From historic artforms to grassroots artists, Azerbaijan brings a gamut of meaningful art to the world
Azerbaijan’s artforms are a glorious mixture of styles, reflecting the cultural shifts and changing trends of hundreds of years. The nation has become a hub of inspiration for young artists across the globe. While local artists have been showcasing their art across the world, Azerbaijan has also become a must-visit destination for artists hungry to soak-up contemporary art nuanced by symbols from its rich history.
For this year’s ‘World Art Day’ celebrated on April 15th, here is a look at Azerbaijan’s historic art forms, the best galleries to visit, and notable Azerbaijani artists to watch out for:
TRADITIONAL ART FORMS
Carpet weaving:Carpet weaving in Azerbaijan appeared a long time ago: it is the oldest type of applied art in the region, a fact that has been proven by numerous archaeological findings from around the country. Carpet making in Azerbaijan is a family tradition transferred from one generation to the next, and a skill that is acquired through practice.
As a preeminent and intrinsic part of Azerbaijani culture, there is even a Carpet Museum. Modelled after a rolled carpet, it stands as the first museum specializing in the study and protection of Azerbaijan’s ancient carpets. Work to collect exhibits and items began in 1967, and in 1972 the first visitors could see the rare exhibits collected in the museum.
Coppersmithing:Traditional methods of copperware production still survive in Azerbaijan and production has reached a high level of development. The craft is rooted in the ancient village of Lahij which has long been famous as a handicraft centre, especially known for the preparation of highly artistic copperwares. In 2015, the copper craftsmanship of Lahij was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Shebeke:Shebeke is an ancient craft that appeared in Azerbaijani architecture during the 9th-12th centuries. The sophisticated jigsaw puzzles of coloured glass bring life to buildings and are unique in that the intricate wooden frames are made without glue or nails. Little pieces of coloured glass are inserted into a wooden lattice usually made from walnut or oak wood. The Khan’s Palace located in the UNESCO-listed historic centre of Sheki is considered the most striking example of shebeke art.
SOUL-STIRRING GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS
Heydar Aliyev Centre: The Heydar Aliyev Centre is considered the crown jewel of Baku’s architecture. Designed by the illustrious architect, Zaha Hadid, it is notably one of the capital’s most iconic modern landmarks. Besides the building’s magnificent architecture, it houses some of the best art curations in the city. There are four massive floors dedicated to art and culture in conjunction with a full-fledged museum to add to the mix.
From traditional antiquities and rock paintings of Gobustan to the rich tapestries of the Silk-Road era, the museum hosts age-old wonders that are diverse and beguiling. As you go higher in the building you find yourself walking through the history and transition of the nation. This post-modern monument truly takes you through the evolution of masterpieces through time.
Museum of Modern Art: Conceptualised by the first lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, the Museum of Modern Art opened in Baku in 2009 with the mission to break the shackles of rigid frameworks and bring in freedom of speech through art. The avant-garde museum contains over 800 exhibits comprising romantic figurative structures from artists like Omar Eldarov and Nadir Kasumov coupled with contemporary paintings from artists like Eldar Mamedov and Ashraf Murad.
There are several unforgettable pieces from Azerbaijani masters from the 1960s and 1970s, together with classics in modern imagery from the likes of Picasso and Dali. One must-see exposition is the dedicated “unknown” art exhibit, which appeared in the country during the Soviet era. If it were not for the work of the museum, the names presented here might have been forgotten.
Yarat! Contemporary Art Space:Yarat means ‘create’, an evident motivation in the thought-provoking installations that don’t shy away from socio-political commentary. The Art Space is housed in a repurposed Soviet-era naval building and since its opening in 2011 has hosted art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and other cultural events.
Dedicated to creating a hub for contemporary art, the space delivers a power-packed punch of local talent who are promoted across the region. Showcasing works of several eclectic artists combined with a regular selection of exhibitions and one-day shows, the studio has become an epicentre for emerging artists.
NOTABLE AZERBAIJANI ARTISTS
Ali Shamsi: Known as “the artist from Icherisheher” or “the artist with bare feet”, Ali Shamsi is from a small village at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. One of the many treasures within Baku’s Old City is his spirited home and art studio. Uniquely creative and impossible to miss, his workshop is open to all and is a favourite stop for tourists who see it as a wonderland of paintings.
Frequently travelling, exploring, or participating in international exhibitions, he’s often hard to find, but his artwork can be found in his studio as well as in the homes of famous Americans, Germans, Georgians and Russians. One of his paintings even adorned the walls within the fallen Twin Towers in New York.
Orkhan Huseynov:Interestingly, most of Orkhan Huseynov’s training is classical, including his bachelors in ceramic design at the Azim Azimzadeh College of Art in Baku. However, the majority of his work is progressive and contemporary. Huseynov’s early work consisted of graphic sculptures of animals but he soon progressed to a series of plexiglass diptych reliefs in 2015 with sections of the Quran.
His recent expose in 2017 spotlighted the proliferation of “fake news” and traces its origins to the American political cycle and how it rose in the public mainstream. Whether the art was in the form of a misguided Facebook user or other intrusive marvels of the internet, Huseynov’s artistic interpretation is lively and bold. His adaptability has gained him a spot at global art festivals and galleries across Prague and Rome, including the Venice Biennale twice.
Faiq Ahmed: Faiq Ahmed is known for his artistic take on traditional Azerbaijani rugs – he disassembles their conventional structure, rearranges the resulting components and then combines these fragments with contemporary sculptural forms.
The Baku-based artist is known for his hallucinogenic carpet-cum-sculptures that combine research into ancient weaving techniques and iconographic systems with more contemporary imagery – the patchworks of colour that make up digital pixels seen at close range, or the effect of a computer glitch, where abstract forms seem to melt like liquid paint or wax. Looking at them can sometimes make you feel like you’ve accidentally fallen into another dimension.
Farid Rasulov:Another artist known for his versatility is Farid Rasulov who champions the symbolism between modern and traditional in the form of installations, sculptures, photography and paintings. Though he graduated from Azerbaijan’s State Medical University, he made a swift career shift in 2007 to focus on his art.
His signature work is his contemporary take on tapestry. His carpeted rooms won him a spot in the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 with solo shows in France. The carpets are an ode to the culture and roots of Azerbaijan
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