Azerbaijani culture in Diaspora: A conversation with Kabira Aliyeva

Below is the second in the series of interviews Azerbaijan in the World has recently conducted with leading figures in the Azerbaijani diaspora on the state of Azerbaijani culture abroad.  This second discussion, which focuses on art, is with Kabira Aliyeva, a distinguished Azerbaijani artist living in London.  Ms. Aliyeva’s official page could be accessed at  

Azerbaijan in the World:  How did it happen that you became an artist?  Was it a rational choice of conscious mind or a rather spontaneous pursuit of what you felt was your calling in life?

Kabira Aliyeva:  It has been a truly long journey.  I started drawing when I was three, drawing without interruption on any surface, with any instruments I could use as drawing tools.  It is hard to explain, but as a child, I had an endless stream of images coming into my mind that I felt I had to communicate and reflect on one way or the other and as quickly as possible.  Consequently, as a child I often drew things I had never actually experienced in real life. 

With a vast portfolio of drawings at the age of four, I was admitted to the children’s arts gallery, which still exists in Baku.  That is where I met my first and greatest mentor, Katana Gazi Sharifova.  She was instrumental in encouraging and prompting me to work harder.  When our family moved to Turkey, however—my interests at school began to drift into science.  As I always loved and was attentive to detail—a tendency that found expression in my artwork as well—I became particularly interested in molecular biology.  At the time, I had decided I did not need to go to an art school to keep practicing art and that it is rather biology that I should study at a University level.  Eventually, I studied biology first at the Imperial College London (bachelor’s) and then at University College London (master’s), while in parallel also completing a course at Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design.  Several years after my studies in science, I was working fulltime in my profession trying to combine the latter with the concomitant practice of art.  It was only recently that I decided to devote myself fully to art. 

AIW:  What is biology for you now then?  Has it played any somewhat substantial role in your art or life more generally?

Aliyeva:  Absolutely.  I have never regretted studying biology, as these two disciplines, biology and the visual arts—radically different though they might seem to many—are in fact not so different, since both require much experimentation and thinking outside the box.  Hence, to me biology—and natural sciences in general—represent a visual world of living organisms and thus something I find very easy to relate to.  As an artist, in particular, I find my biology background as a source of elements of the natural world that I feel one could easily translate into the visual language of art, the latter being more accessible and intelligible to the broader masses.             

AIW:  How would you characterize yourself then?  Are you a biologist?  An artist?  Or a combination of both?

Aliyeva:  My formal background is in sciences; my life is in art. 

AIW:  How has the subject matter of your art evolved and what influences have affected this evolution? 

Aliyeva:  I cannot really tell you why I drew what I was drawing when I was a child.  As I mentioned, it reflected my desire to communicate to the outside world a very powerful stream of images—often dynamic scenes—that were constantly going through my mind back then.  As time passed—and this probably had something to do with our family’s constant moving—the ethnic core has gradually come to underlie my art.  While my art did feature some ethnic elements while I was still based in Baku, the intensity of their presence certainly grew further as I spent more time away from home.  Indeed, this has gradually emerged as my way of keeping, and reflecting back on, the memories of my home country as I left it back then.  In a way, through memories and associations—and my work that embodies them—I keep on breathing and living those memories and sensations.  And this is indeed a function of the subconscious, for very often—just as it was the case in my childhood—I do not know what a particular image I would start drawing will ultimately evolve into.  It often happens that I understand the meaning of my particular work several weeks or even months after I have actually created it.  

AIW:  Where do you see your art going next?

Aliyeva:  I don’t really know, but I do have a lot of ideas that I hope I will be able bring to fruition.  First of all, I would like to be able to draw more from my scientific background.  I feel there are so many concepts in science that could be raised, highlighted, and addressed via visual art.  My experiments are still in their “embryonic” stage right now.

AIW:  Some of your artwork have a specific name attached to them; others don’t.  Does it have to do with the fact that the meaning of some of your paintings—those deprived of a name—has simply not arrived to you yet?

Aliyeva:  Indeed, and in general, I don’t tend to name my work and ordinarily do it only just before or because of an exhibition.  While I have indeed come to believe that people do need a little bit of direction in the form of a few lines as to what a particular painting is about, I rather prefer giving freedom to the audience to interpret my art; it often happens that the comments others would have about my work reveal something new to me as well, both about myself and the work’s essence.              

AIW:  You referred to your first mentor, Katana Gazi Sharifova, as perhaps the biggest individual influence on your art.  Could you name other artists, in Azerbaijan or abroad, who have affected your journey?  

