After Azerbaijan’s first appearance with its own pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2007, which attracted much international attention, the country is continuing its efforts to present its culture abroad. So in 2008, for the first time, an Azerbaijan Year was held. At the event conceived as a European premiere, a broad overview of Azeri literature, theater, visual art, music, and dance was presented. In this framework, two exhibitions of contemporary art were shown: Steps of Time. Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan in Dresden’s Residenzschloss (June 13 – July 20, 2008) and Art is not only ugly in the atrium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin (July 14 – Aug. 7, 2008).
Steps of Time, Dresden
Steps of Time presents Azerbaijan’s modern art in three chapters, aiming to show the specific characteristics of three generations of artists. From the epoch in which the country belonged to the Soviet Union, the chapter Flashback showed works by painters born from the 1920s to the 1940s. The worked in a time dominated by the doctrine of Socialist Realism; but they began to modernize it, especially in the 1960s. Taking up national traditions like carpet art, with its rich, colorful ornamentation, and medieval miniature painting, they found their own independent pictorial solutions beyond the ideologically-freighted narrative style. Interaction with the neo-abstract tendencies of Western art of the 1960s to 1980s also provided them with new impulses. This development in panting was most concentrated in the School of Absheron, named for a peninsula in the Caspian Sea where many painters spent time working. But the great painter figure in Azerbaijan is Tahir Salahov, known as a proponent of the Rigorous Style in the 1960s of the Soviet era. His 1959 painting Oil Tanks is the earliest, and with its pictorially powerful compositional rigor and its apocalyptic-seeming coloration it seems more timely than ever in the context of today’s energy crisis. It also stands in challenging contrast to the new media art forms that the younger artists use to capture in pictures such shocking events and processes as war and the decay of industrial infrastructure.
An interesting intermediate link is the chapter USSR Remix, which includes works by artists who artistically question their own Soviet molding. The representatives of the middle generation (born in the 1950s and 1960s) reflect their personal fates as well as collective experiences and often use the media, in part new for them, of photography, video, and installation. Here, not only are outlived cultural codes rethought; artistic forms of language are also actively explored. Rena Effendi’s 2006 photograph Robots in Front of a Soviet Machine Factory impressively contrasts the rusted symbol of a once-promised technical and social progress with the mostly deserted post-industrial landscape.
The third chapter shows works by mostly very young artists who experienced the time before 1991 only as children and who today are concerned with questions of national identity and the consequences of the radical economic and societal transformations in their country. This young generation was molded by a mediatizing of society and takes up tendencies of international art developments in its own discourse, as a matter of course. For example, Rashad Alakbarov’s installation Made in China reflects the relationship between the globalized world’s mass culture shaped by cheap Chinese goods and the former Asian high culture, barely visible as a shadow of itself.
The two artists Leyla Akhundzade and Sabina Shikhlinskaya, together with Mathias Wagner of the Dresden Art Collections, conceived the exhibition. Leyla Akhundzade, who is also a curator and Professor for Art History at the State Academy of Art, founded the artists association Zamanyn ganadlany (wings of time) at the end of the 1990s, when the social and political situation in Azerbaijan had stabilized again after the war with Armenia and domestic political tensions. This association organized the first exhibitions of contemporary art and offered a forum for young artists in particular. Primarily works by this generation were to be seen at Azerbaijan’s pavilion at the Venice Biennial 2007; Leyla Akhundzade was its commissioner and curator.
Art is not only ugly, Berlin
Leyla Akhundzade also curated the exhibition Art is not only ugly in the atrium of the Foreign Office in Berlin. The title refers to a challenge that Azeri artists feel confronted with by the international art discourse: they want to preserve traditional artistic values like aesthetic beauty, while simultaneously reflecting current societal and artistic developments. Leyla Akhundzade writes about Azeri art that the fascination and diction of Realism is always countered by the dream of a different and wonderful world.
This exhibition also made it clear that artistic decisions are not tied to preferences for specific forms of artistic expression. Along with painting and sculpture, video works, photography, and installations were shown. The works of artists already represented in Venice – Rashad Alakbarov, Orkhan Aslanov, Rena Effendi, and Rauf Khalilov – show the ambivalent relationship between appearance and being, dream and reality. But the painting of Niyaz Najafov and Vugar Muradov also traces the fantastic in different ways, transforming it into a poetic perception of the world.
The Ministry for Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Germany initiated both exhibitions. The Dr. Gabriele Minz company, which conceived the culture year, was an important partner.
Artists in Steps of Time, Dresden
Flashback: Kamal Ahmad, Eldar Gurbanov, Farhad Khalilov, Javad Mirjavadov, Ashraf Murad, Altay Sadigzade, Tahir Salahov, Mir Nadir Zeynalov
USSR-Remix: Yeshim Agaoglu, Leyla Akhundzade, Sanan Aleskerov, Chingiz Babayev, Rena Effendi, Hussein Hagverdiyev, Bahram Khalilov, Aga Ousseinov, Sabina Shikhlinskaya
Azerbaijan today: Faig Ahmed, Rashad Alakbarov, Babi Badalov, Teymur Daimi, Elshan Ibrahimov, Rauf Khalilov, Farkhad Farzaliyev, Orkhan Huseynov, Shahin Malikzadeh, Fakhriyya Mammadova, Jeyhun Ojadov, Farid Rasulov
Artists in Art is not only ugly, Berlin
Sanan Aleskerov, Rashad Alakbarov, Orkhan Aslanov, Rena Effendi, Rauf Khalilov, Vugar Muradov, Elchin Musaoglu, Niyaz Najafov, Farid Rasulov, Teymur Rustamov, Makhmud Rustamov
Steps of Time
13 June - 20 July, 2008
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Residenzschloss
Leyla Akhundzade, Sabina Shikhlinskaya, Mathias Wagner
Art is not only ugly
14 July - 7 Aug., 2008
Atrium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Berlin