Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Pages 38-43

The Wink of a Doll

Capturing the Spirit of Creation
by Elmira Abbasly

They're not just cutesy dolls, they're replicas of characters that have been meticulously researched and designed-whether beautiful girls dressed in national costume or an entire entourage comprising a camel caravan. And they all have their roots in the Old City where Elmira Abbasly spent her childhood, listening to stories her grandmother used to tell.

I've never studied art formally. I've basically learned the art of doll-making entirely on my own. At the university, I majored in Geography. But I had this love inside me to create dolls, and so I started learning on my own, step by step. This is where I am today. It has taken me 16-17 years to learn everything that I know today. As an adult, I can say that Life itself has been my teacher. I learn from everywhere.

I believe that each individual has a great treasure inside of himself that God has put there. I'm one of those fortunate people who has been able to draw upon this treasure. God gives such a package to everyone. I think everyone can draw upon great resources inside themselves-a Divine Essence, you might say. Of course, not everyone is able to. Maybe that was God's gift to me to enable me to find mine. There is so much creativity inside me. It's impossible for me to express it all.

I can't say that I really chose to express my creativity by making dolls. It's just something that opened up to me. It seems that everybody loves dolls-both adults and children, both men and women. It seems a great energy emanates from them. When I'm making the dolls, I try to do it with so much love and care so that these characteristics get passed on to others as well. I want the people who see these dolls to feel these things.

The first doll that I remember as a child was when I was three or four years old. My uncle brought me a doll from Moscow. I guess I've loved dolls ever since. And now I make them myself.





Not only does Elmira create dolls wearing national costumes, lately
she has been designing camel caravans. Everything is handmade from the faces,
hands and to the costumes and jewelry.


My work is not just confined to dolls in traditional dress, or characters that I've known from childhood growing up in Baku's Old City; lately I've been making camel caravans.

Why the infatuation with camels? Why do they figure in so much of my work these days? Well, I've been studying camels quite a bit lately before trying to tackle to design them. Of course, it's impossible to learn everything. I've visited zoos in Baku and Moscow. I've studied so many photos.

But I chose camels for a specific reason. It's not just that they traveled the silk and spice routes through the region of Azerbaijan centuries ago. I'm trying to express the inner nature and symbolism of the character or, in this case, this beast of burden. For me, the camel is a robust and extremely patient animal. Not every animal can survive crossing the vast desert and endure its hostile climate. But the camel can. It carries every load, every burden.

For me the desert is an allegory. To pass through the desert is like passing through life-meaning to live your life and be able to understand it. So I try to address this theme. It seems to me that there's something in the character of the camel that's like me. The camel is wise and patient; it has the capacity to bear many hardships. It has an inner strength and power. Actually, it's quite an amazing animal. I've written a little verse about this creature. It goes like this:

I'm simple in human life.
I'm as simple as a camel.
I carry, I lift, I help.
In the journey of life, I am a traveler
I plod along even when I'm exhausted;
And when I'm white and clean,
Dear people, I lighten this road for you,
This sacred road.

Of course, in legends and beliefs, a light-colored camel is considered sacred. I'm in the process of working on another caravan right now in my workshop. It will be rather large. I'm making a prince and his wife who are making a journey to visit his father. The caravan is full of valuable gifts.

Magical workshop
Most of the items that I use are things that I make myself. My workshop is like a magical room full of so many remnants and scraps of material and jewelry. I never discard anything. I even have a few birds' nests that I've collected. One of these days, the twigs and straws from them will become part of the design for one of my figures.

Sometimes my friends give me items. Sometimes I buy them myself. I have so many things just lying around that are waiting to be transformed into something beautiful.

If you believe in magic, you'll understand that material things themselves find me. I'll be thinking of making something specific and then, suddenly, the next day somebody drops by and brings something related to it-a piece of material or a book to research it more deeply.

God (or whatever you want to call Him) can read our thoughts. We are in some sort of communication with him. And if you're honest and clean in front of Him, your thoughts and wishes will be realized, even in this material world. It doesn't matter what your religion is. You just have to have that connection.

I feel like I know the language of birds, plants and material things. God directs people to bring things or say things that you need. Every person knows everything. Everything is encoded within us.

