artnet Asks: Aida Mahmudova, Director of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku

Will Baku be the next hot art-world destination?

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YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku, 2015.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.
Shirin Neshat, The Home of My Eyes, 2015, Installation image, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.
Artist Shirin Neshat, right, and YARAT's founder and creative director Aida Mahmudova, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku, March 2015.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.
Faig Ahmed, Threads, 2012, Installation image, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku, March 2015.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.
Rashad Alakbarov, Shabaka, 2012, Installation image, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.
Installation view, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku.
Photo: Rauf Askyarov, Courtesy of YARAT.

In anticipation of the inauguration of its new Contemporary Art Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, artnet News spoke to the director of YARAT (“create” in Azerbaijani), the not-for-profit contemporary art organization dedicated to promoting Azerbaijani artists. Aida Mahmudova, the artist who founded YARAT in 2011, remains its creative director.

Yesterday, the burgeoning organization, which heretofore had organized mostly pop-up shows, opened its first permanent space, in a Soviet-era naval headquarters where the views offer a panorama of the Caspian Sea.

The center promises to be at the heart of contemporary art and art education in the region. YARAT already enjoys an impressive permanent collection that will be on display in its “Making Histories” exhibition, coupled with an exhibition by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat featuring a commissioned work, The Home of My Eyes.

The center also serves as the hub of YARAT’s expansive education program, featuring lectures, seminars, and master classes.

artnet News talked to Mahmudova about her plans to mold YARAT into a permanent and commanding fixture in the international art landscape.

How did the vision for YARAT’s new contemporary art space come to fruition?

When YARAT was founded in 2011, we were a “gallery without walls” and all of our projects were hosted in public or temporary spaces. As we’ve built up considerable audiences for our programs over the past few years, we always wanted to create a dedicated permanent center that would give us the opportunity to show significant new commissions by contemporary artists, of which Shirin Neshat is the first, and artwork from our permanent collection.

We also wanted a space for a regular program of exhibitions, workshops and events, as well as our new study center, which I am particularly excited about.

Can you discuss the role YARAT’s new education center will play? On March 24, you welcomed Neshat in a discussion with Sara Raza, the independent curator who is working with the Guggenheim Museum on its collection of art of the Middle East, among other notable panelists. What are some other education programs you’re looking forward to inaugurating?

In 2015, highlights of our education program will include a strong concentration on supporting local artists through a bi-monthly mentoring program to be lead by Raza. We’re inviting guests including Giuseppe Moscatello from the Maraya Art Center in Sharjah and Joan Young from the Guggenheim in New York.

YARAT is also launching a series of talks, screenings and debates focused on contemporary art at a more global level. We’re inviting artists from the CIS region (Commonwealth of Independent States) and will host regular international talks with artists and curators including Neshat, Wafaa Bilal, and Erbossyn  Meldibekov.

YARAT will also host a regular monthly film club with both emerging and established filmmakers and video artists. I’m really looking forward to our schedule this year, which includes screenings of works by Shirin Neshat, Lida Abdul from Afghanistan, Mariam Ghani from the USA, Gulnara Kazmalieva of Kyrgyzstan, Zeigam Azizov from Azerbaijan, Shezad Dawood from the UK, and other international filmmakers.

And I think it’s just as important to reach out to our younger audiences. YARAT has developed ‘Little YARAT,’ in which young people will get involved in YARAT’s workshops and interact with artists. In addition, in the summer of 2015 YARAT will host the first Children’s Art Festival, which will feature works produced in school workshops across Azerbaijan under the theme “Describe the Sky,” exploring science, poetry and the changing environment.

Which YARAT initiative are you most pleased with?

I am most proud of our education program, which I’ve found incredibly rewarding and was always a main priority for YARAT. In 2014 we were able to launch a summer school and support a residency program for artists through the building of new studio spaces.

We’ve also established ARTIM, which means progress in Azerbaijan, to help create opportunities for young artists to be commissioned. One of the most exciting projects to come out of this was an exhibition called “Zavod,” which took place in an immense disused factory, was curated by well-known Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed and featuring site-specific work by 29 emerging artists.

What are YARAT’s future ambitions on the international stage? Where do you hope the center will be in 10 years’ time?

One of my greatest ambitions is for YARAT to continue to extend its educational activities across Azerbaijan. My hope is that YARAT will open a dedicated education center that will offer a permanent space for workshops and events, similar to the exhibitions we will now be able to hold in our new contemporary art center.

I see YARAT continuing to make great strides in its mission to raise the profile for Azerbaijani art internationally. To do this, we’ll expand the number of artists we work with, increase the number of exhibitions we hold in Azerbaijan, and aim to reach an even wider audience.

YARAT’s collection boasts works by Rashad Alakbarov, Orkhan Huseynov, and Sitara Ibrahimova, among many others. Who are some emerging contemporary artists on your radar?

I’m really pleased that we’ll be working with emerging Baku-based artists Nazrin Mammadova and Farhad Farzaliyez for “A Drop of Sky,” our third public art festival in Baku.

Mammadova will use the language of video games to create an artwork that explores the gentrification of Baku and invites players to participate as “informal architects” in the development of the city. People will be able to download the game on handheld mobile devices.

Farhad Farzaliyev will create a large neon billboard in the city that explores the relationship between text and art, directly referencing the writing of Tusi and Khlebnikov alongside his own. The artists will also orchestrate a joint sound performance.

On a personal note, can you discuss the importance you place on Azerbaijani history in your own works and the role memory and nostalgia play in them?

My works are not directly influenced by Azerbaijani history but instead draw inspiration from the landscape and architecture of the country, particularly as so much of it continues to go through rapid change and modernization.

I’m fascinated with the idea of memory and how it links to our identity, particularly how both can be continually altered and re-remembered over time. My landscapes are very personal and re-imagine scenes by combining fiction and reality.


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