by Aneta Georgievska-Shine
East Meets West
To paraphrase one of the first artists we met, their art was indebted to Moscow and St. Petersburg for implanting the West in the Caucasus. Fragile, often poorly printed reproductions of works by Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse were tacked to many studio walls, reinforcing that statement. More importantly, the self-identity of Azerbaijani artists as participants in the European academic tradition was demonstrated by their work.
Yet, while they embrace and take as their starting point the western language of easel painting and sculpture, they attempt to combine it with the visual and conceptual heritage of their segment of the Orient-the painted miniatures, the maze of ornaments in metalwork, sarcophagi and architectural embellishments, the vivid patterns of carpets and textiles and the canonical stories of the past rendered in pictorial form.
Ties to Tradition
Their works reflected the conviction of their words. One young woman, who was working on an abstract composition in subdued browns and deep reds, told us: "I've been dealing with this for a long time, trying to represent this detail from an early Renaissance painting, Giotto's figure of 'Charity'". The answer was that simple: a formal, pure painting problem. When asked about a recent exhibition in Berlin in which she had participated, she spoke with undisguised contempt of a certain gallery owner who had advised her to market herself as a woman-artist from a cultural "province" or to paint works that dealt with ecological issues or feminist concerns in an Islamic country.
Another artist showed us a recently completed still life, masterful in its color and composition and fresh despite its traditionalism. He spoke of trying to capture the glow of the afternoon light on empty bottles left upon a table and the sense of peace that he was trying to capture in the work.
When we discussed the issue of the artistic freedom that could be gained by the use of unconventional materials or a more decisive departure from subject matter and story-telling, we were told:
"Undoubtedly, the use of less traditional media could help us. We could make sculptures in cheaper materials than stone or we could construct larger works with less expensive canvases and paints. We could also go for total abstraction and larger work in general, despite our small studios. But would this necessarily mean a greater freedom? A small Renaissance painting of Madonna with the Christ Child can be as free as a totally abstract, large-scale work done today. Artistic freedom is always pursued within a framework that defines and constrains it, whether this framework be social, economic or purely formal. Freedom is relative, just like a white dot placed next to a dark one appears whiter than it is, and turns the dark one into black."
This is not to say that these members of the younger generation of Azerbaijani artists are totally apolitical, turned inward, and simply creating art for art's sake. Rather, they refuse to reduce the creation, contemplation and discussion of art
matters to a political statement or a ploy to gain easier entry into the art market.
Nor do we claim that this purity of intention should be taken at face value. Money does not exert its power only over the work of some older, more established artists, who increasingly churn out smaller paintings and sculptures for quick sale to foreign visitors or shipment to commercial galleries abroad (mostly Turkey). The difficult economic conditions in Azerbaijan and reduced institutional support for the arts compel a number of younger artists to follow the same course. When necessary, they also sell their paintings, though they assured us (and themselves) that the commercial factor is the least consideration on their scale of priorities.
Need for Feedback
Which leads us to one last question: what kind of help would they like? Again, we were struck by the degree of artistic integrity in their responses:
"We do not hope for great projects that will change our position as a cultural presence in the world. We do not hope for sudden success in commercial galleries in the West. What we lack is a dialogue with art professionals from abroad who could give us critical feedback about what we are doing as artists. We seek people who would care enough to tell us where we are in comparison to others. We know that we have been isolated. But perhaps, there was something good about that isolation. Perhaps what we have learned about trends in the West, however limited, is sufficient. Now we would like people who like art and who work with art to come and see what has been happening here, despite our isolation-to simply take some time and have a sincere exchange of ideas with us."
Whether they will be able to meet the challenges of the inevitably deeper encounter with the artistic currents and realities of the world art market is an open question. For the time being, however, the work some of them create and the terms in which they discuss its engagement, despite the rapid changes of their environment, is encouraging.
The author, a Washington-based art historian, and Dr. Meda Mladek, President of the Central and East European Art Foundation, spent two weeks in Azerbaijan in October of 1996. The statements in quotes are paraphrased excerpts from discussions with numerous artists from the younger generation, including, among others: Shahin Shikhaliyev, Sabina Shikhlinskaya, Elnur Babayev, Husein and Ujal Hagverdiyev, Elchin Nadirov, Eliyar Alimirzayev and Zagir Huseinov. The works of these artists will be exhibited on the AZ Art Gallery on the Internet organized by Azerbaijan International magazine. Visit www.azer.com beginning in mid-summer 1999.