Sketching a portrait of Aidan Salakhova
The artist of Azeri origin, who has become a towering figure on the Russian art scene, is breaking new ground for female artists in both countries. Over the past decade, she has increasingly devoted herself to sculpture and an exhibition of her work in marble is now on display at the Gazelli Art House in London.
A nine-year-old girl enrolled herself in a bas-relief art class without asking her parents’ permission. A few days later, she surprised her mother with a present: a small sculpture of a Madonna with Child she had made on the course. She had completely forgotten about this until several decades later, when, one day, she found the little token of affection in a box: it was an epiphany. The piece of plaster she had modelled when she was a little girl showed her independence, a strong determination to build her own path and a great love for her family. It was also the beginning of her unconditional passion for sculpture that has characterized most of her work as an artist over the past few years.
It is to this little girl that Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) speaks when as a grown-up Aidan Salakhova (b.1964), in her studio in Carrara, Italy, wearing earmuffs and listening to electronic music, shapes a block of marble into an object or a person. In their imaginary dialogues, he is usually not happy with her and bluntly advises her to keep on studying. But she carries on doing what she is doing. Bernini is merely a projection of her subconscious self, reflecting her constant strive for perfection, just a mental distraction to ease the tension in the serious conversations that she was having with the work in front of her. There would be no sculpture, explains Aidan, without intense and private dialogues between her and the material she is using to make a work of art. A sculpture is the result of these dialogues. In her case, it all starts when she sees a block of marble. Each time that happens, she does not see just a stone. She sees a figure imprisoned in the stone that must be set free.
At this point in her long and successful career, she sees sculpture as central to her growth as an artist, because making a sculpture requires qualities that can be acquired only with time and hard work, qualities that are far from that vivacious impulsiveness and spontaneity that characterize many works of her younger self. Deep concentration, patience, discipline and, most importantly, the ability to persuade the matter to become form are the qualities that all come into play. It certainly takes a lot of strength, both emotional and physical, to convince a piece of hard marble to become testimony of an artist’s personal vision of the world. Working in the studio is like taking part in philosophical ruminations about the essence of life itself. And for Aidan life and art cannot be separated. Here she remembers – in what is for her a kind of recurring realisation – how it was not until she was already a teenager that she suddenly one day came to understand something: her sense of the world entirely surrounded by art, was actually rather unconventional. She grew up in a family of artists in which drawing was itself a form of communication. Her father, Tair Salakhov (1928–2021), was a very powerful figure in the Soviet nomenklatura and, for almost twenty years, held the position of First Secretary of the Union of Artists of the USSR. Her upbringing was both a comfort and a challenge.
Then, as a student at the Surikov Institute in Moscow, it was very clear to her that, without denying the value of an academic education, she was more attracted by the new than by tradition. Those were times when in Russia, the whole country was questioning its political, economic and social structures and was demanding radical changes. Perestroika was, day after day, chipping away at the Iron Curtain and, when it came to art, it offered the Russian contemporary art community new territories to conquer at home and an international counterpart with which to engage. Nonconformist art was quickly leaving the limitations of the underground and was coming to the surface and being finally shown to the wider public. New times required new art.
Aidan became a very active member of the Moscow art community in those years and not only as an artist. She perhaps could be called an activist whose mission was to help the growth and recognition of Russian contemporary art at home and abroad. At the beginning of the 1990s, her role in structuring and developing a domestic art market was pioneering – she was the co-founder of one of the very first commercial galleries in Russia, the First Gallery, which opened in Moscow in 1989, and, from 1992 to 2012, the owner of Aidan Gallery in Moscow. As an artist, she broke new ground on many levels. She was one of the first, if not the very first, artist in Russia to openly explore themes and subjects related to female sexuality, which did not fit the then rigid Soviet stereotypes of women as home makers.
Her Azeri roots have always had a great influence on the making of her artistic visions, hers is a combination of East and West: two worlds cohabit in Aidan as a person. What surprises and soothes in Aidan’s works is honesty. She is a rationalist in action. She is simply speaking what she sees as the truth, running the risk of becoming prey to censorship because sometimes what one sees on paper, on canvas, in marble or even projected on a wall, bucks traditional conventions and could be considered by some as taboo. It is not surprising that Aidan does not like when her work is referred to as “female art”. Art does not have a gender or even nationality – as Aidan asserts. She is a feminist by default and not someone who feels the need to claim women’s rights in a world, in which women are considered inferior to men. This is not her world.
Aidan Salakhova. The Dust Became the Breath
London, United Kingdom
April 29 – June 6, 2021