Ichari Shahar

I grew up in Ichari Shahar in the late 1950s and 60s, listening to my grandmother's tales. Virtually all of my works relate to the Old City, which was the heart of life in Baku up until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. I have such a great nostalgia for my childhood.

Left: Elmira Abbasly is a self-taught artist who grew in Baku's Old City, which she says has immensely
shaped her art. She tries to convey the essence of what she believes about life in her dolls.

Things have changed a lot now. I'm not saying that it's bad that things change. Life is always evolving and dynamic. You can't stop that. But I look back on my childhood with longing.

Most of the dolls that you see here are the epitome of people I came to know when I was growing up there-the granny always engaged in gossip, the shoemaker, the mullah on the street corner.

Ichari Shahar was such a unique place in which to grow up as a kid. First of all, the people were always so kind and friendly there. People were very tolerant towards each other; they were used to community living. Everyone always kept their homes open. No one locked their doors. You were always surrounded by people. Even when you thought you were alone, others who could help you were only an earshot away.

In the early afternoon, you could walk through the lanes and alleyways and smell what were being prepared for dinner. In the past, the women - especially the grandmothers who weren't working - would prepare traditional dishes like kufta bozbash (meatball soup), badimjan dolmasi (stuffed eggplant) and dushbara (soup with dumplings). Then there was pilaf and fisinjan (sauce for chicken made from crushed walnuts and pomegranate concentrate).

In the afternoon the streets would be full of children playing. Grandmothers would be making dinner; grandfathers would pass the time playing backgammon, chess or dominos.

My grandmother had many neighbors living in her apartment. I especially remember one old kind Russian lady living on the first floor. The doors of all those neighbors were never locked. I could walk in anytime. For example, on days when I didn't have to go to school, if I got bored, I could drop in on the neighbors unannounced. If they happened to be eating, they would invite me to join them.

In the evenings, everybody would go out of their houses and meet in the alleyways. Old ladies would sit on benches or steps and chat and gossip. Everybody would take their tea and drink it with others in the courtyards and walkways. I have so many fond memories about Ichari Shahar.



Above: Many of Elmira Abbasly's dolls are based on characters from childhood memories of growing up in the narrow, winding streets of Baku's Ichari Shahar (Old City). Here the old man and the gossiper.

They used to make a lot of movies in Ichari Shahar. You would step outside of your house and suddenly see people walking around who were wearing such strange costumes. Once I remember seeing some ladies dressed up like Africans, carrying fruits on their head.

You won't believe it but my favorite place in Ichari Shahar was the kerosene shop. I loved the smell. The building was constructed in a unique way. There was a big metal pool in the center of the shop. Ladles of various sizes were hanging from it. The shopkeeper would choose a ladle according to the amount of kerosene that you wanted and he would pour the kerosene directly into your container from the pool. When I was a child, I used to think how I would love to grow up and sell kerosene!

These days if someone tells me that they're from Ichari Shahar, it means that somehow we're related. It was like one big family. Everybody knew each other. Everybody in Ichari Shahar was somehow related-cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Somehow, everyone is related - at least distantly. Everybody in Baku used to live in Ichari Shahar. Of course, the city grew and people had to move outside the citadel walls.

There's no doubt that growing up in Ichari Shahar has deeply influenced my life. In fact, I can't imagine having a different childhood. How could I not have grown up there? Ichari Shahar for me wasn't just a small center that extended just a few blocks; it was a large city. In fact, it was my whole world. And what a fascinating world it was!


Take the ritual of going to the bathhouse. It's not like now when you jump into the shower for three minutes. No. Going to the bathhouse was a ritual that took place once a week and used to occupy almost the whole day. First of all, you had to make preparations, gathering the things that you would use there, like fresh, clean clothes to wear after you bathed. Then you had to prepare food to take because the children would get hungry.

Left: The tiniest details are handled with minute attention and care. Here a dancer, dressed in a traditional costume of Azerbaijan.

The bathhouse was a central meeting place for people. You didn't go there just to bathe. You would meet other women and chat and gossip. It served other purposes as well, like being an excellent place where mothers could choose brides for their sons.

