Azerbaijani Pavilion – The emergence of the local event on a global scale
“When the local becomes global”
In mid-May, the 2nd international fair of contemporary art – the Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF), took place in the capital of Georgia, which included both professional meetings and a rich parallel program of events for the general public at various venues in the city. The fair itself is located on the territory of the cozy Expo Georgia exhibition center, where, it is pleasant to note, the modernist architecture of the 1960s of the former VDNKh is preserved.
The small-sized Tbilisi Art Fair occupied four pavilions: the main one – with the stands of 30 Georgian and foreign galleries, The Hive space – as an opportunity for the artists who passed the competitive selection to present their works directly, and two pavilions with curatorial projects.
TAF is an attempt to develop the art market in Georgia and, in general, an application for the representation of the South Caucasus region on the world art scene. Ambitions have grown on fertile soil – a large number of Georgian contemporary artists work in their homeland, galleries, various exhibition venues and art spaces, a rich artistic heritage and historically developed special atmosphere feed creative activities, periodical projects supported by commercial structures, the number of tourists tends to 9 million people a year.
All this, of course, is not a reason to bring the local to the global level, and the project to become successful. But it is the reason to become one. Yes, and the nearest centers of art commerce – Istanbul and Dubai – work with their own specifics. TAF, on the other hand, focuses on the unfamiliar Georgian art, represented by local and foreign galleries, attracts European and Baltic dealers to participate and offers cooperation to its closest Caucasian neighbors.
It is interesting that this year at the Tbilisi Art Fair, in addition to the participation of one gallery from Baku, Azerbaijan was also widely represented by the national pavilion, which houses the exhibition of video art named “To Be a Woman”. This is a curatorial project of artist Sabina Shikhlinskaya, who collected works of ten Azerbaijani authors on the gender theme.
Sharp social agenda of the “To Be a Woman” project snatches the viewer out of the benevolent contemplation of art objects at the fair and plunges into the unsightly reality of the many unresolved issues of our time. The polyphonically constructed exhibition touches upon a whole list of problems: gender stereotypes, emotional, physical and reproductive violence, exclusion of women from public and political life, barriers to self-realization, rejection of the Other.
It is worth remembering that Sabina Shikhlinskaya is not the first time working with gender issues. In 2009, she held a large-scale forum “Maiden Tower” in Baku – the first event in Azerbaijan dedicated to gender issues and their artistic understanding. In 2010, its logical continuation was the Openly project in Istanbul, which took place during the “Istanbul is the cultural capital of Europe” events. Both events, in addition to art exhibitions, included discussions, round tables with the participation of civil society activists, scientists, representatives of the city administration, international foundations, and diplomatic missions. It was then that the phrase “To Be a Woman” appeared in the title of the events, which became their motto.
However, ten years later, gender issues are entering a new round of relevance and awareness. Sabina Shikhlinskaya returns to social issues and individual representation with a pool of young artists working with various media and openly discussing gender issues. The new project, inherited by the name “To Be a Woman”, consists of video works, and prefers visualism and poetry.
So, the exhibition opens with the poetic work of Leyli Qafarova and Leyli Salayeva “Within me”. This is a video documentation of the performance, in which a group of women recites the favorite rubai of the 12th century poetess Mehseti Ganjavi, combining them with elements of traditional dance. The relaxed love lyrics of the Azerbaijani Renaissance and the dance in which one could allow oneself to express emotions and desires are contrasted with the accepted rules of conduct of that time – the eastern girl had no right to express her opinion and had to sacrifice her interests in the interests of others, in particular her husband. Leyli Kafarova and Leyli Salaeva endure the action in our time, castrating poems to short phrases, and the dance – to some elements, as if denoting that narrow gap of freedom that a modern girl can afford in traditional society.
Poetess Leyli Salaeva also participates in another video work – “Men only (Women be not ashamed)”. Together with video maker Chinara Mejidova, they record on camera girls who have been verbally abused by men on the street. The authors investigate how phrases that are thrown after them obsessively scroll in thoughts again and again, forcing every day to doubt their viability and to feel themselves only an object of dirty street claims. The humiliating words uttered by the heroines themselves add up to a poetic form and sound like a “black” panegyric of the patriarchy with its fixed and persistent discriminatory patterns.
