Azerbaijan: Ornamentation or Not

Shoja Azari: film still of The Seven Beauties, 2013

Shoja Azari: film still of The Seven Beauties, 2013


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Luckily, after having wandered almost an hour among the unpacked trophies of Chinese capitalism, I stumbled upon a pavilion that was just about to start its celebration among a small group of friends. I was starting to get thirsty and the bar was almost open. But the art honestly excited me even more. Love Me, Love Me Not – I had heard about this exhibition from a friend, who shares my interest in thoroughly mixed-up cultures and the art they produce. Regional Art from Azerbaijan and its Neighbors is the subtitle of this collateral event. Azerbaijan also has a national pavilion at the Biennale in a swanky palace near the Ponte dell’Accademia. Surely I’m not the only one surprised at the large presence in Venice of this small country, not particularly known for its contemporary art.

The explanation is simple: oil. Large amounts of oil money, coupled with an upwardly mobile urge by the country’s elites to gain respect in the eyes of the international community. The classic motor for the contemporary art market, since the USA’s robber barons like Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller started pouring their money into museums and other cultural enterprises, more than a hundred years ago. This was my first association at the sight of the endless supply of expensive books and CD-sets that were to be picked up by visitors at the official Azerbaijan pavilion. All produced by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, in memory of the leader of the country since 1969, artifice of the country’s transition to its current prosperity and the big bang of his own family’s universal wealth. Of course his son Ilham won the popular vote with a mere 76% in 2003, and he still rules the country, having earned the distinction in 2012 of being voted the most corrupt person of the world.

But let’s not spoil the party I was about to attend with politics. We can’t blame artists for the country they’re living in, and much of the art produced by the Azeris in both the pavilion and the Love Me, Love Me Not regional show was very interesting. Moreover thanks to the oil largesse a few good Iranian artists, otherwise painfully absent from the whole Biennale, could display their work.

Interestingly the two Azeri collective exhibitions showed two divergent sets of cultural aspiration. While the official pavilion strived to gain some measure of intellectual recognition, focusing on how smart Azeri artists are, Love Me, Love Me Not aspired to be cool, open-minded and global, from an Azeri perspective. And it was. OK, I admit to being partial, speaking and reading Russian and Farsi, and having spent some memorable days in Baku. I crashed the opening party, feeling very much at home in this particular cosmopolitan mix, using at least four different languages I’m fluent in to converse with its guests. Yes, I let myself be entertained by Azeri oil wealth. But hey – I’m not alone in thinking that Slavs & Tatars (also present in the collateral event) are truly opening the art world to this kind of non Western-focused hybrid global art.

Quote from the Ideological Guide: Music, culture, art, consciousness, love, hate, colors, earth and sky, state and nation are all owned by one family. We celebrate it on May 10. Do you want to join us?

For a pdf describing the Love Me, Love Me Not exhibition click here

Return to main page with list of pavilions

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