Artwork included in Ahmet Öğüt’s Hiçbir şiir, şairini sevmez (No poem loves its poet) series (courtesy the artist)

As fighting intensifies between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Yarat Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan is facing criticism after it refused, and eventually conceded, to take down an exhibition by Ahmet Öğüt. The Kurdish-born artist accused the institution of using his work as a “propaganda tool.” 

The row between the artist and the space started on October 25, when Yarat’s official Instagram feed displayed a photo of the building’s facade with an Azerbaijan flag between the two banner exhibitions. The image caption included a hashtag that read #KarabakhIsAzerbaijan. 

On October 29, following several days of talks between Öğüt and the institution which failed to yield a solution, Öğüt published an open letter on the Instagram feed of Protocinema, an independent art center in Istanbul whose executive director, Mari Spirito, curated Öğüt’s exhibition at Yarat.

In the letter, Öğüt claimed he did not feel comfortable with his work appearing in this context, saying that Yarat’s Instagram post and caption “have nothing to do with my independent vision or the content of my exhibition.” 

“As the institution has rejected my requests to take down the exhibition banner and remove the aforementioned image from its social media, I have no other option, but to publicly demand the immediate closure of my exhibition at Yarat Contemporary Art Centre. I refuse to allow my work to fall prey to political instrumentalization,” Öğüt’s letter states. 

After the letter was circulated, Yarat acquiesced to the artist’s demands later that day, agreeing to end the exhibition but not to remove the controversial image that prompted Öğüt’s letter in the first place. 

Öğüt, who was born in Diyarbakir and works between Amsterdam and Berlin, often employs site-specific political content to activate his installations and sculptures with a social bent. However, he denies that his latest work could be construed as a political offshoot towards complicit support for the Azerbaijani war effort. “Over many years, as an artist, I have worked many times in conflicted areas, and have responded to the local situation with nuanced and challenging artworks,” he said in the open letter. 

The title of Ögüt’s exhibition at Yarat, called Hiçbir şiir, şairini sevmez (No poem loves its poet), “highlights how mankind has built spaces to purposefully exclude others,” the exhibition’s press statement reads. The show features two new, site-responsive commissions that utilize video and sculpture to examine gentrification in the city of Baku. 

Yarat (meaning “to create” in Azerbaijani) was founded in 2011 and opened its first permanent space in a former Soviet-era naval building in Baku, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan. Founded by Aida Mahmudova, the niece of the Azerbaijani dictator, Ilham Aliyev, the 2000-square-meter space has in the past hosted banner exhibitions by the likes of Shirin Neshat and others.  

In a 2015 interview with Forbes, its founder insisted that the institution maintains objectivity from the political climate and is independence from the government. “People think that just because of my relations, it affects our independence. But staying independent is very important to me. Even if we have technical support from the government — they allow us to rent spaces and to obtain permission for the various events we have done — we are not funded by the government.” 

A quick perusal of past exhibitions at Yarat reveal that the institution, to the contrary, has always been politically active in asserting the Azerbaijani government’s geopolitical ambitions. In a 2017 exhibition entitled Neither War, Nor Peace, Yarat presented the Karabakh region as Azerbaijani, despite it being inhabited by 80% ethnic Armenians. In the press statement accompanying the exhibition, which included an installation called Who is to Blame by Zamir Suleymanov, the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan is used to “strengthen patriotic moods.”  

Other cultural institutions in Azerbaijan have made no effort to conceal their support for the war either. Earlier in October, two museums — the National Art Museum and the National Carpet Museum, both in Baku — announced in separate statements they would be making cash donations to the Azerbaijani military. “The glorious sons and daughters of the homeland gathering all their strength on the front line and at the rear are ready to fight against the enemy on the battlefield for the liberation of the occupied lands of Azerbaijan and the restoration of the territorial integrity of the country, as is our civic duty,” the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan said in a press statement announcing its donation of 3,000 manat (~$1,760).

In the final paragraph of his letter, Öğüt makes note of the difficult and oftentimes contradictory nature of politically motivated art when presented in such contexts. “I am very well aware that art institutions in many countries operate under difficult political circumstances, and some succumb to state pressures as a way of self-preservation,” he wrote. “Still, regardless of the country, institutions must not endorse state interference and forfeit their primary mission of safeguarding artists’ integrity, artworks, and exhibitions.”

Correction 11/4/2020 6:45pm EST: An earlier version of this article stated that Öğüt is a Turkish-born artist, however, he is Kurdish-born. We regret the error.

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