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Female Artists in Baku re-think Tradition and Gender

Ayna Moazzen. A letter to myself, 2023. Marker pen on looking glass. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House

An exhibition of established Azerbaijani female artists opened at Gazelli Art House in Baku on 8th March. Reflecting on questions about the authenticity of Azerbaijani art and its global context it also addresses female identity.

Spread over two floors at the Gazelli Art House in Baku is this conceptually minded art show which moves effortlessly between the microscopic and the macro, from small-scale, highly detailed botanical illustrations to cosmic, abstracted black and white graphics and paintings. It opens with work by artist Narmina Khalilova (b. 1972), from a series called Metamorphosis’, a small drawing on paper with vegetative mesh-like forms evocative of feminine organic nature set in the contrast to the black image on white. In a similar vein, is her painting cycle ‘What Lies Beneath’, yet horizontally arranged, unlike in ‘Metamorphosis’ where the image is read from top to bottom. This references various traditions of how we read and understand an image or language. Equally playful, turning traditions on their head is the work of Ayna Moazzen (b.1998). In her work ‘A Letter to Myself’ she uses old family letters between Baku and Tehran which are written out on three circular mirrors. It is not just female artists convoking the female. There is Sitara Ibrahimbayli's (b. 1984) masculine ‘Suits All’ installation in which suits are nailed to the wall representing different ages of men, although with gender-free attributes.

Going up to the second floor, the unsuspecting visitor is abruptly bathed in light and colour, in stark contrast to the monochrome ambience of the floor below. Here are three works by Aidan Salakhova (b.1964), the first called ‘Way Out’ dominated by gold, another blue ‘Cube’, and in the third both these colours are brought together. In ‘Cube’ the light outlines of a hijab and hands appear against the bright blue colour, holding an elongated parallelepiped as if it has no weight.

In fact, blue and gold continue as a kind of repeated colour motif weaving through other works by Fakhriyya Mammadova (b.1974) – Transformation’; Afet Baghirova (b.1985) The Mother’; and Ramina Saadatkhan (b.1977) ‘Chinnamasta’. Each artist works in her own way, yet similarly engaging with the archaic in a radical idiom. ‘Transformation’ is a video work which addresses the universal story of the birth of a new life. Here blue and shades of green seem to call forth the cosmos, underlining the deep, intimate relationship between the human body and the universe. There are motifs drawn from Southeast Asian culture in the work ‘The Mother’ and Chinnamasta’. The first combines both the real and the symbolic: pregnancy and correlation with the cosmos, the sky – cloud - and the power of fire. Artistic reflections bifurcate: the symbolic space becomes more natural through the natural medical and physiological cycle of pregnancy. The natural processes of the body themselves are saturated with cosmic significance.

Dichotomies - the ancient and modern, the classical and conceptual, the male and female, dark and light, feed through this show from beginning to end. Yet combined, there is a sense that these elements can find a harmony, not only in an aesthetic way, but there are social implications. Curator Saadatkhan comments that she “often uses her curatorial projects to send important social messages”. The coexistence of seemingly contradictory elements, the lack of hierarchy between the casual (or routine) and what is important, becomes a key to try to understand the roles of gender today.

Suppressed Memories

Gazelli Art House

Baku, Azerbaijan

8 March – 7 May, 2023

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