From the rigid concrete remains of former Soviet domination to the limestone palaces in the city’s ancient heart, Baku is a city of cross-cultural pollination. Although geographically it borders Russia to the north and Iran to the south, it is closer in spirit to Turkey and architecturally, some say, it is striving to become Dubai on the Caspian.
This moniker is, in part, due the distinctive Flame Towers, three curved skyscrapers that extend above the horizon behind the old walled city and from the city’s other two striking contemporary structures: the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre and the city’s Museum of Modern Art designed by Jean Nouvel.
But on the art front, the city is certainly making regional waves. This month, at Art Dubai, Yay Gallery’s booth was constantly filled with people crowding to see and, more importantly, to buy the work of Azeri artists Rashad Alakbarov and Huseyn Hagverdi. Just a few days later, many of the same important international art collectors, gallerists and writers converged in Baku for the opening of Yarat Contemporary Art Space.
In the lofty halls of the 2,000 metre squared edifice – a converted Soviet era naval base – the inaugural exhibition was unveiled last week. On the lower levels was displayed the permanent collection of Yarat, a non-profit art platform founded in 2011 by Aida Mahmudova, a niece of the country's president Ilham Aliyev. On the upper level hung a series of 55 powerful photographic portraits by Shirin Neshat, a highly prominent Iranian visual artist, in an exhibition titled The Home of My Eyes.
Neshat, whose art is in some of the world’s best museum collections including the Guggenheim New York and who recently exhibited a large retrospective in Doha’s Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, rarely makes new work and this exhibition began as a conversation about showing some of her older works in the space with a few newly commissioned pieces. But when she visited Baku, she fell in love with the place and decided to devote the whole show to the people of Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan and Iran are in such close proximity that being here in Baku is the closest I have been to Iran since 1996,” says Nishat. “It is a crossroads of so many ethnicities, languages, cultures and histories, and that story can be seen on the faces of the people when you look around. I felt that the first show to open a museum of contemporary art in Azerbaijan should be a tribute to the essence of what this country is about.”
Her subjects include people of all ages and from all levels of society; there’s even one of Mahmudova. Upon each portrait, Neshat has written Persian poetry interspersed with translated answers to four questions about the notion of home that she posed to the each person.
“The texts are integral to the concept of the art,” says Neshat. “Similar to the music I use in my videos, they add emotion, and are an important part of the aesthetic beauty of the image.”
The overall result is a very powerful exhibition and, from a promotional point of view, it is also quite a brilliant choice. Neshat’s name carries a gravitas that forces the international art world to sit up and notice Baku, and the project itself is so poignant that it will surely be well received in Baku too.
It is the kind of astute decision that has catapulted Yarat into the international arena over the past three years. Mahmudova founded the initiative as a non-profit platform to give exposure to artists from her immediate peer group and has continued to steer it to a place where many artists are sustained under its wings and are consequently receiving global attention.
In 2012, Yarat opened its commercial gallery space, Yay, which is described as a “social enterprise” with all profits, from sales at home and at the international art fairs and events, shared between the artists and the platform.
Last year, Mahmudova and her team inaugurated Yarat Studios – a four-storey building in the industrial area of the city, where 12 artists occupy rent-free studios and are given access to an on-site storage facility and funding for art production as well as monthly critique sessions from art professionals.
“This makes a huge difference to my practice,” says Nazrin Mammadova, a 26-year-old emerging artist who has a studio on the fourth floor. “It is amazing for all of us to have this space and the freedom to work here.”
Financial constraints were one of the biggest problems that Mahmudova identified prior to founding Yarat and therefore being able to give artists this support is essential, she says.
The next step in the process is education.
“Initially when Yarat was founded we concentrated more on hosting exhibitions and raising awareness locally and internationally because no-one knew much about Azerbaijani art,” she says. “Now we are concentrating on educating different age groups and not just artists. We already have a summer school that travels around Azerbaijan and we want to start an institute. We want to provide opportunities and knowledge about art and make it part of every day life.”
For more information about Yarat and all their events, visit www.yarat.az