In our society, we judge people by their clothes but in the bathhouse, naked, without clothes, everyone is equal. At the bathhouse, everybody is in an absolutely open situation, wearing no clothes. So you can see any defects a girl might have. Nothing is hidden. Besides, if a person has a bad character, you'll detect it immediately.

The bathhouse gives you the chance to study a young woman in the context of other female members of the household. You can judge the girl's character and get a fairly good idea of what kind of a wife she would make just by observing her mother. Since you would spend most of the day there every week, you have sufficient time to get to know any prospective bride.

It was always so noisy in the bathhouse. There was the noise of buckets clinking, the splashing of water, women chatting, kids running all over the place. Men never took the children; it was always the women - never mind if the child was a girl or a little boy as boys always accompanied their mothers up to a certain age.

In addition, there was always an echo in the bathhouse because of the construction of domes. We have an expression, "Their house is like a woman's bathhouse", meaning that it's quite noisy and chaotic.

But after bathing you would feel so clean. The dust of the city all gets washed off. There's something else that I love about bathhouses - the water never runs out. There's so much water there. In Baku, you often have to be so careful because the water supply gets depleted, but at those old bathhouses, there were never any restrictions. You could throw buckets and buckets of water over yourself and still there would be so much water left. There are large stones that are heated up and when you toss water on them, steam rises up - like a hot sauna. It's amazing.

There are still two famous bathhouses open in the Ichari Shahar. One is close to the Baksovet Metro Station and the other is close to the Italian Embassy. They both still operate today. The others that we used to visit as children have been closed.

When you would walk back home from the bathhouse, everybody knew where you had been - you, with the flushed red face and bucket in your hand. The neighbors would call out: "Hamisha tamizlikda," meaning, "May you always be clean." I like that; it's a lovely expression. Can you imagine everyone in the neighborhood knowing that you were coming from the bathhouse?!

No Secrets

Below: Elmira Abbasly also creates marionette dolls and made an entire set for Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Arshin Mal Alan" (Cloth Peddler). Note the incredible attention to detail in both costumes and facial expressions.




There really weren't many secrets in Ichari Shahar. You were living so close to each other all the time. You felt cushioned by love because you knew everybody. People accepted you as family. It was like everybody was involved with the lives of others. We knew so much about each other.

As teenage girls, whenever we would go outside the citadel walls, guys would start to follow us. But whenever we got close to Ichari Shahar, they would stop. They didn't dare enter Ichari Shahar. If you wanted to get rid of some pests who were following you, just walk inside the gates of Ichari Shahar. They would disappear. They knew better than to walk inside the citadel walls because our guys always watched out for us.

There were other advantages of living in a closed-knit community as well. You always used to think twice before doing something bad there. People were conscious that their behavior and actions could effect their reputation for the rest of their lives. And so, being on good behavior was the norm there. There was no way to shut the door and hide. You were always exposed.

The creative process
Let me describe how I go about making the dolls. When I'm designing, first of all, of course, I have to come up with an idea. Then I have to consider what materials and what technical processes to use.

For example, when I'm creating a camel, obviously, I know that I'll need a wooden platform on which to set the camel. I'll also need some sort of frame upon which to build up the shape of the animal - a skeleton on which to apply cotton and fabric.

As far as my equipment is concerned, I use very ordinary tools: scissors, wire cutters, pins, needles.
Next, I shape the face, the hands, the feet with a type of modeling clay. This requires knowing anatomy quite well.

Then I must add color, which ends up being a very time-consuming and difficult task. Yesterday, it took me several hours just to paint one doll's eyes. Eyes are so important. They reveal a person's character - whether flirtatious, cunning or sad. I usually choose gray or green - a light color - for the eyes. If I made them black, it would be impossible to express the subtlety that I want. They would just appear as black dots. But with lighter colors, I can be much more expressive. I use quash-water paint - not oil, because, again, I'm looking for delicate colors which absorb easily into the clay.


Above: Elmira Abbasly's characterization of the Molla and other neighborhood characters from childhood memories growing up in Baku's Old City.

