Pioneers of the Caspian

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which regained its independence in 1991, is in a breakneck race to catch up with the globalised consumer culture of the west. The streets of the capital, Baku, boast the big luxury-brand shops, and shiny glass-and-steel towers loom over the graceful yellow stone edifices of the old city. No fewer than six five-star hotels are under construction and a stunning Zaha Hadid-designed cultural centre is nearing completion.

“There’s a desire to turn Baku into a Dubai on the Caspian,” comments one local resident.

Despite Azerbaijan being predominantly Muslim, the influence of the Soviet period and a relaxed attitude to religion means that women are a significant force in the country. This was the first Islamic nation to give women the vote, in 1918, although today it is regularly criticised for flouting human rights. The wife of the president, the highly fashion-conscious Mehriban Aliyeva, is very prominent, both by campaigning for her husband and through the cultural and philanthropic Heydar Aliyev Foundation, named after his father.

The art scene is small and inevit­ably interwoven with the wealthy elite. A pioneer is Aida Mahmudova, a niece of the president, who has founded Yarat, a non-profit contemporary space in Baku, and who also makes art herself. Mahmudova’s cousin Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of the presidential couple, is another artist: both she and Mahmudova had work included in Fly to Baku, a selling exhibition of Azeri art funded by the Foundation and shown earlier this year in London and Paris.

“Everyone in my mother’s family is creative and some are amateur artists,” says Mahmudova. She studied at Central St Martins and some of her work is on public view in Baku, notably a sculpture made of reclaimed windows that currently stands in the old town. Catching Mahmudova is difficult, as she zips between her London home in Chelsea and Baku, with trips elsewhere: she was recently in Paris to attend the opening of an Azerbaijan cultural centre. She created Yarat just a year ago but says the idea had been germinating for five years and was delayed while she married and had her first child.

‘Always/Never’ (2012) by United Visual Artists, part of ‘Let there be light’

With her film-star looks and Facebook page filled with photographs of herself at parties (12,206 “likes”), it is tempting to see Mahmudova as another moneyed woman from a newly rich country climbing on the art bandwagon. But the other side of the socialite is the philanthropist who wants to raise the profile of Azeri artists abroad.

“We have an educational programme with lectures and masterclasses, as well as exhibitions,” she explains. “We want to show people here what’s going on in the wider world.” Through Yarat she is sponsoring artists’ residencies, with a British-based artist going to Baku for three months and vice versa. She initially funded the project herself; now, she says, she has had enthusiastic responses from local companies and donors. She has also created a commercial art gallery, with any profits going to the foundation: the objective is to become self-financing.

And her objectives go further: why not, she says, organise an art biennale in Azerbaijan in a few years’ time?

Meanwhile, in London, another Azeri has entered the art field, this time with a commercial enterprise. Mila Askarova, who was born in Baku, raised in Istanbul and educated in London, opened with a splash last year in a 300 sq m gallery in Dover Street called Gazelli Art House. She was not new to the art world: she had previously worked for Sotheby’s, did Christie’s Art Business course and co-ordinated the Azerbaijani pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Ulviyya Mahmudova (left) and Aida Mahmudova (right) at ‘Fly to Baku’

I meet her upstairs in the gallery, surrounded by the glow of works in the current exhibition, Let there be light (until October 28), which includes pieces by six artists, none of them Azeri. Slight, elegant, her black hair tied back in a simple knot, Askarova clearly does not want to be “branded”, as she puts it, as just a specialist in Azeri artists. “My concept for the gallery went beyond the regional and national; I have Azeri artists but promote them not because they are from Azerbaijan but for their talent.”

While looking for her permanent space, Askarova organised a series of “off-site” shows in London: “I don’t like the word ‘pop-ups’,” she says. “That speaks of short-termism. I want my clients to know we are permanent.”

Askarova admits she struggled initially to define her concept, which is to be “a commercial gallery with a non-profit mindset”. The word “concept” betrays a business mind: her card states “CEO” and she indeed speaks of the art “industry”, “target audience” and “wide angle”. Yet she does not come over as hard-nosed but rather gentle. She funds the gallery thanks to four (unidentified) European backers but says that her strategy is to “go independent next year”.

“I wanted to do something different,” she explains. “We place great emphasis on the educational side, organising seminars around exhibitions.” So, for instance, Richard Wentworth led a discussion of contemporary sculpture when she had a sculpture show: “I thought if I could bring in key figures, academics, and link them with artists who are not well known, it would help build their market,” she explains.

Her next challenge is the opening, at the end of October, of an offshoot in Baku. The space will show western contemporary art and opens with the American duo Aziz+Cucher. “The contemporary art scene is just starting up,” says Askarova. “This couldn’t have happened 10 years ago but now people are much more ready to embrace it. People in Azerbaijan really have a sense of pride now, being part of the bigger picture and not being a closed society any more.”

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