Summer 1999 (7.2)
Editorial: Colors of the Century
An Artistic Perspective
by Betty Blair
As many of you know, the drive between Baku's airport and the city itself can be rather disconcerting. For miles, you pass nothing but desolate landscapes with soil so saturated with oil that nothing grows. Rusty "nodding donkeys", like mindless robots, stand isolated and neglected, forever pumping that black sticky oil from the belly of the earth. More than once I've asked myself, "What am I doing in this God-forsaken place? Is this the "real Azerbaijan"?
This past year, a considerable number of foreign journalists from major media have traveled this same route on assignment to this "exotic", little-known, often mispronounced, dot on the world's map. They "parachute" in to Baku for a few days, hang out at the foreign pubs, and spend most of their time with others who speak their same language. In the blink of an eye, they're heading back home, story in hand, assignment complete, eager to move on to the next reality. In the name of "objective reporting", their analyses usually turn out to be as superficial as the thin film of dirt that settles everywhere over the city everyday.
Such an approach to news could be viewed as the flip side of the same coin that Soviet officials imposed on Art policy for most of this century. Both deal primarily with the illusion of physical appearances.
While international journalists tend to paint a picture of desolation, misery and depression with little hope of recovery except through the great panacea of oil, Social Realism mandated that artists paint life full of eternal optimism, images of courage, confidence and determination.
Left: Works by Azerbaijani sculptor Fazil Najafov.
Azerbaijani sculptor Fazil Najafov (page 60) was not the only art student denied a university degree from Moscow for challenging this vision of the socialist system. His final project in 1961 depicted exhausted oil laborers leaning up against a pipeline. But Soviet workers weren't supposed to look fatigued. Labor was to be glorified and work romanticized, and Fazil returned to Baku empty-handed without a diploma.
Of course, as in every population on earth, there were, still are, and always will be, those who succumb to the gods of ideology, whether it be despotism, tyranny, commercialism or whatever. After all, artists need to eat just like the rest of us. That's why countless paintings were dedicated to the glories of the proletariat in the Soviet republics. In Azerbaijan, they took the shape of sinewy, tough oil workers and sun-toughened collective farmers.
In this issue "Colors of the Century-An Artistic Perspective", we've left out most samples of Social Realism with the one exception of Tahir Salahov, an immensely gifted artist, who found ways to paint in a realistic style without always making everything "rosy".
Here we've focused primarily on major personalities who have given modern art its distinctive Azerbaijani signature. Unlike writers who were killed for their quest for freedom, dissident artists were simply ostracized and their works simply not included in exhibitions [See Century of Reversals, AI 7.1]. And so artists of conscience suffered from not being assigned projects-no work, no bread-and were left at the mercy of the good will of others-along with cheap cigarettes and too much alcohol. It's our great loss that most of these extraordinary artists did not live to celebrate their 70th birthday.
Starting in the late 1950s and 60s, what is now referred to as the "Absheron School" formed the ideological basis for Azerbaijan's modern art movement. East from Baku on the peninsula that comprises the "eagle's head" of Azerbaijan's map, there is a small village called Busovna where this movement got started in a run-down dilapidated cottage. Javad Mirjavad was its driving force.
The movement was given birth while he was studying in Leningrad. Javid had learned that numerous paintings from European Impressionists and Post-impressionists, along with the African and Mexican works, were not exhibited at the Hermitage Art Museum but kept in their storehouses while the KGB "kept tabs" on anyone showing too much interest in such approaches to art.
One day Javid decided to approach the Director of the Hermitage determined to get a look for himself. As the story goes, he first went out and "got himself tipsy" and then half jokingly, half seriously, threatened the Director: "Either you give me permission to go into the storerooms or I'll kill you."
The Director understood Javid's passion and replied, "What's the use of killing me, just go and sit there as long as you wish." And so for several months, Javid explored the storehouse, marveling at the works that were denied the public.
Transformed by what he saw, Javad set fire to all of his own works, destroying everything (see page 31). Then, he returned to Azerbaijan to start anew. Gorkhmaz Afandi, Kamal Ahmad, Rasim Babayev, Hamza Abdullayev, Fazil Najafov and Farhad Khalilov were among those who followed him over the course of several years.
The Absheron School has its own distinct characteristics. Works are passionate, provocative, often enigmatic, and always highly political. They are deeply infused with strong colors emblazoned by the harsh rays of the Absheron sun. Forms are exaggerated and works aren't necessarily "pretty"; they bite and kick and scream in their attempts to counter the Establishment. This is the legacy that young artists who paint and sculpt in Azerbaijan today have been influenced by.
In our modern world of satellite communication in which we have instant access to view events happening even in remote places on the other side of the earth, one might ask whether we need artists anymore. In past centuries, much artwork was descriptive of customs and traditions. But now with such a proliferation of recording equipment, both oral and visual-tape recorders, cameras, videos, scanners and the Internet-who needs artists anymore?
The genuine Artist would reply, "You need me because I show you things invisible to the naked eye-both beautiful and hideous. I bring perspective, social and psychological context and interpretation. I dream of how things could be and at the same time I writhe in pain at the wrongs and evils of our day." And it is exactly for this reason that we need artists just as much as they need us.
It's no secret that Azerbaijanis artists are struggling these days just as everyone else in the Soviet Republics who are trying to make the transition into the world market economy. It's for this reason that we've included the artists' contact numbers here, hoping that some art lovers will initiate relationships and friendships. If you don't know Azeri or Russian, find a friend to make the initial contacts for you. You'll be deeply enriched.
In the meantime, we'd like to challenge journalists and visitors alike who suddenly find themselves landing at Baku's Airport to check out the country's "invisible" landscapes-as envisioned by its painters and sculptors, its writers, dramatists and musicians. If you're really determined to understand this country, don't take all your clues from the desolate landscape that lines the route between the airport and your five-star hotel.
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