Azerbaijani Contemporary Art: Interview with Curator Asli Samadova

Asli Samadova, a culture manager and museum specialist living in Baku and Milan, studied business, management and public administration before a career shift in 2013. Originally educated in Azerbaijan, the United States, Italy and UK, her business experience has helped her develop cultural organizational skills. Since student times, she has been an active advocate of Azerbaijani heritage, in addition to working towards the popularization of cultural history among local and international audiences. .art speaks to Samadova about her past and future projects and the effects that the pandemic has had on artists.

Above: Asli Samadova, photo courtesy of Adil Yusif

How did you get into the arts?

I attended the Academy of Public Administration in Baku and won a Department of State UGRAD scholarship to spend one year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Alongside my Economics major, I began taking studio art classes. However, it was not until I was on a sabbatical and went to the Victoria & Albert museum’s The Clothworkers’ Centre that I realized that I should make a career change. I call myself a curator by chance, someone who was lucky enough to be the right person at the right time and in the right place, multiple times. My curiosity led to an international academic project titled Silk Treasures, and I continued from then on. 

You identify as a nomad. Where do you consider to be your home?

According to one of my friends, ‘Home is where your phone automatically logs into a house wifi’. Going by this definition, I have multiple homes in Europe and of course, Baku. I would also add that home is where you have people waiting for you and you feel needed. 

You have an extensive education. What knowledge was the most useful to you in your career? 

The knowledge I gained outside universities from people I’ve worked with or met. Out of all the universities I’ve studied at, Milan’s Bocconi University prepared me best. 

What are you driven by in your projects? 

I am driven by both passion and my mission. My mission at the moment is to help Azerbaijani artists get more visibility, especially internationally. I also aim to showcase high-quality international art that otherwise is unlikely to be known and seen in Baku. These two missions are interlinked: without a local interest in art and an ecosystem in place, it is very difficult to be relevant internationally. 

The Ta(r)dino 6 Art Platform is one of your latest projects. What is the idea behind the project? 

Ta(r)dino 6 is the first Baku-based, self-organised, independent and women-run art initiative launched almost 1.5 years ago. At Ta(r)dino 6, we support the discourse around Azerbaijani contemporary art within an international context, with a special focus on gender, identity, and equality. Ta(r)dino 6 is a relationship, trust, and a mutual respect-built union, so all our projects are based on our mission statement and values. We are the only self-organised project in Azerbaijan that’s also a member of several international and regional professional associations. Last year, the project was mainly driven by free time and serendipity, but now it’s beginning to take more shape and structure. Thanks to this unity of likeminded individuals, things that otherwise are considered impossible are actually attainable. We operate with the principle of ‘when there are no opportunities, create them’. Funds are still necessary, however, to achieve higher visibility and support our artistic community. We hope to fundraise the first essential amount (at least €5,000 to launch our permanent space in Baku) with the help of Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2020 Solidarity campaign. The principal fundraising event will be a crowdfunding campaign at the end of 2020 and early 2021. This will be also a good test to see whether a niche project like ours would break the glass ceiling and reach its fundraising goals.

Artist Irina Eldarova’s digital interpretation for the ‘Art on a Wall’ project, initially planned as a public art project that would display an artwork as an outdoor banner in Icherisheher at Kichik Qala 58 address. Credit: @tardino6 instagram.

We know that you had big plans for offline exhibitions this year. How has the pandemic affected these plans? 

The Off the Velvet Chest exhibition from Moscow Triumph’s gallery extension series was scheduled to tour several cities in Russia. The opening in Kazan at Smena Contemporary Art Center was rescheduled from April to July 22. The exhibition will be there until September 6. The gallery had plans to show it in Ekaterinburg and Saint Petersburg, but now the situation is unclear. 

There were also museum projects in Milan and Paris that are currently on hold, but this let me concentrate on Ta(r)dino 6 activities instead. We started with improving our digital presence and introducing art projects on Instagram, such as A Week-long Romance, AThOME and Unbrushed Senses. In June, we were selected to present at the .ART x CADAF Online fair section. Ta(r)dino 6 presented the The Choice, 2020, virtual media installation by Azerbaijan-US based collective Hypnotica and the Unknown Territory by Azerbaijani artist Shalala Salamzadeh. We are also working on a yearlong programming for a 160 sq.m. art center in the heart of Baku’s historical centre, and an alternative art space in Antwerp, Belgium.

In summer we have two digital projects – an all-female group show organized with our colleagues from Kazakhstan on a digital platform of New York based Sapar Contemporary gallery and a curatorial research project dedicated to video art in Azerbaijan. Between August 26 – September 3, Ta(r)dino 6 will present a video programme in the framework of La distance séparant l’oeuf du sol festival in Marseille that coincides with the opening week of Manifesta 13.

What steps do you think can be taken to support artists, curators, and galleries during the pandemic? 

The pandemic served as a catalyst revealing the need to solve problems and to think about the future in terms of a more ethical and solidarity-driven world. Undeniably, art needs money, but few people would seek art on an empty stomach. In countries where art has been appreciated and important mechanisms were already in place, both governments and private initiatives continue to support art and creativity in the crisis time. In Azerbaijan, even though the system is in place and individual initiatives exist, it requires time, strategic vision, and compassion to form a healthy art ecosystem. Another problem is that even within the professional community, working in the arts is often mistaken as a hobby: ‘if you like your job you might even do it for free’. However, times like this are also promising. I see a bright future for self-organization and community-run initiatives.   

Ta(r)dino 6 conducted a survey to study the effects COVID-19 was having on artists. As a result, Ta(r)dino 6 has revised its mission and programming to supply art professionals with projects and jobs. We sent letters presenting our findings to the Ministry of Culture, diplomatic missions, and international cultural institutions working in Azerbaijan. With the financial support of Faig Ahmed Studio, Ta(r)dino 6 made a one-time payment to artists who were affected the most. The Embassy of Sweden chose to fund a Micro-commission project that we launch in June. Recently, this project caught the attention of EU policymakers in Brussels, so I really hope that our easy to implement and replicate model can be introduced in other countries. 

Does a curator need a personal website? 

Yes, especially an independent curator. It is important to document your work and to build an online presence. 

What would you say is the role of the Internet and digital technology in the development of the art world in the 21st century? 

The digital realm could play a role in democratizing the art world, but it still reflects real-life inequality and imbalances. Initiatives like Ta(r)dino 6 benefit from the Internet and our presence on social media. However, since we operate in a periphery, we are not considered entirely relevant to the global art world.

A collaboration ‘Flowers for Medics’ topic is a campaign launched by .ART Domains.

Mindful digital consumption is a subject that’s gaining increasing attention. We recently interviewed media theorist Geert Lovink, who points out a need for safe, task-oriented digital environments that help us avoid online addiction. Do you think this could ever work?

It is almost impossible to avoid the digital. In avoiding a digital presence, a person risks depriving oneself from information, knowledge, and social interactions. Mindful digital consumption can work with a more ethical tech business, as well as individual self-discipline.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give young artists so that they’re taken seriously?

Take their art practice seriously.


Find out more about Ta(r)dino 6:

Find out more about Asli’s work:

Tamara M.
Tamara M.
She knows that she knows nothing.