BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER &
Azerbaijan has a rich and distinctive art history, a significant part of which is applied art such as chasing (metalworking) and carpet-making. These dazzling items have probably caught the attention of unsuspecting residents who have not focused on appreciating the paintings or graphic drawings that, in addition to their cultural significance, are valued in the global market.
Of public domain is Pre-interdependent Azerbaijani art where people can use for free without having to pay for the rights ten years after the artist’s death. Before the 19th century, artists of this age dedicated their work to creating Persian-style miniatures. Later, during the Tsarist era, the work of the satirical artist Azim Azimzade is recognised, famous for a thematic series of watercolours, which examined social inequality, a collection of 26 paintings entitled “Shadows of the Past”, but mainly for his cartoons in the satirical magazine “Molla Nasreddin”.
Then, the emergence and development of the contemporary art scene in Azerbaijan can be traced to the later Soviet era, with Sattar Bahlulzade as the father of Azerbaijani impressionism. The most celebrated Azerbaijani artist, on Sattar’s 100th birthday in 2009, an exhibition was held at the UNESCO headquarters’ art gallery in Paris.
On the other hand, the highest-profile Azerbaijani painter Tahir Salahov, whose painting Soviet Realism has the record for the most expensive art sale in Azerbaijani history, was head of the Artists Union of USSR for 30 years. Therefore, for a combination of abstract and figurative arts returning to the origins of national culture, Togrul Narimanbekov is the best option.
The independence brought Azerbaijan a new dynamic in the art scene, which continues to flourish today. Baku currently has two museums, six platforms, and four foundations exhibiting contemporary art, with Heydar Aliyev Center and Yarat Contemporary Art Center as the leading institutions. Although the city is full of exciting conceptual galleries, the world’s largest art database, ArtFacts, lists the three main commercial ones: Q Gallery, Gazelli Art House, and Yay Gallery.
It is a brilliant period with several living artists producing artworks, which can be researched on the Azerbaijan State Art Gallery website https://azgallery.az/en/ or at https://azgallery.org. However, since artists depend on appreciation from the audience and the critical industry actors, Azeri Observer talked with curators and gallerists to understand Azerbaijani art’s trend and to know more about the consolidated and young artists leading the contemporary market.
Q Gallery: Historical art centre
The first conversation was with the honorary art figure Emin Mammadov, art curator and artistic advisor at the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the Heydar Aliyev Center and professor of the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Arts. In addition to recommending the established Azerbaijani artists and those he has helped to forge, Mr Emin told us about his inspiring journey with Q Gallery and his current commitment to promoting the evolution of woven art in carpets as Chairman of the company, Azerkhalcha.
In 1997, Emin, with his father, Salhab Mammadov, founded one of the first private galleries in Azerbaijan, Q Gallery, to give space to many famous and talented beginner artists, sculptors and photographers in the hard post-Soviet years. The Q is for Qiz Qalasi, the Azerbaijani name for the Maiden’s Tower, since the Gallery is located at the foot of this iconic structure in downtown Baku, in the premises that Professor Salhab had used as a workshop for many years.
Then in 2007, Emin opened Q Gallery Berlin, in the city where he grew up as an artist. More recently, Mammadov expanded their premises with Art Baget, a smaller gallery devoted to interior design. Offering fashion and kitchen posters, nature-inspired wall art, photography and decorative sculptures at affordable prices, Baget provides tips and tricks to create the perfect atmosphere.
Nowadays, Q Gallery (https://qgallery.net/) is where viewers can familiarise themselves with the different periods of the Azerbaijani fine arts. Along with the paintings of classics and nonconformists of the Soviet era, the Gallery exhibits the actual art represented by the works of a group of consolidated artists, such as Eliar Alimirzoyev, Museib Amirov, Mikayil Abdurahmanov and Melik Aghamalov.
At the same time, they promote young artists, as is the case of the already well-known Butunay Haqverdiyev, whose work was presented in the national pavilion of Azerbaijan at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. He is so successful that Q Gallery made an exception to its policy of not holding events in summer to host the fruitful solo exhibition “Wind of Absheron” last August. Butunay addresses how the environment can be viewed differently, working on several projects, including watercolour series, digital art, large sculptures and installations.
Our interviewee, Emin Mammadov, also brings contemporary art to the most widespread Azerbaijani folk, carpet weaving. It is worth remembering that carpet designs are sculptural objects themselves. As the Chairman of Azerkhalcha OJSC, the Open Joint-Stock Company that replaced the soviet “Azerkhalcha Scientific and Creative Production” Union, Emin involves conceptual artists to create modern style traditional carpets. As he describes one of the recent and successful projects with the honoured artist Rashad Alakbarov, they turned his design with four different colour variations and created a limited edition of 44 carpets to represent a fresh look at Karabakh carpets.
