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SURFACE Magazine: Baku and Beyond By Marina Cashdan

Mahmudova with her work On the Way Home, by the Sea (2015) at the Louise Blouin Foundation in London. Portrait by Hana Knizova

Hailing from Azerbaijan, artist Aida Mahmudova opens

a new contemporary art center in her hometown.

When artist Aida Mahmudova returned to her hometown of Baku – the capital city of Azerbaijan, the Caucasus country that borders Georgia, Armenia, Iran, and Russia, and sits on the Caspian Sea – after studying at Central Saint Martins in London, she found there was a disconnect between her fellow artists and art lovers in the city. This is where YARAT, which the 32-year-old Mahmudova characterizes as a “gallery without walls,” was born.

“I had known for a while that both artists and audiences in Baku would benefit from a more established contemporary art infrastructure,” says Mahmudova, who founded the organization in 2011 with a group of artists. “There were many artists making good work and the public was interested, but there were few platforms for the connection between the two.”

YARAT started by mounting events across Baku, from solo exhibitions by emerging artists to large-scale projects, such as the inaugural Participate Public Arts Festival. The organization then expanded to shows across the region and mounted a traveling exhibition, “Love Me, Love Me Not,” showcasing the work of 17 Caucasus artists; it debuted to critical acclaim at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Over the years, YARAT has also initiated an education program, which hosts master classes for artists, and opened the YAY Gallery. Named after the Azerbaijani word for “share,” YAY is a commercial gallery, with its proceeds going to artists and the organization.

This month, YARAT settles into a new permanent home. Located in a Soviet-era naval building that has been converted into a 21,500 -square-foot gallery with sweeping views of the Caspian Sea, the space will open on March 24 with “The Horne of My Eyes,” an exhibition premiering a commissioned work by New York-based Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat (on view through June 23).

Neshat accepted the inaugural commission in part because of her interest in the country, which shares a history with her native Iran: “During my first visit to Baku last year, I felt like I had stepped back in time and was in Iran, in my childhood, where certain rituals were still celebrated,” she says. “I went back [to Baku] in the fall and spent a week photographing various types of people from different generations and ethnic backgrounds.” The resulting installation of photos is a tribute to Azerbaijan's culture and diversity. Farsi texts on the notion of home-drawn from interviews she conducted with each subject – will be inscribed over the portraits. Mahmudova says the show will “no doubt be a milestone exhibition, not just for us as an organiza-tion, but also Baku as a whole.”

Later this spring, at this year’s Venice Biennale, YARAT will show “The Union of Fire and Water,” which, as Mahmudova puts it, “will present a historical and cultural superimposition of Baku and Venice as seen through the eyes of the artists Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov." And from May 28 to July s, works by Mahmudova will travel to New York's Leila Heller Gallery for a show. All of which continues her mission to put Baku on the international art map.



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