Azerbaijani culture in Diaspora: A conversation with Chingiz Abassov
Below is the seventh in the series of interviews Azerbaijan in the World has conducted with leading figures in the Azerbaijani diaspora on the state of Azerbaijani culture abroad and at home. This seventh discussion is with Chingiz Abassov, a distinguished Azerbaijani artist based in Helsinki, Finland. Mr. Abassov’s web page is at www.abassovart.com.
Azerbaijan in the World: How did it happen that you become an artist? Was it a rational choice of conscious mind or a rather spontaneous pursuit of what you felt was your calling in life?
Chingiz Abassov: As far back as I can remember, I was always drawing and painting. The very process of creation was joyful and I would spend hours playing with paints, which my parents were kind enough to constantly supply. They also showed my pictures to Mural Nadzhafov, a professor of art history at the Polytechnic Institute, who—having seen the first products of my creation—strongly recommended that I be allowed to pursue an artistic career. My first step in that direction was to take art classes in Pioneer Palace in Baku. Overall and in many ways, the unfolding of the process of my artistic growth was a natural development. I quickly grew into it as if it were indeed my calling. As the time passed, I became ever more committed to art as the only career option I would wish to pursue. I then went to pursue artistic education at the Azimzade Art College in Baku, a place most of Azerbaijani artists received training. I then continued my studies at St. Petersburg’s Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design (now known as the Stieglitz Academy of Art and Design), from which I graduated with honors diploma in Monumental Arts.
AIW: How has the subject matter of your art evolved and what has affected this evolution?
Abassov: Subject does indeed matter. It used to be all about national identity. It started in my years in Art College in Baku and grew stronger in St. Petersburg. Probably, Azerbaijani ancient miniature art and folk art had a greatest influence at that stage of my artistic career. My diploma work in St. Petersburg was the mural, the composition of which was based on stories from Azerbaijani folk tales. I still remember how much I enjoyed creating that composition and putting together all those characters and stories that the process of creation involved. After graduation, I continued to create the works based on Azerbaijani miniature art, but I began including more decorative and abstract elements. I guess it was natural for an artist of my generation in early post-Soviet years to search for national identity, trying to go back to the roots and thus shake off the influence of the dogmatic socialistic art of Soviet era. Unsurprisingly perhaps, camel emerged as an appealing subject for many artists to paint at the time. Whether it served as a symbol of revolt or nostalgia for the past to some or power or eastern mentality to others, to me it symbolized all of these combined together and I therefore did my share, too. (Indeed, I still keep in my studio one of the camels I created at the time, a painting I hold very dear.) Gradually, however, my interest moved beyond the limits of national identity and became more universal. Motherhood, passion, love—the entire range of sensual expressions—have since become the primary focus of my art. There were two sources of the influence underlying the transition in my art from pure national thematic to the more universal ones: the humanistic art of Renaissance and life itself. Michelangelo, whom I consider a greatest artist of all times, was my “hero” in youth. His greatest achievement of showing even tiniest human emotions through expression of body movements had impact on me as an artist. On the other hand, having an opportunity to travel allowed me to become acquainted with many cultures, an experience that eventually prompted me to conclude that—just as the Holy Quran has it—all people are a single nation. Indeed, whether we are Azerbaijani, Finnish, or American, we all are similar in our universal quest for happiness and love. Consequently, I would describe my art as cosmopolitan by its thematic basis, but strongly national by expression and implementation.
AIW: You mentioned Michelangelo as an important influence on you as an artist. Could you name any other individual artists, in Azerbaijan or abroad, who played a role in your artistic journey?
Abassov: There are at least two people I must mention in this respect. One is Tahir Salakhov, the famous Azerbaijani artist: the letter of recommendation he gave me enabled me to continue my artistic education at the Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design. And the second is Steven Garrett, a US-based British architect and former director of the J. Paul Getty Art Museum and Armand Hammer Art Center, whose review of my work helped me to obtain permanent resident status in the United States within the extraordinary talent category.
