Art in Baku

Exceptional creativity comes from those with the greatest secrets, or so I’ve always believed. Great artists or writers give us human truth through the prism of fantasy. Their deepest experiences locked like a fluttering bird in a cage of ink, oil or marble.

At its most elemental, art takes feelings untranslatable through words, things that live inside each of us in obscure transience until someone makes them real. Art is a way of seeing, it is the pursuit of meaning. This is why true art stands the test of time. It enriches society and helps it understand itself.

It was mid-August as the plane soared upwards towards the clouds through English summer rain. Leaving behind England’s green pastoral countryside we were heading East. My curiosity quickly got the better of me, it always does, and five minutes into our ascent I found myself cross-examining the mild-mannered Gandalf lookalike to my right. He didn’t look like an oil man (we were flying economy). And unless he was destined for the warm affections of a good Azeri woman, the only other explanation was that he was a tourist. My suspicions were quickly confirmed. It was a different kind of love drawing him from his Oxfordshire cottage into the inferno of a baking Azeri summer.

Art has always been at the centre of Azeri culture. The caves of Gobustan in Azerbaijan are home to some of the world’s oldest rock art. Gobustan is a UNESCO world heritage site and a mystical place of mountains, arid desert, prehistoric burial sites and sulphurous mud volcanoes. It is amongst this peculiar geothermic mischief that one can find thousands of cave paintings dating back 40,000 years; it was these petroglyphs that Archie, an ancient art scholar, was going to see.

I thought of Rich Simmons, a rising star of British street art who had recently been transforming some of Baku’s whitewashed walls. It somehow felt that we had come full circle. Azerbaijan has always been a place where the Orient met Europe, but never in a culture clash; always effortlessly like grains of salt dissolving in water.  So it seems appropriate that a country with such a complex cultural tapestry embraces artistic innovation with open arms.

Unsurprisingly, as the Baku economy continues to prosper, the local art scene is flourishing.  With growth comes new opportunity. The work of local artists is refreshingly experimental.  London recently played host to the much-acclaimed Phillips de Pury exhibition, entitled “Fly To Baku”. Curated by Hervé Mikaelof, the exhibition toured around major cities and showcased the work of both established and up-and-coming Azeri artists. Amongst those represented were works by Altai Sadiqzadeh, Melik Aghamalov, Aida Mahmudova, Faig Ahmend and Leyla Aliyeva.

Friends I meet are excited about what’s happening. They attend exhibitions, discuss ideas and write art blogs. Their parents’ generation never had these opportunities. Today things couldn’t be more different. Today there is no agenda. Artists are free to create, explore and surprise.

The Azeri Museum of Modern Art was funded by the foundation. The museum is an Aladdin’s cave of the Azeri school, Soviet pieces and European masters. Within it’s soothing white walls one can see stalwarts of classic Azeri figurative art such as Sattar Bahlulzade and Tair Salahov, alongside European greats including Dali, Chagall and Picasso.

Yarat! Contemporary Art Space, founded by Aida Mahmudova is a recent non-commercial initiative to nurture the development of modern art.  The work of the organisation is multifarious and includes a relentless programme of exhibitions, educational events and support for young artists. The public reception has been so enthusiastic that Yay Gallery was founded as a commercial offshoot to Yarat’s mission. Through Yay, artists can sell their work for profit, with additional proceeds ploughed back into Yarat. With such encouragement of local talent, it’s easy to see why so many young people are inspired to create.

As you walk through Baku, you can’t help but feel it’s a city on the cusp of things. However, progress is not driven by the sterile commercialism of the 21st century. The dominant mood is one of passion. It is aspirant and honest. The modern art scene may be nascent, but it emerges from the rich cultural inheritance of centuries and promises to endure, like so many things along this ancient shoreline.

– By Hanushka Ibrahimova