In a separate space, there are two works by Sitara Ibragimova – “A Women’s Journey” and the ecofeministic “Reflector”. The first one is built in the same way as “Men only”, on documentary evidence – in this case, monologues of Azerbaijani girls who dream of getting an education and the opportunity to do their favorite work. Voices are superimposed on the alternation of frames of real life of an ordinary woman with staged photographs of the “other life”, sometimes getting in unison, and sometimes surprising with their inconsistency.
In this video, Sitara Ibragimova tries on the daily routine of her heroines, literally dressing up in their clothes and repeating the plastique of their movements.
In other hand, “Reflector”, broadcasted on two monitors, consists of two short, looped videos, brought to the gif-format. On one, as in the usual glossy magazine shooting, a picnic scene is reproduced. Here a beautiful girl lies on the grass, surrounded by mountains of garbage, which leaves her body exactly one and a half square meters of space. And the grass for relaxation itself becomes an artificial plastic lawn. On the second screen, the heroine diligently washes away the oil, but not medical, Naphthalan, but the one that still spills near the oil rigs in the sea.
Both videos could be called bloated parody, brought to the grotesque, if what is happening in the frame does not reflect reality – any contact with nature for modern man ultimately turns out to be the contact with heaps of household garbage and industrial waste. Ecofeminism, which introduced the concept of sex and gender in environmental science, emphasizes the relationship of consumer attitudes towards nature and domination over women. This branch of deep ecology, which has been leading its history since the mid-1970s, describes natural and female bodies as objects that the patriarchal society treats as it pleases.
The “A Women’s Journey” and “Reflector” video works that play in the same space reveal the subject of exploitation on both sides: here is a woman who has lived her life by someone else’s will, and there an equally selfish muscular attitude to nature.
Although it is clear that if we are talking about ecofeminism, then we denote as exploited not only women, but also men who find themselves in a situation of social, political, and economic pressure. As well as the subjects of this pressure, we also see women supporting the patriarchal way of life.
Located next the 20-minute video documentation of Vusal Rahim’s performance “Nurcan” is consonant to the ecofeminist theme. On the screen there seems to be scenes from a traditional wedding: a meeting of the groom in the house of the young bride, a ransom, dancing relatives, offerings. However, Vusal Rahim creates a dark fairytale of marriage, putting everything that happens in black interiors, and dressing all the characters in black. The artist draws an obvious parallel to the common in the countryside contractual early marriages with the funeral, which associatively becomes the wedding of some 14-year-old girl with a man twice her age. Early marriages are accompanied by early childbirth, often by selective abortions (by the way, common throughout the South Caucasus), and more often by domestic violence and other manifestations of female powerlessness.
In this gloomy video work with a black bouquet of the bride, ironed, stylish and very scary at the same time, the author paints an episode from the lives of those whom the American philosopher and feminist Judith Butler calls “unplaced” – the oppressed, for whom no one will cry if they die . Vusal Rahim as if translates into a vivid image the interrogative Butler`s phrase from her reasoning about biopolitical management: “Whose life matters?”
This topic in the next room continues the documentary work of Sabina Shikhlinskaya “Ahead of Dreams”. The appearance of this video was preceded by an entertaining, almost cinematic story. A few years ago, the few women representatives of local governments and NGO leaders in Azerbaijan were invited to professional workshops and exchange experience in Germany. The crew of Sabina Shikhlinskaya also made a film about the work of these women in the field. In a remote area of Absheron, they met with one of the heroines. After a long demonstration of public spaces in the village and stories about possible improvements, a “woman leader” exposed on the street – a passerby said that she was an impostor and not a representative of self-government bodies. After a while, it turned out that this woman was just a local resident, who had never headed the district administration or even worked there. As a good actress, she, taking advantage of the situation, lived the role of the one whom she would never happen to become.
From this seemingly comical story, Sabina Shikhlinskaya creates a two-channel video where, in a looped-down mode, an active, charismatic woman is opposed to the man who has besieged her, and he is opposed to her all the time. The delayed effect, applied in the video, gives the impression of a sprawling and hopeless state, in which there is no end and no life, which is even more felt on the body level. The change of optics from the fact of fraud to the fact that social growth is impossible in this stiff video exacerbates the political message – talking about potential changes in her village, a woman has the opportunity to speak for at least half an hour on behalf of those forever excluded from the public sphere.
