Situated in a former Soviet-era naval building overlooking the Caspian Sea, the YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan serves as a centre devoted to showcasing contemporary art from the Caucasus and Central Asia region. As gusts of wind enrapture the centre on a cold winter’s day, one of Azerbaijan's most renowned contemporary artists, Faig Ahmed's exhibition, Nə var, Odur (it is what it is) showcases within the historic walls of the centre. Curated by the Artistic and Strategic Director of YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Björn Geldhof – Nə var, Odur exhibits a series of commissioned works conceived by Ahmed which examine gender relations and social practices within traditional Azerbaijani communities.
Over the past decade, Ahmed has received international acclaim for investigating and reinterpreting ancient carpet design – reimagining the methods of historic carpet weaving throughout his practice. The artist’s latest exhibition at YARAT, Nə var, Odur further develops his research of traditional cultural practices through mediums ranging from carpets and sculptures to film. “With this exhibition, he took a jump in his artistic practice,” explains Nə var, Odur’s curator Björn Geldhof. “Complicating the media that he works in and being much more profound and researched in the subjects that he’s dealing with.”
Upon entering the exhibition, one must peel through layers of ivory lace curtains entitled, Curtain In-between. The borders of fabric act as a gateway, enticing visitors into a domestic domain portraying a series of traditional Azeri social practices and cultural taboos manifested across the works exhibited in Nə var, Odur. A field of sugar cones, entitled The Biggest confronts visitors past the entrance of curtains. The sugar cones represent the traditional gift newlyweds are offered and consumed once the first male child is born, representing fertility and patriarchy in Azeri culture. “It’s an object that can exist in reality or in our collective subconscious” explains Ahmed on the sugar cones’ phallic forms displayed in various sizes, conveying the male hierarchal structure in society. Ahmed draws upon existing practices as well as the symbolic cultural meanings derived from rituals within society to provoke discourse and a potential transformation in perceptions. “For me, it’s interesting how art can influence the big part of the subconscious,” he says,“To use these symbols to enter into the collective subconscious and how it can be destroyed, modified or grown, that’s my goal with art”
An installation view of Faig Ahmed's manifestation of traditional Azeri rituals. Copyright YARAT. Photography by Patrick Verbruggen
The works exhibited at Nə var, Odur continue to address gender dynamics while underscoring the transition into adulthood practised in traditional Azeri communities. Suspended from the wall, a hand-woven carpet entitled, Virgin progressively alters from a traditional Azeri textile pattern to a singular hue of crimson red. The work is filled with symbolic importance, which Ahmed addresses through the carpet. In traditional Azeri culture, a girl will craft a carpet which she will bring into her marital home, representing her rite of passage into womanhood. What interests Ahmed is how the intricate craftsmanship of carpets in Azerbaijan are designated to women, consequently bestowing them with power in the community “The meditative process of a woman creating a carpet, that connection is more magical and more powerful,” he notes, on the influential role women possess within the local culture. Similarly in Nine Nights, a pyramid of white mattresses pertains to the mattresses girls receive in their childhood leading up to their wedding and transition into adulthood. Ahmed emphasises that the mattresses represent the base of reproduction and a woman’s ability to procreate, once again aiming to accentuate the key role which women play in the patriarchal society.
Faig Ahmed. ‘Nine Nights.’ 2016. 9 mattresses. 350 x 250 x 170 cm. Edition 1/3. Copyright YARAT. Photography by Patrick Verbruggen
What propelled the conception of Ahmed’s exhibition is Social Anatomy, a silent film which showcases key societal rituals in an orchestrated procession. Viewers gain insight into the practices performed in traditional Azeri society from a circumcision to a wedding and a funeral procession, while the aerial perspective evokes the symmetrical patterns utilised in carpet weaving. “You can’t change the whole details of the mechanisms of society,” Ahmed explains. “If you wanted to change it you would have to understand how the system works.”
Positioned behind a wall partition, the exhibition concludes with several drawings entitled Small Wedding. Each illustration is concealed behind a red curtain, representing the various Azeri ritualistic practices of male circumcision. Ahmed’s graphic renderings convey the personal and often traumatic rite of passage in a boy’s life – a ritual which is rarely addressed within the local culture.
Throughout Nə var, Odur, Ahmed shines a light on societal practices and cultural taboos with the aim to provoke discourse about the existing fabric of traditional Azeri society. When asked why gender dynamics interest him, Ahmed reflects, “Everything was quite secular in my family. At the same time, it gave me an objective point of understanding the [traditional] social structure. Especially as I was a rule breaker.” While Nə var, Odur has been received with critical acclaim, Ahmed is currently content with the results achieved with the exhibition, “It has created a reaction in society. For now that’s enough,” he says. Ahmed hopes to inspire other artists to produce work which addresses the themes explored in Nə var, Odur while continuing his renowned investigation into the craftsmanship of carpets. – Nada Bokhowa
Faig Ahmed’s exhibition Nə var, Odur showcases at YARAT Contemporary Art Space until January 29, 2017