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Homegrown art: how Azerbaijani youth is cultivating culture in the regions

Creative spaces that are breaking stereotypes and help break out of the vicious circle of “home, work, home, repeat”

While JAMnews was researching this story, life in Azerbaijan came to a near standstill due to the quarantine. We must not forget, however, that the epidemic will end sooner or later, but the culture will still remain.

Friday evening for youth in Baku means a choice between several options, from glamorous night clubs to art-house film screenings. Friday evening for a guy from the provinces is usually a choice between a tea house or a coffee shop. And girls often have even fewer choices, since the prevailing opinion in these areas is that decent girls are supposed to sit at home in the evenings. Simply put, there are practically no sources of entertainment for young Azerbaijanis living in the regions, and even fewer options for creative self-realization. But two people have taken it upon themselves to change this situation.

While in the northwest part of the country, Murad rushes through rooms filled with spring sunlight and the sonorous sounds of a piano, greeting new visitors and trying to find an electrician, in the southeast, Igrar negotiates with local authorities and wonders how to come up with the several thousand manats needed for repairs.

Just a couple of years ago, they both lived in Baku, and both attended and organized parties and festivals. When they returned to their hometowns, they realized that their services were much more needed there than in the capital.

Art Garden

Murad glances around furtively before sticking an Art Garden sticker on a lamppost. Extra publicity never hurts. Although in Ganja, the organization is far from unknown.

Ganja city center. Photo: JAMnews, Bashir Kitachaev

Ganja is the second largest city in Azerbaijan, although the population is only about four hundred thousand – ten times less than in the capital. The city is characterized by its red brick buildings, a puppet theater held in an abandoned church, and the Ganja River, which in March, is still completely dry. No one would call Ganja quiet or boring – life here is richer than in most other regions of the country. The city boasts modern cafes, multiple theaters, a cultural center, and a recently-opened mall with a cinema has recently opened. Artists from Baku often exhibit their work here. But the youth, who gravitate more towards contemporary art, until recently, still had nowhere to go. Therefore, when such an “unconventional” place as Art Garden appeared in the city, it immediately became very popular.

It started in the beginning of 2018 as a six-by-eight meter basement. Today, Art Garden Ganja occupies a whole house with many rooms, storage spaces, a veranda and even a small garden.

Cafe Khoyski. Photo: JAMnews, Bashir Kitachaev

Art Garden starts in the Khoyski cafe, named after Fatali Khan Khoyski, a political figure of the early 20th century and one of the most famous Ganja natives. A portrait of Fatali Khan himself, painted by a local graffiti artist, greets visitors at the entrance. Painting walls in the city is illegal, so local graffiti artists come to Art Garden to let loose.

The cage grew into Art Garden some time after it opened. They needed a profit to cover the utility bills, and now revenue from the cafe helps not only support the activities of the art space, but also pay the salaries of some of the workers. Murad himself and the main members of his team have yet to make any personal profit from the space. Some of Murad’s fellow team members even invested their own money in the business.

Large hall for concerts, parties and exhibitions. Photo: JAMnews, Bashir Kitachaev
The courtyard. Photo: JAMnews, Bashir Kitachaev

One such person is Barista Kepez, a former accountant, who writes songs, draws a little and is, according to him, at the age of 30, “on the verge of a crisis of a quarter-life crisis.” He says that he wants to start to training people in coffee roasting and brewing at Khoyski Cafe. There is also Tahmina, an artist; Ismail, who loves carpentry (he even has a carpentry app downloaded on his phone, which apparently is a thing that exists); Musa, who handles the bills and gardening; and Ayten, who dreams of becoming a journalist. All of them are Ganja-born and raised. They all share similar stories of how they joined the Art Garden collective – they came, they saw, they stayed. And they all say it has radically changed their life, by helping them find new friends and break out of the vicious circle of “home, work, home, repeat.”

Art Garden hosts concerts, performances, exhibitions, art therapy sessions, and much more, including something like a talk show, where participants can express their opinions on various topics. Someone is constantly playing the piano in the cafe. In a separate secluded room, Tahmina gives drawing lessons. Downstairs, in the garage-turned-locksmith and carpentry workshop, Ismail makes furniture and other household items. And in a nearby annex, local music groups rehearse. All rooms and equipment are provided free of charge; all you have to do is sign up to use them.

