ESR 10 Blog October/November 2023: Anna Fech

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As the final contribution to the FEINART blog, I take the opportunity to speak with the artist Agil Abdullayev (b. 1992, Baku), who has significantly contributed to my interest in the realm of digital networks within the context of socially engaged art. Being part of a slightly older generation, I did not grow up with social media; it only became a focal point for me during my studies, with platforms like Facebook emerging. During my work as a curator I sensed the emergence of a new generation of artists seamlessly integrating social media into both their everyday lives and, much like Agil, into their artistic expressions.

We worked together on an exhibition titled ‘Shy Boy of the Pink Future’ (2018), which explored the influence of social media on Azerbaijani society, specifically in terms of shaping opinions and fostering participation in discussions. The exhibition posed numerous questions for me, some of which I am now exploring in my doctoral thesis. We haven’t had the opportunity to meet since the onset of the pandemic, the moment of my departure. I’m curious to hear how things have unfolded for you in Baku during this period. Additionally, I am interested in your reflections on the exhibition “Shy Boy of the Pink Future”.

Agil Abdullayev:  I found my time in Baku truly fascinating. It was a period filled with the excitement of new art spaces blossoming and the emergence of vibrant, fresh voices. It felt like a breakthrough for the younger generation, finally gaining recognition amidst an art scene largely dominated by cis-gender privileged male masters. Although the onset of the COVID-19 emergency brought about its collapse, those 18 months in Baku remained profoundly inspiring to me.

‘Shy Boy of the Pink Future’ marked a new language for me—a debut solo show in Baku where I aimed to explore numerous themes close to my heart. Reflecting on this exhibition, I see it as a visual embodiment of everything I delve into within my practice—ranging from exploring trauma and escapism to addressing social class issues. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had you as my curator. Your role in Azerbaijan’s art scene, reminiscent of Leyla Axundova, served as both inspiration and a catalyst for young artists. What is your take on working with so many, almost all the young artists in Azerbaijan? 

AF: First of all, I’m really thankful I had the chance to support many interesting people as they start their careers in the art world. It makes me happy to see how some of these talented individuals have navigated their way through the challenging art realm. In the short time I’ve been in Baku, I’ve observed a noticeable increase in diversity within the art scene, marked by the emergence of artist-driven projects and venues. When I started to work as a curator in Baku I had experience in curating, however less in education. Together with my colleagues at YARAT we initiated many educational programs for young artists. It evolved into a mutual learning experience where I had to discern what proved to work out and what didn’t.

Furthermore, I wanted to be respectful of the local history and backgrounds of the people, avoiding a colonial approach imposing my views as a foreigner. Instead, I aimed to create a space where different ideas about art could coexist. Given my own roots in Kazakhstan and shared post-Soviet experiences, I found the exploration of some topics deeply resonant.

One overarching theme that captivated my attention in my dissertation was the inquiry into imported Western discourses, particularly pertinent to socially engaged art within the digital realm. Based on my investigations, I concluded that embracing a network viewpoint proves to be more appropriate. Historical evidence attests to artists maintaining connectivity and exchanging ideas even during periods of challenging communication and limited mobility, such as the Cold War era. For Example, Zagreb emerged as a crucial node and focal point in the art scene, bridging the East-West division during that time. In my dissertation, I delve into the diverse strategies devised by artists to navigate these complexities.

Talking about the realm of cross-cultural mobility and experiences: The exhibition ‘Shy Boy of the Pink Future’ took place at an interesting point in your life when you returned from studying in the UK to Baku. The piece titled ‘Arrival (I must say)’ drew inspiration from your fresh, potentially foreign perspective on the familiar. In our recent discussion, you mentioned finding it more accessible to create works on topics related to your homeland while abroad. Could you elaborate further on this?

AA: I crafted most of the pieces before my arrival in Baku, a city that holds significant importance in my artistic journey. However, despite this connection, I struggle to operate at my fullest capacity here. Daily, I find myself surrounded by a multitude of issues and flashbacks that hinder my ability to contemplate how I can transform them into meaningful and healing art. ‘Arrival’ was conceptualized in the UK and filmed in Azerbaijan—a reflection of my time studying in the UK, learning how artists navigate that scene. Now back in Azerbaijan armed with this knowledge, I find myself uncertain about how best to apply it. The film captures seemingly mundane moments like waiting for the bus, which in the UK represented discipline that I admired. Returning to Azerbaijan, I face the challenge of asserting my place, whether it’s struggling to board a bus or feeling the need to conceal my femininity to avoid social complications, unlike the relaxed environment I experienced in the UK. So, thinking of how I will navigate in Azerbaijan with foreign education knowledges, ‘Arrival’ reflected what transformation looks like from simplest nuances to major funding operations.

