Arts festival caught in the crosshairs of Azerbaijan's ‘national mentality’

A mural in Baku which fell foul of the country's “national values and mentality,” 2019. Photo by Turxan Qarishga / Hamam Times. Used with permission.

It was just a contemporary art festival.

From September 17 to 27, fans of art, film, and poetry were invited to take part in “Maiden Tower. To Be a Woman,” a festival organized by the European Union's Delegation to Azerbaijan and several diplomatic missions. The festival, named after a famous landmark in Baku, was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the liberation of Azerbaijani women. The initiative was launched and curated by the artist Sabina Shikhlinskaya, who founded a contemporary art forum of the same name in 2009.

One of the festival's events was an exhibition of murals and graffiti held at Kombinat, a derelict workshop in the Azerbaijani capital once used by the artists’ union during the Soviet period. The organizers hoped that the works would remain there after the festival.

But something quite different happened. One mural by Swedish artist Carolina Falkholt, depicting the body of a transgender person, drew so much attention that it was painted over once the festival ended — in a not so artistically friendly way.

In fact, it has provoked a backlash, a discussion about the public visibility of sexuality, and even a government response in defense of the country's “traditional mentality.” 

In an interview with, a local government-affiliated news agency, Shikhlinskaya said she fought hard to preserve the mural, but was unsuccessful. “The wall where the artist painted her mural was facing a residential complex, residents of which complained to the police. After a series of complaints from people appalled by the drawing, it was decided to partially paint over Falkholt's work,” explained Shikhlinskaya, adding that, as this was a public artwork, one could not ignore the opinion of residents.

Falkholt's other works are as explicit as the one featured in Baku. The Swedish artist challenges conventional gender stereotypes and portrayals of the female body. In traditionally-minded Azerbaijan, where women's rights are still in their infancy, this did not go down well:

I am curious, why no one has dismantled the statue of a liberated woman?

Guys, you can't get there so quickly. They should have started from small graffiti.

Have mercy, do whatever you want on Torgovaya [main pedestrian street in Baku] but how can you draw balls on the roundabout of 3rd microdistrict [the name of the neighborhood where exhibition was held]

First, the figure's chest was painted over, and other “offending” parts were gradually covered up. Photos of the area on social media indicate that the mural had been completely covered up by 28 September, most likely by the local authorities.

After the protests, the drawing of the “Trans” was completely removed. Do you think it was because of these protests that the drawing was fully removed? // Photo: Cavid Qurbanov.

On September 29, the Baku Mayoral Office issued a statement lamenting the crude attempt to paint over the mural, but conceding that it had offended residents and Azerbaijan's “national mentality.”

Azərbaycan multikultral ölkə olsa belə, öz milli dəyərləri, mental xüsusiyyətləri var. Gələn qonaqlar Azərbaycanın müsəlman ölkəsi olduğunu nəzərə almalı, biz başqa dinlərə, dəyərlərə necə tolerantıqsa, onlar da bizim dəyərlərə hörmətlə yanaşmalıdırlar. Ölkəmizə gələn xarici qonaqlar çox böyük hörmət və ehtiramla qarşılanır. Amma paytaxtda binalar mühafizə olunur, onların fasadları yenilənir. Odur ki, Bakıda binaların üzərinə müxtəlif şəkillərin çəkilməsinə icazə verilmir. Əgər festival çərçivəsində rəssamlara hansısa binanın üzərinə qrafiti çəkməyə icazə verilibsə, bu, o demək deyil ki, onlar bizim əxlaqımıza zidd olan dəyərləri Azərbaycanda rəsm vasitəsilə təbliğ etməlidirlər. Onda belə çıxır ki, Azərbaycana gələn qonaqlara öz təriqətlərini də təbliğ etməyə imkan verilməlidir. Bu düzgün yanaşma deyil. O ki qaldı bunun sənətə və sənətkarlığa qarşı hörmətsizlik kimi dəyərləndirilməsinə, bu fikir ilə qəti şəkildə razı deyilik. Bu gün Bakıda elə binalar var ki, orada qrafitilər çəkilib. Amma bizim rəssamlar bunu elə peşəkarlıqla ediblər ki, özümüz də, gələn qonaq da baxanda zövq qalır.

Even though Azerbaijan is a multicultural country, it has its own national values and mentality. Visitors must not forget that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. Just as we remain tolerant to other religions and values, we expect visitors do the same. Our guests are welcomed with much respect. But the buildings in the capital are protected, their facades are renovated. It is not allowed to draw on buildings in Baku. Just because it was allowed to draw on a building within the scope of the festival, it does not mean they are allowed to project their values that are against our morality through their work. It is as if visitors coming to Azerbaijan should be allowed to preach their own religion. This is not the right approach. We strongly disagree with the [idea that the] decision to paint over the work was a sign of disrespect to the art and the artist. There are buildings in Baku that have all kinds of graffiti but our artists have done it so professionally that we and our guests take great pleasure in them.

This reference to Azerbaijan's “national values and norms” provides an important insight into how Azerbaijani society perceives gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, or indeed any issue often overshadowed by these same norms. But hiding behind the veil of morality and “national values” closes minds to the diversity of artistic expression, something which can only strengthen the country's cultural riches.

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