On 2 October, 2020, days after war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a giant Azerbaijani flag rolled down the facade of Baku’s YARAT Contemporary Art Space. The gallery, one of the main contemporary art venues in the Caspian capital, posted a picture of the building on Instagram, alongside the newly ubiquitous hashtag #KarabakhisAzerbaijan. Later that month, Ahmet Öğüt, a Kurdish artist born in Turkey, whose exhibition No Poem Loves Its Poet had been on show at YARAT since late May, asked for the politically-charged banner to be taken down and declared in a statement: “I refuse to allow my work to fall prey to political instrumentalisation”.
YARAT refused to take down the flag or the Instagram post, and instead decided to terminate Öğüt’s exhibition on 29 October, three weeks earlier than planned. In a comment under the post, the art gallery said that the flag was simply “a sign of support to our country and to our nation”.
The early cancellation, however, is just one example of how Azerbaijan’s apparently thriving art scene conceals something darker: a deeply nepotistic environment which routinely suppresses dissident voices while crafting an international image of Azerbaijan as a free, art-loving nation.
Artists like Öğüt, who are unwilling to support or ignore institutions’ political stances, soon see themselves falling from favour. “Over many years, as an artist, I have worked many times in conflicted areas, and have responded to the local situation with nuanced and challenging artworks,” the artist wrote on social media. “YARAT Contemporary Art Centre circulated, on social media, an image of the banner of my exhibition, next to the national flag covering the facade of its building along with a politically-motivated statement, which have nothing to do with my independent vision or the content of my exhibition.”
The incident raised eyebrows in art publications worldwide, many concerned over the interference of political ideology in the case. It is not the first time that the country has attracted attention for the wrong reasons. Governed by President Ilham Aliyev and Vice-President and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, the Azerbaijani government has been repeatedly criticised by human rights’ groups for ongoing censorship, a poor human rights record, and rampant corruption. And, like many nearby authoritarian regimes, members of the President’s family are known to own most of the country’s major businesses, earning them millions of dollars since the fall of the USSR and situating Aliyev amongst the world’s richest oil billionaires
In Azerbaijan, where the arts scene is heavy-handedly controlled by the country’s political elite, nepotism and the interference of political ideology run deep
Yet while monopolising business may be commonplace in scores of heavy-handed regimes, the Azerbaijani government’s bid to control contemporary art is just as fierce, and uses the same techniques which have seen Aliyev family members in commercial places of power.
YARAT, the gallery at the centre of the October flag incident, was founded by Aida Mahmudova, an artist, curator, and VP Mehriban Aliyeva’s niece. When interviewed by Forbes in 2015, Mahmudova, who was described as “evasive” when asked about YARAT’s links to the government, said that although the gallery receives technical support from the state, it is independent. However, Baku’s Marriott Hotel, which is allegedly connected to Aliyev’s daughters Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva according to reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), is one of YARAT’s main partners.
Mahmudova is also the director of another of Azerbaijan’s main contemporary art galleries: Baku’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). The museum was founded by Mehriban Aliyeva in 2009, and is funded by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation (of which Mehriban Aliyeva is the President and Leyla Aliyeva the Vice-President), a charitable organisation created in memory of the former president of Azerbaijan and father of current president Ilham Aliyev. Elsewhere in Baku, another star venue on Azerbaijan’s cultural scene is the Heydar Aliyev Center. Completed in 2012, the building was designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The current director of the Heydar Aliyev Center is Anar Alakbarov, a former assistant to the Vice President of Azerbaijan and current assistant to the President.
The Azerbaijani government’s monopoly over smaller art galleries is no less thorough. The Qiz Qalasi Gallery, an art venue in Baku with a branch in Berlin, is headed by Emin Mammadov, who also works as Art Curator for the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. Between 2012 and 2014, Qiz Qalasi Gallery held Fly to Baku. Modern Art of Azerbaijan, a travelling exhibition supported by the Heydar Aliyev Centre that toured European capitals, where Mehriban and Leila Aliyeva hosted lavish inaugurations attended by European government officials and diplomats. In November 2020, the gallery launched Armed with the Arts, an exhibition allegedly meant to promote peace after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war, while, similarly to YARAT, it openly supported the position of the Azerbaijani government and used politically-charged, bellicose language. Kicik QalArt Gallery, a project of the Art ex East Foundation and another important smaller-scale venue in the capital, although now closed, used to be owned by Olivier Mestelan, a Swiss art collector and financier. Mestelan used to sit on the board of Ataholding, an open joint-stock company that managed Atabank, one of the biggest commercial banks in Azerbaijan, now bankrupt and owned by the Azerbaijan Deposit Insurance Fund (ADIF). According to an investigation carried out in 2011 by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, Mestelan was also claimed to be the treasurer of three offshore Panama-based companies linked to Azerfon, a Baku-based telecommunications company with links to Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva.
In light of their far-reaching involvement, the question is why the Aliyev family is so keen to embed themselves in contemporary art. Research on the development of the contemporary art scene in the Arab Gulf and Caspian Sea region explains how Azerbaijan and other countries use contemporary art as a tool to reshape the country’s international image. “Museums –– and contemporary art museums and organizations in particular –– have the potential to convey, simultaneously, both unique identity and global belonging. Inclusion in a global art movement, such as contemporary art, conveys modernity in a subtle but prescient way –– one researcher remarks in a a 2017 paper.