Mammadov advises buyers that before buying a new TV or another item that will lose value once out of the store, they should consider purchasing art that will not only fill their soul but will gain value over time. So, for art buyers, the first step is to feel and like the piece, even with an investment purpose. The next step is researching the artist, how many paintings the person has produced, how many exhibitions he or she has participated in, and how the work prices have increased over time.
The innovative Gazelli Art House
Our second communication was with Mila Askarova, founder of Gazelli Art House (https://gazelliarthouse.com/) in Baku and London. With an international relations background, both the business, and the creative art side appeal to her, since “all kinds of topics could be discussed with the arts serving as a backdrop or a conversation starter”.
At the Gallery she opened ten years ago, Mrs Askarova looks for worldwide artists with something to say. However, her Gallery specialises in promoting art from Azerbaijan and its neighbours to introduce a greater understanding of the rich linguistic, religious and historical ties that connect these areas to international audiences. Mila is also working on raising the digital arm of the Gallery with Gazell.io, combining physical presentations and online purchases.
Vibrant is the word Mila describes the contemporary art trends in Azerbaijan. However, she recognises that the industry needs to continue building on the consistency and quality of creative outputs, mainly with increased grants, residencies, studio spaces, and curatorial and financial support for artists.
As for the top investible Azerbaijani contemporary artists, Mila recommended Aida Mahmudova, Agil Abdullayev and Farhad Farzali. She also mentioned the true ‘bad-boy’ Niyaz Najafov, a Soviet soldier, Azerbaijani policeman and former professional fighter, who is currently drawing and painting abstract and figurative portraits. His quirky, dramatic, and psychologically charged works took him to represent Azerbaijan at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
For buyers interested in contemporary art representing the Azerbaijani culture, Mila recommends appreciating Yelena Hagverdieyva’s art as a starting point. The Persian Qajar style has influenced Yelena to produce stunning artwork on women and national costumes exhibited in France, Austria, Georgia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. In addition, her work is currently displayed in the Union of Azerbaijani Artists, the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan, Baku Art Centre, Azerbaijan State Gallery, and in private collections in Azerbaijan, France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, Turkey, USA, and Finland.
A Visit to Vugar Muradov´s Art Studio
One of the most famous independent Azerbaijani artists today, Vugar Muradov (@vugarmuradov), opened the doors of his creative space to Azeri Observer. He shares his workshop with an artistic promise, his 8-year-old daughter. In this apartment in a residential zone in Baku, crossing the Yarat Contemporary Art Center, he keeps original copies of his bestsellers, develops his ongoing experimentations, and holds his work tools valued as collectable items.
A faithful representative of the middle generation of artists, Vugar recalls the recent history of art with the difficulties of the creative process under the Soviet Union and explains how he had to treat his canvases to achieve an opaque base colour. At the same time, his ongoing exploration inspires and directs the art trend of future generations.
Vugar’s innovation was recognised internationally 24 years ago when he was painting portraits of people with developmental disabilities in a society where disability was a taboo subject. This pioneering collection took Vugar to present his artwork at the Contemporary Artists of Azerbaijan exhibition at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC, USA.
Like many artists from the Azerbaijani culture, carpets have inspired Vugar, even more considering that he was the head artist at the Azerkhalcha Scientific and Creative Production Union in the Soviet times. Thus, one of his collections represents the millimetric decomposition of the image that the technical process of rug weaving requires.
More recently, in his “Resemblance” collection, based on iconic Azerbaijani carpets from different regions, he paints in a flat perspective a series of humans and animals containing the universe of the carpet within their body. Now, these art pieces are being woven to return to a carpet.
He is currently trialling the mirror technique, in which the first layer is the final layer. This process has led him to develop his unpublished collection, “First Layer”, intended to be brought to the digital world and converted into NFT. Playing with perspective, depth, colour, shadow and light, Vugar’s most recent series, takes his expressive brush strokes to another level, revealing the physicality with which he applies the paint onto the canvas.
Vugar Muradov was recognised as a member of the International Federation of Artists of UNESCO. His work has been shown in Azerbaijan, Moldova, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, USA, Luxembourg, Russia, France, Turkey, Bulgaria and Ukraine, and is held by prestigious institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Argentinean company Guevara Films, the Central and Eastern European Art Foundation in Washington DC, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Japan, the Ministry of Defense in Turkey, the Lambri International company in the Netherlands, and the Museum of Modern Art in Azerbaijan. Additionally, his artwork is in private collections worldwide and printed in decorative objects.
The pioneer digital artist
Finally, those who have made the technological leap and are interested in investing in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) or collecting digital art can find the pioneer Orkhan Mammadov. He emerged on the international scene taking part in the Venice Biennial Azerbaijani Pavilion in 2019. Focusing on the representation of Middle Eastern culture, Orkhan uses patterns and carpet illustrations as a dataset in his paintings based on artificial intelligence and machine learning-driven cultural phygital data.