AIW: Where do you see your art going next?
Abassov: Currently, I am working on the series of works dedicated to Baku. In it, I intend to show both the ancient historical and modern sides of the city. I am also planning to publish in the United States the art album of these works, which will be my contribution to promoting Azerbaijan abroad. In addition to that, high quality prints will be made available through my website and other relevant channels for the world’s consumption. I hope Azerbaijan’s culture and tourism ministry and other relevant governmental agencies including our embassies will help me distribute these new works, for I believe my art can and should be used to promote Azerbaijan worldwide. I am also planning on staging an exhibition of my original works some time soon in the United States and, if that goes well, some other countries as well. The project is also meant as a gift to myself for my 50th birthday later this year.
AIW: Interesting. What is art for you then? That is, what is driving you in your work? Is it getting your paintings exhibited and sold or is it rather the very process of art creation?
Abassov: Art is a process of creation itself. Hence, it is this creation which drives an artist. The process of creation, in turn, is about the energy an artist communicates. It is the energy, which comes from the heart through the hand to the tip of the brush on the canvas and stays there in different colors, shapes and forms. Consequently, the more sincere an artist’s intentions are, the more pure the energy (s)he communicates is, the more profound an impact the ultimate product has on the subconscious world of its audience is. If energy is the matter which never dies, one could argue, that is how artists immortalize themselves by transferring their energy onto canvas, marble or on any other materials. That said, I certainly would not like to diminish the importance of exhibiting and selling. As Picasso said, “If there is a room with paintings on the wall, but no single viewer, that means there is no paintings either.” Besides, professional artists need the earnings from their art to be able to support their work further, lest they be prompted to pursue a “real job.”
AIW: Which of your exhibitions do you consider a particular success and which of them is the most favorable memory you cherish?
Abassov: Over the last 20 years of my artistic career, I have participated in a wide variety of exhibits, including solo, group, regional, nationwide, retrospective exhibitions, art expos, biennial, art auctions, various mural projects, and the like. However, the one that stays in my memory was my solo “Twins” exhibit in Laguna Beach, California in 1994. That is, perhaps, because I had dedicated it to my two newly born children, Sarah and Emil. All in all, I am very grateful that most of my exhibitions have proved successful and, as such, generated sales as well.
AIW: What do you see as your next challenge?
Abassov: As I work in the representational style and am by training and commitment a monumental artist, I would like to create several large-scale works dedicated to Azerbaijani history.
AIW: You are an Azerbaijani, yet you are based in Finland and normally are exhibited outside the place of your origins. And you mentioned that you see your art as both national and cosmopolitan. In what ways, then, do you think your art represents Azerbaijan and communicates Azerbaijani identity to the outside viewers and in what ways is it cosmopolitan?
Abassov: The last ten or so years, I have divided my time between my native country Azerbaijan, Finland, where my family lives, and the United States, where I have different art projects going on. As I mentioned earlier, I consider my art cosmopolitan by subject, but strongly national by its design. As such, I do certainly feel I represent Azerbaijan. For example, a few years ago I had my solo exhibition in Brussels. The opening reception was attended also by diplomatic representatives of Azerbaijani embassy in Belgium. The name of the exhibition was "Going Rio,” theme being a Brazilian carnival, but as everyone noticed, the expressions, colors, temperament, and energy of these paintings were by no doubt purely Azerbaijani! That is what I think is ultimately the most important aspect in visual art—not what a viewer sees, but the way (s)he receives, on a subconscious level, the wave of energy the artist puts into his creation. Another example of my work that would be relevant to mention to this effect is a triptych “Madonna of XXI century,” which was exhibited at the Florence Biennale in 2003 and later purchased by prominent German art collector and industrialist Reinhold Wurth. In the central panel, I painted Mother embracing the Child with the worry on her face for the future of her Child in this turbulent world. In the left section of the triptych, I painted the ancient town Gala near Baku with a Karabakh carpet on the foreground, the latter painted from the actually existing carpet woven by my great grandmother long time ago in Shusha. And on the right panel, I showed a serene winter landscape in Finland. The idea was to show how interconnected and interwoven different parts of the world are, including as expressed in universal concerns mothers in either corner of the world exhibit for their children. In addition to my own art, I have sought to promote Azerbaijan through the Finland-based EU-Azerbaijan Cultural Organization of which I am co-founder and chairman. Through it, I have organized a photographic exhibit on Shusha in Helsinki, an event that both started and ended with an image of Khary Bulbul, a flower that only grows in Shusha and is widely viewed as a symbol of Karabakh. And I helped organize the march in central streets of Helsinki in the memory of the Khojaly genocide.
