Contemporary Art in the Caucasus Blossoms

Soliloquy (1999) by Shirin Neshat, production still, © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

THIS YEAR, the first sign of spring in the Caucasus was marked not only by warmer weather but it also heralded an exciting new dawn for contemporary art in the Caucasus and the wider Central Asian region. In March, the new Yarat Contemporary Art Space opened in the Sabail District of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, marking the organisation’s first permanent project space. Spread over 20,000 square metres, inside visitors find exhibition halls, educational rooms and a library making the centre a significant new addition to the capital’s cultural scene. Having been converted from a Soviet-era naval building, the new space is particularly striking. It also has a wonderful vantage point, overlooking the glittering Caspian Sea. As well as being a hub for contemporary art – and art education for the region – it provides a valuable platform for Azeri art, both nationally and internationally.

Following the break up of the Soviet Union, organisations such as Yarat (which was founded in 2011 by Aida Mahmudova, a niece of the president, along with other local artists) have gained traction, bolstered by other cultural happenings in the city. The Maiden Tower International Art Festival has been an exciting annual fixture since 2010, while in 2012 Azerbaijan staged the 012 Baku Public Art Festival, the country’s first modern art festival. During recent years, Yarat has produced exhibitions in collaboration with the city’s museums and international projects and has had involvement as a non-profit at Art Dubai.
Yarat means ‘create’ in Azerbaijani and since its inception the organisation has commissioned over 80 projects, the majority of which have been in Baku. Along with Aida Mahmudova, Yarat’s programme has been carefully established with the help of Farid Abdullayev (Executive Director) and Suad Garayeva (Curatorial Director).

The inaugural exhibition of Yarat Contemporary Art Space is a show by Shirin Neshat – the Iranian visual artist who now lives in New York City. Entitled The Home of My Eyes (opened 23 March and runs until 23 June), it offers a unique insight into different communities across Azerbaijan, as well as highlighting Neshat’s increasing focus on portraiture. In 2014, Neshat photographed 55 people in Azerbaijan who, aged between two and 80 years, all hail from different neighbourhoods, societies and backgrounds across the country. While the subjects were having their photos taken Neshat asked the participants about their idea of home. Their replies have been written in calligraphy and overlaid on each portrait. Exploring themes of cultural identity, gender and power the images make up an immense installation that spans two entire walls of one of the 11 metre-high exhibition galleries.

Summing up the exhibition, Shirin Neshat comments, ‘I consider the new series of images a portrait of a country that has for so long been a crossroads for many different ethnicities, religions, and languages. This series combines 55 portraits of men and women from different generations to create a tapestry of human faces which pays tribute to the rich cultural history of Azerbaijan and its diversity’. The exhibition also includes two of Neshat’s earlier works, the influential video installations Soliloquy (1999) and Passage (2001). The show is curated by Dina Nasser Khadivi.

A second exhibition has been created to celebrate the opening of the centre that brings together work from Yarat’s permanent collection with work by artists from the Caucasus, Central Asia and neighbouring countries, alongside pieces by international artists whose work has a resonance with Azerbaijan. The collection itself has been built over the past three years and will continue to grow in part through special commissions for exhibitions at Yarat.

Education is at the core of Yarat’s work, and regular artist residencies, workshops, lectures, and screenings will all feature in their annual schedules. In 2014, a summer school was also successfully launched and there are up to as many as three educational events per month. Yarat’s programme Artim (meaning progress in Azerbaijani) supports young artists providing opportunities to curate and feature their work in exhibitions. In 2012, Yarat also opened a social enterprise Yay Gallery, where proceeds are shared between the artists and Yarat.

Yarat will also be in Venice this May for the 56th Biennale with the theme for this year being All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Presenting The Union of Fire and Water, Yarat’s collateral show will showcase historical and cultural links between Baku and Venice as portrayed by two artists, Kazakh-born Almagul Menlibayeva (see the profile in this month’s issue) and Azeri Rashad Alakbarov. The exhibition brings together video work, sculpture and installation to explore the connections between Venice and Baku. The Kazakhstan-born contemporary artist Almagul Menlibayeva works with a range of media, including painting, graphics, performance, installation, video and fine art in order to expose shared cultural experiences across time and place. Menlibayeva’s practice references non-verbal dialogues across worlds, cultures and eras, with particular attention given to the role of women in pre-Soviet, pre-Islamic and Shamanistic and dervish cultures. Rashad Alakbarov is one of the key Azeri artists to come to international attention in recent years. His installation-based works explore the distortion of sensory perception; using various media, Alakbarov arranges objects and fragments before a light-source to cast shadows. The duality between installation and creation, light and shadow, reality and perception is central to his art.

Curated by Suad Garayeva, The Union of Fire and Water will be based in the formerly private Palazzo Barbaro, the one-time residence of Giosafat Barbaro, a Venetian ambassador, who travelled to and wrote extensively on Azeri cities and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan in the late 1400s. Using the centuries of exchange and struggle inherent within the architecture of both Baku and Venice, the exhibition seeks to explore the difficulties of wavering cultural unions, and the wider themes of unity and conflict, love and violence, dialogue and aggression, all explored by Menlibayeva and Alakbarov within the show. This is fitting as the central pillar to the positive work of Yarat is cultural coalition and its on-going commitment to showcasing art from emerging, so far little-known, destinations.

Yarat Contemporary Art Space, Sabail District, Baku, Azerbaijan. Admission is free, www.yarat.az

A catalogue will be available for The Union of Fine and Water in Venice. The 56th Biennale runs from 9 May to 22 November, www.labiennale.org. The Union of Fire and Water
webpage can be found at www.bakuvenice2015.com