From Baku to Venice : six contemporary artists from the land of fire.At the crossroads of Orient and Occident, Azerbaijan is surrounded by many countries and different cultures. The inhabitants have always been in contact with merchants – Arab, Chinese, Russian, Slavic etc.- who progressively introduced goods such as coffee, tea or bortsch. Later, with the oil industry development (19th-20th centuries), new influences have appeared.
Ornamentation is the main aspect of the Azerbaijani culture. The linear characteristic of the ornament is the idea of infinity of life. This feature has always been present in the national history of art. The decorative arts, which history goes back to the Paleolithic age, are among the most ancient visual languages. Rock paintings and engravings (petroglyphs) were discovered at Gobustan. Theses works present prehistoric scenes such as hunting, lifestyle, collective dance, canopy of heaven, animals and vegetables. This site highlights a cultural continuity between prehistoric and medieval times. Pattern emerged in the Upper Paleolithic period (between 35 000 and 10 000 years BC). At that time, ornament had a symbolic meaning, and consisted of geometric shapes. By this way, the people expressed their understanding of the world structure. The circle represented the sun, a triangle - the mountains, the square - the land, the spiral - the development, the swastika - the movement of the sun. In time, the signs and symbols became aesthetic expression and the ornament became more decorative. The use of ornaments represents this transition to a symbolic thinking. When the era of agricultural societies started, geometric abstraction became a real art expression by creating a complex system of symbols.
In Azerbaijan, different religions and traditions such as Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity highly influenced the culture. Daily life also represents a constant source of inspiration for creation through clothes, jewels, decoration, carpets weaving, architecture and embroidery. The notions of fire and home – which represent the family – are essential values in this culture. There are different types of ornaments: carpet design, heraldic decoration, built on the symmetry of the ornamental elements. The ornaments can be composed of geometric elements of stylized images of plants, animals and human figures. Graphic pattern is used in arts and crafts, fine arts and graphic arts. The sculptural decoration is used in architecture. Architectural ornament reveals details of tectonics plate and affects the perception of space.
The Azerbaijani monuments and ornaments reflect the complex national history, from the antique artistic tradition (Neolithic period) to the most recent buildings in Baku. The geographical and climatic conditions permitted the creation of new kind of buildings but the main impact on architecture was cultural and political. Fortifications, ramparts and other defensive buildings appeared to protect the territory (State of Manna, Sassanid period…). In the 7th century, with the Arab invasion and the diffusion of Islam in the country, the architecture changed a lot with the construction of mosques, caravanserai etc. In parallel, Christian temples and fortresses were also built (Djavanshir fortress, 7th century). Many buildings, settled in different periods, are based on religious symbols and on the fauna and flora. For example, the ornaments on the Divankhana pavilion (15th century, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Baku) are composed of fig leaves from the Absheron flora and engraved Koranic verses. Different schools of architecture opened during the 10th and 11th. Architects and ornamentalists started to work abroad in the 15th – 16th century. This period is characterized by the development of old traditions and oriental constructions (hammams). For example, the Sheki Khan Palace (1763) was constructed in wood with the traditional shebeke process (patterns made with wood crosspieces). During the Soviet period, the number of gothic private mansions (French or Venitian style) and public building (Fine arts museum, Douma) increased. The Ismayilliya building was initially decorated with Koran verses that were replaced by the Soviet star by the government. It is a great example of the multiples influences present in the architecture. Finally, the independence of the country represented a new step in the architecture: a mix between oriental and occidental influences.
Another important cultural reference and well renown craft is carpet-making. Carpets have their own language combining different patterns revealing coded messages. The carpets are part of the Azerbaijani people life and a part of their vision of aesthetic. The first carpets dates back to the Bronze age. Carpet weaving was traditionally reserved to women, the carpets called “Dast-khali-gaba” were components of their dowry. It can also refer to the legend of the Virgin Mary and the embroidered veil of the temple in Jerusalem. The decorative arts and geometric and floral ornaments developed with the diffusion of Islam and the restriction in the figure representation. Two types of carpets exist: tied or woven. Each region made a particular type of carpet. Some schools were created, according to the regions: Guba, Baku, Shirvan, Gandja, Gazakh, Karabagh, Nakhtchyvan and Tabriz. In each school, ornaments, geometric shapes, compositions, colours, threads and drawings are different and recognizable. The Azerbaijani people can identify and interpret a carpet. This codded language is little known by the other cultures in the world and this mystery can be fascinating.
During the 14th and the 15th centuries, the European painters started to introduce Azerbaijani carpets in their works. The ravishing play of colours and dizzying geometric patterns was a sign of exoticism. On the canvases of Memling, Holbein, Van Eyck, Carpaccio, Vermeer, the carpet is not just painted on the background, it is sometimes related to the main character on the foreground. For example, a carpet of "Zeyva" is inscribed in the painting "Madonna Canonica" by Jan van Eyck (15th century). In the "Scenes from the Life of Aeneas" by Pinturicchio is depicted the rug of "Ganja" and in the 15th century Dutch painter Hans Memling included images of Azerbaijani carpets in several works, among which the famous triptych dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The carpet was a symbol of wealth and a sign of high culture and Amsterdam, as one of the centres of European trade, was the perfect market for eastern exotic goods, and only the Flemish were able to distinguish the true from the lowbrow art crafts.
Nowadays, a new generation explores and updates this traditional art through a contemporary vision, raising the essence of ornament in relation with the perception of the national cultural heritage as a major artistic question. Using a traditional carpet, characteristic of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, Farid Rasulov creates a site specific and surrealistic environment. Fakhriyya Mammadova describes with her photographic installation: « Wedding : Girlish Dreams » a wedding ceremony mixing tradition and modernity. Sanan Aleskerov’s unique photographs, like impressionist paintings, shows his « everyday concept of the beauty of simplicity » either in a plant or a simple piece of furniture. Rashad Alakbarov, using shadows as a theatre of the world, creates different types of ornaments that can be found in Eastern or European civilizations. In his paintings full of virtuosity, Butunay Hagverdiyev plays with signs and reminds us that Azerbaijan changed alphabet three times in one century. Chingiz erases history and rewrites it all over again using twentieth-century symbols on a blank medium.
Azerbaijan recovered its independence in 1991. History and Geography have made it one of the most interesting countries of the 21st century. There are so many kinds of artists who show the diversity of the country giving us universal messages. Preserving the past and building the future is one of them.
Curator of the exhibition