Aliyeva:  I would say it is specific works, rather than particular artists with all the work associated with them, that have inspired me.  As an example, I can point to a huge vessel-type installation Marsyas by the sculptor Anish Kapoor, once exhibited at the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern Art Gallery in London.  I also like the works of Marc Quinn who draws much of his inspiration and ideas from the world of biology, as well as Louise Bourgeois.  

There are also several Azerbaijani artists whose work I appreciate and admire, including Tahir Salakhov, Sakit Mammadov, and Altay Sadikh-zadeh, amongst many other gifted individuals.  I also enjoy works of many young Azerbaijani artists, such as Faig Ahmed who also likes mixing the traditional and the modern.  

It is difficult to name specific artists who would inspire me at any particular stage in life.  In that respect, music has probably had more effect on how I work, primarily Azerbaijani jazz now.  I also recall how I was once powerfully inspired by one of Alim Gasimov’s mugham concerts, to the extent that upon my arrival back home I spent the entire night painting in what one could refer to as a single burst of inspiration. I can’t say I understand mugham particularly just yet, but I am gradually getting there, as I think mugham represents a form of expression one should mature towards.  One way or the other, it had a powerful effect on me at that particular moment to inspire me into a night of unconscious creativity.         

AIW:  Which of your exhibitions do you consider a particular success and which of them is the most favorable memory you cherish? 

Aliyeva:  I strongly believe that every exhibition is a challenge, and any show in which you get even one person to come, see and appreciate your work is a success.  Although I have a long way to go, and I have a lot of work to do, so far I have been very lucky, and I am very grateful for the recognition and appreciation of my work that I received from people for what I do.  There may be no point in doing my work if it does not speak to anyone.  

AIW:  What is art for you then?  That is, what is the principal objective driving you?  Is it getting your paintings sold, getting them exhibited, or the very process of art creation?            

Aliyeva:  I think, the core of it is sharing.  Whether the work gets sold and ends up hanging on someone’s wall or gets exhibited otherwise, sharing may be the underlying motivating factor.  Again, it is always a two-way process: people, I hope, get something from my work, and I always get something from people’s reflections on my paintings.  

AIW:  What do you see as your next challenge?  

Aliyeva:  Every project is a challenge.  The goals I set before myself are about ideas I want to realize and themes I want to reflect on, rather than particular galleries in which and particular audiences to which I would like to get my work exhibited.  I have been thinking about establishing an organization, or a club if you like, perhaps even in Azerbaijan, that would bring together scientists and artists and have them work together, asking questions.  The idea is to build a bridge, by virtue of this questioning exercise, between art and science in order to identify some gaps and downfalls in either discipline and address them.  I am very passionate about this idea, but I know I still need to learn more within both fields, as well as about management.    

AIW:  You are an Azerbaijani, yet you are based in the United Kingdom and normally are exhibited outside the place of your origins.  Do you feel you represent Azerbaijan with your art or do you see your art as more cosmopolitan in nature? 

Aliyeva:  I don’t know how I am perceived, but I feel strongly that I am an Azerbaijani artist.  Indeed, I feel more Azerbaijani in my work than anything else.   

AIW:  In what ways, then, do you think your art represents Azerbaijan and communicates Azerbaijani identity to the outside viewers?

Aliyeva:  I strongly believe that every work radiates energy, a certain part of an artist’s spirit.  And I think this energy comes across to people who are sensitive to it.  When exposed to a particular work of mine and the energy it embodies, the viewer is likely to sense the eastern character underlying my culture, feel the sunshine, for example, or tickle taste buds with Azeri food specialties, or anything one would easily associate with what Azerbaijan is all about.  Besides, much of my work communicates Azerbaijani identity through the many details it normally features, be it the small references to my culture or color combinations that I create.             

AIW:  You note that the energy your work embodies communicates the Eastern character of where you come from.  Is it, then, how you would identify Azerbaijan?  Put differently, do you have a clear idea of what Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani culture is for you? 

Aliyeva:  Oh, I think it is such a mixture of things!  Yet I certainly feel it is more Eastern than Western.  I really don’t know though, and it is a very interesting question.  Probably because I moved several times between places, I have gone through and experienced a kind of an identity crisis, and my art has been my way of finding a way back home.     

AIW:  Given that you say you are not often in control of what you paint and the meaning of your art would normally come to you some time after its creation, I wonder what sort of a message your paintings communicate to you about your country?  Does Azerbaijan emerge, through your paintings, as an embodiment of Eastern culture or Western culture, or indeed a mixture as you suggested?  This is especially interesting given that you actually left Azerbaijan many years ago—indeed in 1994—and have had no or little chance to observe the many dramatic changes and transformations the country has undergone over the last two decades.  Do you think your paintings reflect on and capture these dynamics and the evolution or do they rather capture, and get fixated on, an Azerbaijani image and an image of its culture as those were back then, before the time you moved?  

