Curator, art historian, artist and cultural mentor Leyla Akhundzadeh (1953-2010) was one of the most influential figures in the Azerbaijani emerging contemporary art community after the end of the Soviet Union. Leyla was born in Moscow and educated at the Moscow State University before working in the cultural sphere in Baku. As the department chair of the History of Art department at the Azerbaijan State Academy of Art, she gathered a generation of emerging artists together to encourage them to develop their practice as well as the larger contemporary art movement through exhibitions, catalogues and scholarship, and aesthetic experimentation.
As a mentor, she encouraged young artists to explore Azerbaijani identity within the framework of the possibilities that opened up after the end of Soviet influence. In 2000, she founded the art group “Zamanin Ganadlari” (Wings of Time), which presented the eponymous exhibition of emerging artists featuring myriad new media, the first of its kind. Many of Azerbaijan’s internationally acclaimed contemporary artists were involved in her projects and she used her network and experience to help secure grant funding and resources for independent exhibitions. She encouraged young artists to push their practice beyond the conventional academic norms, to write about and critique their work, document and archive their activities, and to make opportunities for themselves. The following years included a succession of ground-breaking events for the Azerbaijani art scene – the 2002 Orientalism exhibition in Baku that included artists from six countries, the 2003 Aluminum Biennale of Art bringing Azerbaijani and international contemporary artists together for the first time to explore technology and art (which has now had multiple editions), the 2005 Man and Woman international festival in cooperation with the French Embassy which included artists from 22 countries, and the 2007 Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in Italy, which introduced emerging and experimental Azerbaijani art practice to the contemporary art world abroad. Leyla transitioned into a position at the Ministry of Culture, which allowed for her to continue her work on a larger institutional scale, including advisory input into the Heydar Aliyev Centre as it was under development. Tragically and unexpectedly, Leyla passed away from injuries sustained from a car accident in 2010, leaving behind a void in the Azerbaijani art scene.
Leyla mentored some of the most prominent names in today’s contemporary art from Azerbaijan –Orkhan Huseynov, Rashad Alakbarov, Elshan Ibrahimov, Farid Abdullayev, Faig Ahmed, Niyaz Najafov, Fakhriyya Mammadova and Farid Rasulov among others. She also worked in partnership with esteemed artists and curators Sabina Shikhlinskaya and Jahangir Selimkhanov on various projects. After her passing, Yarat Contemporary Art Space was founded in 2011 by Aida Mahmudova, filling a much-needed role in the art community and building upon the energy and goodwill that resulted from Leyla’s work. While Leyla’s passing was devastating to her colleagues and the young people that she mentored, her influence is still felt in the Azerbaijani art scene today in the programs, new institutions, independent exhibitions and projects, and experimental practice that Baku is now known for. Leyla may not be here with us to enjoy this moment in the contemporary art scene’s development, but her legacy is alive and well.