If the works listed above tell about inert thinking in traditional society, then the video of Nazrin Mammadova “Lucid Dream”, on the contrary, about the shifts in consciousness against the background of rapid modernization. Here, in the first part, a ray of light snatches in total darkness a woman in a niqab and an abaya performing namaz. In the second part, Nazrin turns to post-Internet aesthetics, transferring the heroine from the first video to a computer arcade game, where a girl running in black clothes needs to collect 2D bonuses in the form of diamonds.
Nazrin Mammadov works here with such a concept as “Gulf-futurism” (“Futurism of the Persian Gulf” from English Persian Gulf). This term, introduced in 2009 by a US-Qatari artist Sophia Al-Maria, denotes a technological leap for Arab oil-producing countries from sun-scorched wastelands to ultramodern cities with skyscrapers and sports cars. But above all, in one word “gulf-futurism” describes the intra-social structure: rich life in high-tech houses and luxury shopping centers, built on the approaching slave labor of migrant workers, consumerism and reactionary Islam, exclusion of women from public life and daily sexual harassment. As a result all of this – the isolation of people, especially girls, in the virtual world, brought to almost complete erasure of the physical environment.
Nazrin combines Islamic prayer and another reality in her work, asking questions: has the virtual world become a substitute for religion, and maybe for the modern man this is the same thing? Or instead of the real world with its limitations Arab girls prefer to create their own free reality in games like Second Life, where you can be who you want?
“Lucid Dream” – an alternative “exit” when nothing is impossible. In connection with the return to patriarchal values in Azerbaijan, in the absence of a new unifying ideology, the video of Nazrin Mammadova acquires alarming notes.
On the revision of the norm – two other works located in the hall opposite each other and unwittingly entering into a dialogue: Teymur Daimi`s black and white noir named “Three” and Agil Abdullayev’s youtube-live aesthetic “Hot, funny and understanding”.
In his version of The “Three Graces”, Teymur Daimi combines ancient canons with the naturalness of a modern girl, trying to find something third in this alchemical process. For example, the freedom of Beauty, Love and Pleasure from whatever imposed ideals.
In the video of Agil Abdullayev, two characters that he plays himself, a fashionable guy and a glamorous girl, lead among themselves an incoherent dialogue formed from funny, ironic phrases. The source of the texts were stories from life. Agil analyzes how a person’s perception by others changes due to his appearance or behavior pattern. In this two-channel video, not only voices voice the theme of genderfluid and role changes, but the picture itself as if flows from one monitor to another, emphasizing the possibility of variability.
This lability is picked up by the work of Bahram Khalilov, which meets the viewer at the exit. His new video from the series “Human games” resembles a flash game, where each chip is unpredictably replaced by another, rearranging the whole layout on the playing field. The mobility of the game Bahram Khalilov transfers to the mobility of individual choice, with which each determines not so much his own future, as his present.
Speaking about the project “To Be a Woman” as a whole, as well as about any gender research, it is difficult not to touch upon the question of its political relevance. Behind the decorative side of everyday life – the inaudible problems of social violence and exceptions.
In the description of the exhibition, the creators of “To Be a Woman” recall the centenary since the time when women in the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920) got the right to vote in elections, and they wonder whether the twentieth century has managed to change attitudes towards the female bondage rooted over thousands of years. and violation of human rights. From the history of Azerbaijan at the beginning of the last century, we can recall another fact that more influenced the change in the social role of women – the Enlightenment period, accompanied by the introduction of education, the publication of newspapers, and educational feminism.
Interestingly, now many items of this mission are taken by artists. Ready-made works were selected for the exhibition and only a couple was completed specifically for the project. Rejecting the position of an observer, the artists stand for those who will never become part of the democratic process. And in this sense it is difficult to talk about the national identity of the works and the whole pavilion – only Azerbaijani, Caucasian, post-Soviet, Eurasian? …
The project “To Be a Woman” is just the case when the local goes to the global level, and that reason when it’s time to begin to understand the shades of their own prejudices.
Author: Anna Jason