Aliyeva:  Indeed, I think my work rather portrays Azerbaijan as it was before 1994, which is why it communicates more of its Eastern character and remains blinded to the many Western elements that came to pervade the country over the last couple of decades.  And yes, Azerbaijan is changing at a truly crazy pace, something that for me as an artist is actually very challenging to deal with.  Maybe because I left my country when I was so young, I try—primarily through my art—to hold on to certain memories very tightly, as sometimes those memories are all you have; many of the reference points simply disappear sometimes.  It would actually be very interesting to spend more time in Azerbaijan today, so as to feel the changes and reflect on them through my artwork.                 

AIW:  Have there been instances of collaboration between yourself and other artists from Azerbaijan or indeed elsewhere?

Aliyeva:  Most of my work is the product of an individual effort.  I think I am a bit of a loner in this respect.  I would certainly love to collaborate with others, but I think I need to grow more proactive in terms of reaching out to others.  However, one of the recent collaborative projects in which I was involved and of which I am very proud and very happy about is my cooperation with renowned Azerbaijani violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva who approached me to illustrate some of the pieces from her wonderful first collection of music, UnVeiled.  I also participated in another collaborative effort, which involved seven artists, four musicians, and three painters, named Pass:on and directed by Pablo Magee and Margareta Nystrom. 

AIW:  Have you ever engaged in any projects with any government agency in Azerbaijan?

Aliyeva:  My only adult solo exhibition in Baku was in April last year, the result of my personal initiative and one funded from private sources. 

AIW:  There has been much attention on the part of Azerbaijani government to promoting different strands of culture and arts, such as mugham, for example.  Do you feel that art is receiving its due?    

Aliyeva:  I think it is certainly great that the government is now paying so much more attention to issues related to culture.  Yet I also think there is a fine line between promoting something because it makes your country look good and promoting something for what it is.  Sometimes I am not sure which of the two is actually happening these days in Azerbaijan, and perhaps it is a combination of both.  Regardless of what the driving factor is, however, I think it is certainly great it is happening at all.  

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?

Aliyeva:  I think the key to it is education, which is indeed the basis for anything progressive.  Hence, the many workshops and lectures, including those featuring international scholars and artists, are all very positive developments.  More of it would certainly be great.  In this respect, updating the curriculum and programs in the art schools is a must.  I suspect local art schools need a greater infusion of what is going on in the artistic field internationally. Consequently, bringing in some international experts could prove very helpful and engaging for young artists.  

Also making things more competitive and merit-based for artists would also serve to create a healthy environment in the country’s artistic field.  In my view, fair competition drives progress and creativity and should be strongly encouraged.   

Establishing independent agencies and organizations that would—on a competitive and merit basis—allocate funding to certain artistic projects would also be an asset.  There is for example an organization Yarat!, which was recently established and is, to my knowledge, currently the only organization of its kind in the country solely dedicated to art; and it is doing a great job.  I would certainly love to see more such groups emerging.  Furthermore, there are also countries, like Germany for example, in which the government subsidizes studio space for artists (much like in the Soviet times) in which to work.  Having an arrangement of this sort in Azerbaijan would be great. 

In my view, it is also important to develop an overall environment in the country in which one could feel one could thrive as an artist, so that gifted people would not get discouraged from the pursuit of art because they would not be able to provide for their living by practicing art.                 

And finally, I think art is in many ways about freedom, so the country has to learn to be open to the diversity of ways in which an artist might wish to express himself through the art he creates even when he questions and explores the world around him and challenges many elements in that world.  There is indeed a greater diversity in the current artistic field in Azerbaijan, including, for example, emerging installation work, which are fairly new to Azerbaijan, some cultural works; there are also increasingly more performance artists, like Ali Hasanov, who are gradually coming to light.  

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?  

Aliyeva:  I am not sure.  I don’t think there is any specific school or trend in art that would explicitly embody Azerbaijan, or indeed any other nation for that matter.  There are certainly some elements in art that could give reference to one country or another or to one particular region, but it is hard to imagine one could “nationalize” the entire art, even if of one particular artist.  Perhaps, African art represents this kind of clearly ethnic form of art, and there has recently been an explosion of Chinese art, which is very strongly national in character.  But certainly with globalization progressing, efforts of “nationalization” of art will grow ever more challenging.