As Azerbaijan’s art scene blossoms, we explore its rapid creative renaissance, and what lies ahead. Plus, the best contemporary art galleries in the capital, Baku
Installation view of ‘Non-Imagined Perspectives’ by Aida Mahmudova at YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku. © The artist. Courtesy of YARAT. Photography: Pat Verbruggen
Having only emerged from more than 50 years of communist rule in 1991, Azerbaijan has spent the last 25 years redefining itself. Gentrification has been rapid, especially in the past decade, and in the capital city of Baku, a skyline of ambitious architectural projects has sprung up among the austere Soviet-era housing blocks, while designer boutiques dot the city centre and Azerbaijan art turns heads around the world.
While much of this petrodollar-funded gentrification is only surface deep – accusations of corruption and human rights abuses still swirl around the current government – in among the glitz, a burgeoning contemporary arts scene is taking root. On Baku Boulevard, which swoops around the city’s crescent moon-shaped harbour overlooking the Caspian Sea, there are a number of extravagant museum buildings and cultural institutions. Among the more bold architectural offerings such as the Carpet Museum and the acclaimed Azerbaijan World Expo pavilion, is YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, one of the city’s blossoming arts organisation.
Housed in an unassuming 2000 sq m converted Soviet-era naval building, YARAT – meaning ‘create’ in Azeri – is a not-for-profit, non-governmental contemporary art organisation that was set up by young artist Aida Mahmudova in 2011. Mahmudova – a 36-year-old graduate of Central Saint Martins.
As well as the Art Centre on the Boulevard, YARAT also operates the Artim Project Space – a gallery dedicated to showing experimental work by emerging Azeri artists, and YARAT Studios, where it runs a residency programme for international and local talents. In addition, YARAT has also established the more polished YAY Gallery, and runs an extended educational and public programme that encourages the community to engage with contemporary art.
‘What’s really exciting is that the next generation of artists that we are working with are equally balanced between male and female,’ says Yarat’s newly minted artistic director Suad Garayeva-Maleki, who took over from Belgian curator Björn Geldhof earlier this year. ‘The previous generation were nearly all male. In a patriarchal society, women in Azerbaijan feel like they need to prove themselves to society, their families and peers. As this generation grows up, I think there will be more females in leadership positions.’
Leading the way was Mahmudova herself, who last month, seven years after founding the organisation and three years after establishing the Art Centre, opened her first solo show at YARAT. ‘It’s a very exciting and emotional moment,’ says Mahmudova, who tries to keep her work as an independent artist separate from her role as founder of YARAT. ‘The space is very large with its vaulted ceiling so it is a new experiment in scale for me; this compelled me to expand my horizons in terms of considering what might be possible.’
Occupying the entire top floor of the exhibition space, the show included a monumental textured wall work that resembled a green patchwork of fields. Nearby a series of cube-shaped sculptures made from thick layers of resin, stone and pigment appear like cross-sections of colourful stratum that have been pulled from the earth’s crust. The exhibition was completed by a set of crumbling pillars in the centre of the room that Mahmudova says are intended to create a feeling of a ‘transient place, half ruined and half built... one is reminded that entropy is an essential step of creation.’
Curated by Garayeva-Maleki, the show marked a new chapter in Mahmudova’s work. ‘I always experiment with new media in my painting and now sculptures. The process of working with my hands and observing the interrelations between various materials is something very therapeutic and deeply analytical for me. So for this show I ventured more into a sculptural aspect of my work and the materiality of it was largely dictated by that.’