 by curator and art-dealer Mila Askarova, the Gazelli Art House is dedicated to brokering and strengthening relationships between regional and international contemporary artists, through exhibitions, dialogue and educational programmes. Represented artists include Aziz + Cucher and Azerbaijani artist Niyaz Najafov.

Nizami küç.,109 А, Baku, Azerbaijain, +994 77 277 33 53

Kiçik QalArt

Flying under the radar, Kiçik QalArt was founded in 2009 and sponsored by Art ex East. Exhibitions here often take an intimate look at societal problems and the human condition.

Icheri Sheher, Kichik Gala str. 58, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 55 520 25 35

Qiz Qalasi (QGallery)

One of the first private galleries in Baku and ideally located near the Maiden Tower, this venue specialises in painting and sculpture. It was established in 1999 by Professor Salkhab Mammadov and is run by his son Emin Mammadov. The father-son duo also opened a second establishment in 2007 in Germany, called the Berlin-Baku Gallery. Qiz Qalasi has worked towards curating and exhibiting local artists both at home and abroad, including artists Altai Sadiqzadeh, Museib Amirov, Ali Ibadullayev, Eliyar Alimirzoyev and Shamo Abasov.

Baku AZ1004, Qulle Street 6, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 492 7481

Yeni Gallery

Yeni Gallery (“new” in Azerbaijani), established in 1986, represents one of the first organisations of its kind in Baku. In 1988, it collaborated with the Association of Creative Youth of Azerbaijan to become a platform for emerging and established architects, composers, poets and visual artists employing a wide variety of media.

Yeni Gallery, 4/6 Aziz Aliyev Street, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 598 45 48

Farid Rasulov, from the 'Architectural Dichotomy' series, 2013, simulated concrete, fibreglass, plywood, wood and glass, 100 x 140 x 132 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT.

Farid Rasulov, from the ‘Architectural Dichotomy’ series, 2013, simulated concrete, fibreglass, plywood, wood and glass, 100 x 140 x 132 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT.

Bisque Café

Located along the waterfront is Baku’s Bisque Café. An ideal place to people-watch, it’s also one of the places in Baku that serves ice cream and serves organic choices, along with contemporary art.

Neftçilər Prospekti, Baku, Azerbaijan, +994 12 598 99 95

When to visit

Although the city is windy most of the year, Baku enjoys moderate weather. The best time to visit is in the spring, between April and June, and then again in the fall. Summers are generally hot and humid and winter can bring snow.

Where to stay

Baku offers a wide variety of accommodation, including top-tier brands such as Jumeirah, Four Seasons and the Marriott. For those on a budget, rooms in local hostels, bed and breakfast accommodations and listings on Airbnb are available.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: art spaces, art tourism, Azerbaijani artists, Baku art scene, City Art Guides

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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