“We used to rehearse in a friend’s apartment, with two guitars drum sticks, and a table instead of a drum kit. And in Art Garden, we were given everything we need not just for rehearsals, but also for performances. So we can say that this is where our career began,” says the leader of the group Rigveda Huseyn.

Overcoming shyness and stereotypes

If things continue going well, Murad is considering opening similar art spaces in other regions of Azerbaijan in the future. He concludes from his own observations that the youth in the capital are much less enthusiastic than their peers from Ganja:

Murad Nabiev in the carpentry workshop. Photo: JAMnews, Bashir Kitachaev

“Young people in Baku have five different events to choose from at any given time, and it loses its appeal. And here, in Ganja, there are few alternatives, so people are more “focused.” Another difference between the local youth and those in Baku, in my opinion, is that people in Ganja are more timid. You need to take a special approach, talk to each of them for a while and find out what their interests are and how they would like to express themselves. You need to acclimatize them to a new atmosphere. While working in Ganja, I learned to establish closer relationships with people.”

Art Garden has also helped Ganja youth, and even older people get rid of some stereotypes associated with “bohemian life” (which in the province is often associated with moral depravity). According to Murad, many locals were initially suspicious of the place, and now even families come to the Khoyski Cafe.

Tahmina, who joined the project while it was still in the “basement stage,” says it was a bold move for a woman from Ganja:

“I always wanted to have my own workshop, and Murad offered me the chance to work in the basement, where Art Garden was then located. My parents were against it, tried to talk me out of it, and pressured me. But I didn’t give up. ”

Tahmina calls Art Garden the turning point in her life, and is convinced that the regions need these places, not just as a hangout, but also to help people change their worldview, expand their borders and, sometimes, even find their path in life.

Building the web

Lankaran is a city on the sea, a subtropical region with tea plantations that is “two steps away” from Iran. The population is a little over fifty thousand. The city has a youth center, but it plays no major role in the lives of the local youth. And order reigns in Lankaran, which tends to be quite strict and conservative.

Lankaran. Photo: JAMnews.

Igrar lived here until the age of 14, when he moved to his aunt’s house in Baku, as he puts it, “to have a better future.” Once he got his education and had some job experience in the fields of journalism and art, Igrar returned to Lankaran in October 2019, rented an old abandoned building that used to be a bookshop, and began to transform it into a media library called Tor (“Network,” “Web”). He says he wants to give local youth those opportunities that he himself did not have when he was a teenager.

Tor is actually an exceptionally advanced modern library, which, in addition to books, carries films, music and various equipment on which to watch, listen and view it all. And the library will also contain a cafe, an art workshop, rooms for musical rehearsals and workshops, and a green area. Here you can not only read, but also engage in creative or educational activities, hold various events and, of course, meet other people.

“Kiwi party” held in the future library space. Photo: JAMnews.

Igrar hopes that Tor will eventually function as a social business. That is, in addition to benefiting the public, it will also bring in some profit. True, so far, he’s had nothing but expenses – turning an abandoned building into a modern media library requires a lot of money. Igrar launched a 30-day crowdfunding project to raise money under the hashtag #yüzadamıngücü – #силастачеловек (the power of one hundred people). He assumed that at least one hundred people would contribute one hundred manat [about $60], and that some would personally help with the repairs. In reality, only sixteen people donated money.

Igrar Gurban. Photo: JAMnews.

Although this, says Igrar, is not a bad start. He is trying not to lose heart, even if things are put on hold. He lacks not only financial, but human resources. It is difficult to find people willing to be a permanent part of the team. Right now, his team consists of just two people – Igrar himself and Nurai, who lives in a suburb of Baku, helping remotely and making frequent trips to Lankaran. Among other difficulties, Lankaran officials have not taken a liking to Igrar and are not permitting him to refurbish the building.

Lankaran. Photo: JAMnews.

But local residents support Igrar – they don’t like living next to a dilapidated old building, so they would prefer if someone did something with it. Igrar, in turn, promises that the media library will not be too noisy.

But despite the fact that Tor does not yet have a physical location, it is already functioning as a creative initiative, holding cultural events for both local youth and people from Baku. For example, at the end of January, Tor collaborated with Art Garden to organize a “Kiwi party” for the people of Baku – a one-day tour of the plantation in Lankaran where kiwis are grown.

Written with support from Mediaseti

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