I try to give some character of coquetry to my dolls - to engage the viewer. This comes primarily through the eyes. So what? It's just a doll that was made by human hands, and so I let my fantasy wonder. I don't want everything to be realistic. I want people to grasp the essence of each character and catch the humor, which I always try to inject into my works.

I try to express my attitude towards life in my works and to me, life is full of humor. I want to create a sense of playfulness. Some people complain: "A camel can't move like this; it can't pose like that." And I reply, "So what? I can create whatever shape I want for the camel. I can do what I want with it. I want to show that it's possible to break out of a realistic mold. We all need to fantasize a bit in life anyway.

Then I have to consider what to do for jewelry. If I'm making a very ornate doll, I'll certainly need to make jewelry as well. Actually, I create jewelry for the camels as well and even distinguish between jewelry that will be used with male camels or ones on which men ride, or jewelry for the female camels or ones on which females ride.

I make all this jewelry by hand. If I see something interesting, I buy it and save it for the future. I like to take what one might consider an ugly piece of metal, and then burn, cut, or press it and transform it into a beautiful piece of jewelry.

It's at this stage that the girls who work with me begin to sew the clothes. I choose colors that are very rich and Eastern.

Left: One of Elmira's assistants painstakingly sewing a national dress on a doll.

It's something that I sense inside of me. You can't really learn colors from looking at books-for example, achieving the color of henna, or yellow ginger, or unique richness of colors of some of the other spices that are found in Eastern bazaars.

For one of my character dolls, a vizier (king's assistant), I've incorporated many different fabrics into his robe. His belt alone is made up of four different fabrics. Since he works so closely with royalty, he must be richly decorated. Sometimes my fabrics are very old and beautiful. Sometimes I use new materials and dye them. Some cloth is handmade that I've bought from an antique shop years ago. I'll use every bit of it. Even the threads. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is discarded.

Sometimes, I feel that it's important to incorporate sound into the work as well, like putting bells on camels or coins on headdresses.

Reference Books
I have a shelf full of books here that I often consult: books with national costumes and traditional dress, books from Norway and Turkey. The Greek Ambassador presented me with a book of national Greek costumes and I discovered that there is close similarity to Turkish dress. Then there's the African books. I research camels from the African books. I want to understand everything - the desert; how people dress; how they wrap the turbans over their heads in the dusty, dry desert to protect themselves from the heat; how camels move; how people balance themselves on top of these creatures. Everything.

I have books about Azerbaijani carpets as well. From them, I learn about the juxtaposition of colors, about traditional symbols and patterns.

Selling the Dolls

Of course, I don't finish these dolls in a single day. Sometimes, I work six months on them; sometimes, even longer. Of course, I'm not working on a single doll full time.

Left: The materials for Elmira's dolls are gathered from everywhere including this sample of a green silk dress that she found in an antique shop several years ago. She plans to find a way to use it in the creation of costumes for some of her character or historical dolls.

I don't know who will buy this caravan that I'm making now. Actually, I don't even know if anybody will be interested in buying this set because it's rather large and contains quite a few figures. But I feel inside of me that I really want to make this, and so I do it for myself. It's always great when you create something and then someone comes along who wants to buy it. It's natural that I want to sell some of my works, as I have to live. I don't make these dolls just to hold on to them and keep them. Fortunately, there are always people who want to pay for their pleasure. So it's natural that I want to sell my works. I hope in the future that I'll be able to send my works abroad to European and American galleries. At the same time, my work lets people know that such art exists and, in my case, that it has its roots in this little ancient country with a rich culture called Azerbaijan.

Life exists; there is no beginning or end. That's what I feel. From time to time, we become material beings and do some job and then we go back to the other life again. I mean that something spiritual always exists, it never dies. That's what Sufis believe. And it doesn't have anything to do with believing or not believing. It's a reality. I feel this myself and so that's the way I live. I know that there is a heavenly spirit in each creature that is alive. God created it this way; it can't be otherwise.

There's a non-material spirit that leads us through life. Everybody has it. And whenever you know that there is this spirit in your life, you're not afraid of anything. I know that God hears and sees everything. He is inside us. And now with my dolls, I feel it is my responsibility to let others know about this marvelous nature of life through my works.

Gulnar Aydamirova and Nargiz Rezazade also contributed to this article.

Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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