The Wall Street Journal: The Emergence of Azerbaijan's Ancient Capital City, Baku

After decades of repressive Soviet rule, Baku is experiencing warp-speed modernization—and translating its rich cultural heritage into the language of the 21st century

NEW TRADITION | Aida Mahmudova, founder of Yarat, an organization dedicated to the support and promotion of Azerbaijani artists. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE HAWKESWORTH FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE


... "The idea was to have a group of artists who support each other, a platform that puts everyone together," says Yarat's founder, Aida Mahmudova, who plans to move Yarat's current headquarters in the Old City to a multistory former Soviet naval base in 2015. "You gather, and it's power already."

Part of Yarat's mandate is to promote Azerbaijani artists internationally as well as at home. In September 2012, it helped organize the first Christie's exhibition in Baku. "It was a combined exercise which showcased international art alongside a very vibrant local art scene," says Paul Hewitt, managing director of growth markets at the auction house. "It was an important first step of a developing relationship." Held at the Four Seasons, one of several brand-new five-star hotels in the capital, the show featured works by Picasso, Warhol and DeLempicka and was attended by a troop of high-powered collectors from Mexico, China, Switzerland and India—a bellwether for a city on the verge of becoming an art-world destination for the private jet set. At the same time, Yarat opened the exhibition "Commonist," with works by its artists, including Ahmed and 18 others.


AT THE CENTER of this transformation is Mahmudova, a 32-year-old with a slight gym-toned frame and a broad smile who has become the link between official culture and subculture in Baku. Her aunt Mehriban Aliyeva is the country's first lady. Her cousin Leyla Aliyeva (Mehriban's daughter) is the editor-in-chief of the Condé Nast–owned Baku magazine, a glossy dedicated to all things luxurious in the capital. "The idea [for Yarat] came to me a long time ago, way before I founded the organization," she says. With her familial wealth and desire to help artists of all generations, she approximates a very young, very glamorous godmother of art.


Mahmudova is herself a commercially successful artist. After earning a degree in fashion merchandising from the American InterContinental University, she studied painting at London's prestigious Central Saint Martins. She says her time in the British capital shaped her sense of how an arts organization in Baku might be structured. But it wasn't until after she'd finished school in London, married an Iranian entrepreneur and had a daughter, now 3 years old, that she focused her energies on getting the organization off the ground.


Moving back to Baku in 2010, she became close with other young artists—such as Ahmed and Farid Rasulov, who creates life-size installations out of carpets and surreal plastic animals. Together, they realized there was no single organization in Baku for artists looking to show work or collaborate—much less gain international traction. Furthermore, any such organization would have to actively generate a homegrown audience for the kinds of abstract or conceptual art they make, which looks radically unfamiliar to most Azerbaijani eyes. "I wouldn't call it a plan," she says of Yarat's early days. "It was a dream and a passion and then it turned into a reality. It was spontaneous, based on an emotional level. Now, of course, we make plans two or three years ahead of time."


"I think I'm really at the right place at the right time," she adds. "The whole country is emerging, for the West especially. It's opening up and it's growing, and Yarat is growing at the same time."

Though she surely benefits from her family connections, Mahmudova is not involved in politics—and given the controversy surrounding her aunt's husband, she has every reason to downplay her political connections. She structured Yarat as a not-for-profit, with a creative board made up of artists. Money is raised by petitioning local businesses like banks and telecommunications companies for support, typically for specific projects, like the Public Art Festival, a citywide event that lasts six months and showcases several dozen works of art. Yay gallery serves as the commercial wing of the organization, with half of the profits going to the artist and the other half to Yarat, which employs seven people full time.


AT THE CENTER of this transformation is Mahmudova, a 32-year-old with a slight gym-toned frame and a broad smile who has become the link between official culture and subculture in Baku. Her aunt Mehriban Aliyeva is the country's first lady. Her cousin Leyla Aliyeva (Mehriban's daughter) is the editor-in-chief of the Condé Nast–owned Baku magazine, a glossy dedicated to all things luxurious in the capital. "The idea [for Yarat] came to me a long time ago, way before I founded the organization," she says. With her familial wealth and desire to help artists of all generations, she approximates a very young, very glamorous godmother of art.


Mahmudova is herself a commercially successful artist. After earning a degree in fashion merchandising from the American InterContinental University, she studied painting at London's prestigious Central Saint Martins. She says her time in the British capital shaped her sense of how an arts organization in Baku might be structured. But it wasn't until after she'd finished school in London, married an Iranian entrepreneur and had a daughter, now 3 years old, that she focused her energies on getting the organization off the ground.


Moving back to Baku in 2010, she became close with other young artists—such as Ahmed and Farid Rasulov, who creates life-size installations out of carpets and surreal plastic animals. Together, they realized there was no single organization in Baku for artists looking to show work or collaborate—much less gain international traction. Furthermore, any such organization would have to actively generate a homegrown audience for the kinds of abstract or conceptual art they make, which looks radically unfamiliar to most Azerbaijani eyes. "I wouldn't call it a plan," she says of Yarat's early days. "It was a dream and a passion and then it turned into a reality. It was spontaneous, based on an emotional level. Now, of course, we make plans two or three years ahead of time."


"I think I'm really at the right place at the right time," she adds. "The whole country is emerging, for the West especially. It's opening up and it's growing, and Yarat is growing at the same time."

Though she surely benefits from her family connections, Mahmudova is not involved in politics — and given the controversy surrounding her aunt's husband, she has every reason to downplay her political connections. She structured Yarat as a not-for-profit, with a creative board made up of artists. Money is raised by petitioning local businesses like banks and telecommunications companies for support, typically for specific projects, like the Public Art Festival, a citywide event that lasts six months and showcases several dozen works of art. Yay gallery serves as the commercial wing of the organization, with half of the profits going to the artist and the other half to Yarat, which employs seven people full time. ...


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