Ultimately, Azerbaijan is not innocently interested in cutting-edge art — its Caucasian neighbours, Georgia and Armenia, with comparably fewer resources, have more diverse creative scenes with a rising number of independent initiatives. Instead, much like other oil-rich, authoritarian countries like Qatar and the UAE, Azerbaijan’s hopes to use art as a tool to attract international attention for something other than imprisoned journalists and crackdowns on free speech. By creating an international image as fervent art supporters, the Azerbaijani government masks how it has tirelessly worked to eliminate its independent arts scene, which now operates at a very small scale, online, or in exile. By supporting the flow of public money and oil wealth into art venues and projects — the most prestigious run by members of his own family — the Aliyev family has reaped a number of benefits: earning a global name as art-lovers, wiping out “problematic” creative expression at home by ensuring influence with those who control funding, and using this to ensure that local art institutions align with their ideological agenda.
The Azerbaijani government’s investments in contemporary art locally are also a bridge to increasing its influence abroad. As the researcher mentions, “art and cultural projects are used, both at home and abroad [...] as a form of soft or “subtle” power to enhance political legitimacy and relevance”. Mehriban Aliyeva, through the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, has shelled out generous sums for cultural institutions such as The Palace of Versailles, Paris’ Louvre Museum, and the Vatican Museums, while the Friends of Azerbaijani Culture Foundation, a non-governmental charity which she founded in 1995, routinely organises art exhibits abroad.
Such spending reaps real-life rewards. In 2004, Mehriban Aliyeva was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, a laurel given in recognition of her actions to promote international cultural exchanges. Later, in 2010, Aliyeva received a gold medal from UNESCO for her “efforts in establishing an intercultural dialogue.” Over the years, Azerbaijan has had a particularly favorable relationship with the UN body — in October 2015, at the petition of Mehriban Aliyeva, UNESCO hosted an exhibition ironically called Azerbaijan — Land of Tolerance at its Paris headquarters. At the opening, when a journalist asked Aliyeva whether the title of the exhibition lived up to the reality in Azerbaijan, considering the country has “many political prisoners in jail”, Aliyeva denied this and turned her back while security guards pushed the journalist away. The relationship was particularly favorable between Mehriban Alliyeva and Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO between 2009-2017. Their relationship came under scrutiny in 2017, when Kalin Mitrev, Bokova’s husband, was investigated by the Bulgarian Chief Prosecutor in relation to media publications about payments made by Azerbaijani companies to his accounts. Bokova then wrote a letter to The Guardian defending the rightfulness of her relationship with Azerbaijan, but never spoke openly about the money allegedly received by her husband or her stance towards Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses
But ultimately, such international praise for the Aliyev government contradicts its real-life record on art. In 2011, Azerbaijan censored its own entry to the Venice Biennale, the world’s most high-profile showcase of contemporary art, by hiding the work of one of its own artists under a piece of cloth. Moscow-based artist Aidan Salakhova’s work Waiting Bride, which showed a woman in a black veil from head to foot, and another sculpture, which showed the Black Stone of Mecca contained in a vagina-shaped marble frame, were hidden under a white cloth. The government later claimed that the artworks were “damaged during transport”, while senior sources at the exhibition clarified that the works were censored for being considered offensive to Islam..
Many independent artists, whose work does not reach Baku’s government-owned, high-profile art venues, have similar stories of censorship — although most refuse to speak publicly. The strongest voice in Azerbaijan’s independent art scene comes from Art for Democracy, an online platform founded by a group of independent artists and human rights defenders to showcase their work and raise awareness about repression in Azerbaijan.
“Almost all artistic venues and spaces are run or controlled either by someone who is close to the government, or directly by the authorities. It inevitably impacts independent art in a negative manner, because artists don’t have many options; they either need to accept the unwritten rules that restrict the full independence of the artist or they just should stop their activities,” a member of Art for Democracy told The Calvert Journal.
Ironically, perhaps most telling is that the number of cases of repression have dramatically declined in recent years. Artists, aware of the risk they face, either conform to the taste of the First Lady if they want to make a living, leave the country, or stop making art altogether.
“Artists don’t have many options; they either need to accept the unwritten rules that restrict the full independence of the artist or they just should stop their activities”
“The alternative art scene exists mostly on the internet,” said the representative of Art for Democracy. “Currently, I could claim that there is no really independent space or scene for alternative or independent art.” However, in Azerbaijan, where the government routinely shuts down websites, including all social media sites during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, online displays of art are not free of censorship. Azerbaijani artist Gunduz Aghayev found himself facing pressure from the authorities after he began sharing political cartoons online as a protest against injustice. He was excluded from art venues, and after constant persecution, left Azerbaijan in 2014. “If your political views are in opposition, you are already excluded from all projects as a problematic object. For this reason, artists try to work without touching on political issues,” he says. “In the last years of my life [in Azerbaijan], I only showed my works on social networks. I started doing digital political art. However, still I could not continue living in the country.”
It is this trend — self-censorship and exile — which is most perhaps most damaging of all to Azerbaijani art. Independent art plays a decisive role driving social and political change, and it has the power to challenge authoritarian discourses. While recent leadership changes in the Ministry of Culture hold a glimmer of hope, small initiatives and venues apprehensively emerge, and the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war will surely bring about changes in the arts scene, full creative freedom remains a distant goal. Yet as long as artists remain in fear, it remains almost impossible for real, large-scale artistic opposition to breathe.
“Creative organisations are a minority, and the source of funding for these organizations is almost entirely tied to the political elite,” says Aghayev. “For this reason, there is a certain red line in art. This line should not be crossed.”