AF: Among the notable works in the exhibition was PINK CITY. This video installation portrayed violent scenes from public spaces, followed by a sequence wherein you portrayed yourself in a pink city—an envisioned utopia where everyone could experience a sense of security. Considering recent global events, including the pandemic and escalating conflicts, even in Central Europe, the prevailing sentiment seems to be a loss of security, as highlighted in my preceding blog post. I’ve often contemplated the idea of seeking refuge within such a rosy cocoon. You extended the narrative with a continuation of the work; could you shed light on this continuation?

AA: It’s quite poignant to reflect that today, PINK CITY holds a deeper significance as it served as a haven from the turmoil of violence, allowing a space for life to persist. However, the present portrayal of PINK CITY seems somewhat distant from attainability. This creation was born from the emotional refuge it provided amidst a backdrop of harrowing homophobic attacks I endured.

I’ve always been curious about your initial thoughts when I first shared the idea. I was driven to bring this vision to life, propelled by an innate need to create such a piece. Throughout my life, I’ve relied on imaginary companions who painted a canvas of a more beautiful world. The narrative of the ‘Shy Boy Of Pink Future’ became a crucial portrayal, illustrating the resilience of these timid souls navigating through abusive neighborhoods and bullying in school.

Returning to this project three years later for its second chapter, my focus shifted inward, delving into my various facets—masculine, feminine, and sexual alter-egos—that emerged at different stages of my life. It became an exploration of the coming-of-age journey from my unique queer perspective. This time around, I had a clearer vision of its manifestation.

I often contemplate how different this work might have been if I were to create it today. What would be the pertinent questions for you in perceiving its essence? How do you envision its significance in the broader context?


AF: I wish I could say that the work PINK CITY had a different meaning if created today, but unfortunately, I don’t think so. When I first began my curatorial journey in Baku, I didn’t have a specific curatorial agenda, but I soon noticed a trend wherein exhibitions predominantly featured male artists. It occurred to me that if showcasing solely male perspectives was conceivable, the reverse should also be achievable. Consequently, I embarked on planning an exhibition solely featuring female artists, an endeavor that proved to be more challenging than anticipated. This experience evolved into a lasting commitment for me, fostering a deliberate interest in diversification. Simultaneously, the broader art scene displayed a keen interest in gender issues. Regrettably, I encountered homophobic attitudes in my family environment, a common experience in the post-Soviet sphere, though I hesitate to generalize. This led me to prioritize supporting artists exploring queer themes, recognizing these projects as deserving of additional backing.

In my recent PhD research, I came across various intriguing (online) initiatives from Eastern Europe, including archives documenting queer culture and their cross-border networking. Some of these archives remain concealed in private hands, like the Moscow Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALG), founded in the mid 90s. Despite an offer to sell the entire archive to a foreign institution, the creator and curator Elena Gusyatinskaya insisted on keeping the material in Russia. The archive’s activities consist mainly in self-published books.

Therefore, I think the message encapsulated in the work PINK CITY remains as valid and significant today as when it was created. I believe that establishing a supportive network can be some sort of PINK CITY in reality, even if it only serves as a refuge primarily on a professional level. These networks may not necessarily help with everyday challenges but can offer crucial support within the professional realm. Talking about online initiatives: As I departed Baku at the onset of the pandemic, you were in the early stages of establishing your own online discussion platform ‘Chaghdashchilar’. I’m curious about your reflections after three years. How has the platform contributed to stimulating cultural discourse? What challenges did you encounter, and were there any unexpected positive outcomes?

AA: Over an extensive period, I dedicated myself to the development of ‘Chaghdashchilar’. I firmly believe that criticism serves as a catalyst for fresh ideas and provides invaluable insight into our progress. However, navigating the realm of criticism within our art scene has been quite intriguing. Establishing this platform was a gradual process; initially, we began with just one exhibition review video per month, relying solely on the support of friends for production due to limited resources—a challenge that persists to this day.

Despite these obstacles, over the course of three years, producing around 6 videos a month including educational visual essays and practical workshops, ‘Chaghdashchilar’ has successfully cultivated a thriving community of artists and cultural workers. Acting as a bridge, we’ve facilitated collaborations and partnerships that have greatly benefited both individuals and the broader artistic landscape. Such platforms undeniably hold a pivotal role in our art scene, fostering connectivity and shared success. Yet, the sustainability of this endeavor remains a significant concern without adequate financial backing.

AF: Thank you for dedicating time to share your reflections on past projects and offering insights into your current practice!


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