AIW: Have there been instances of collaboration between yourself and other artists from Azerbaijan or indeed elsewhere?
Abassov: Several years ago I organized group exhibitions in Finland where I have invited my fellow Azerbaijani artists, who at that time lived in St. Petersburg. The exhibition of three Azerbaijani artists aroused the interest among the public and was well covered by media. Among many projects there was the one I remember most clearly, which involved the preparation of a mural in Lompoc, a few hours drive north of Los Angeles. There I worked with a variety of artists from various backgrounds.
AIW: Have you ever engaged in any projects with any government agency in Azerbaijan? Have you ever had, or are you planning to have, your exhibition staged in Azerbaijan?
Abassov: In 2011 I was commissioned to design a 17 meters long wall relief for the interior of the new office building of SOCAR in Tbilisi, on the history of Azerbaijani oil. It is one of my works of which I can say that I am very satisfied with the result. As an Azerbaijani artist living and working mostly outside of Azerbaijan I feel an obligation to hold an exhibition in Azerbaijan soon.
AIW: The Azerbaijani government has promoted certain categories of culture and art, such as mugham. Do you feel that art is receiving its due?
Abassov: Our government has put great effort of promoting visual arts of Azerbaijan internationally and domestically as well. I had a very interesting conversation with Elin Suleymanov, currently our ambassador in Washington when he was consul general in Los Angeles. He greatly supported my idea that to be recognized in American art scene we have to have our own permanent art gallery in the United States.
AIW: More generally, what is your assessment of the current state of the artistic field in Azerbaijan and what do you think should be done to contribute to its further evolution? That is, what forms do you think the government’s support for art could assume?
Abassov: In my opinion, increasing the numbers of galleries and other venues would be important, in that it would provide artists with greater opportunities to show their works. The current number of the art galleries is quite small. Consider this comparison: in tiny city Laguna Beach with population of near 30.000 people, there are more than hundred art galleries—ten times more than in Baku. I also back the idea of restarting classical art both in educational means and further promotion and support trough Government art institutions such as Art Union.
AIW: The government’s interest in mugham reflects, among other things, its effort to mould a post-Soviet model of Azerbaijani identity. In that, mugham represents a key component. Is there a way in which you believe art by Azerbaijani nationals could help in these efforts to craft a specifically Azerbaijani national identity?
Abassov: Each type of art has its own unique way to shape national identity. Our musical heritage mugham shaped our national identity for centuries and has direct profound impact on subconscious of every Azerbaijani regardless of where he lives in. I would say mugam is component of our soul; it is in our genes. As far as visual art is concerned, it can and should play a significant role in shaping national identity. The key thing is for it to become the part of everyday scene not only in big cities, but in rural places as well. At the time of Michelangelo, Florence, his hometown was independent state. Everyone who once visited this city can say the whole city is a museum and art can be seen everywhere. And no wonder that the great master always proudly declared, ”I am Florentine!” If we are successful in promoting art in our country, all of those born there wherever they may live will say equally proudly “I am Azerbaijani!”.