Modern Art of Azerbaijan: From a Student Initiative in The 1990s to the Venice Biennale

Elshan Ibrahimov, painter and Vice President of Arts Council Azerbaijan, told Culture and Creativity about the group of Azerbaijani artists who have pushed forward modern art in the country since the 1990s. It is an inspiring case of how very young people, thanks to their determination and progressive ideas, initiated the largest exhibitions, festivals and art clusters in Azerbaijan.

First initiatives

In the 1990s, when we were still students, there was the Union of Artists and several other associations in Azerbaijan, which in the main consisted of the older generation of artists, who had their own views on art. However, we wanted to unite like-minded people and young artists to hold cultural events and contemporary art exhibitions together.

Our first exhibition was called Avant-Garde and Modernism in Art. It was organized in 1996 on the initiative of my colleague and close friend Farid Abdullayev. At that time, I was not even 20 years old, and my friend Farid Abdullayev was just 16. This exhibition featured the kind of performance, which was unusual and new for Azerbaijani audiences. We also held a fashion show and an exhibition of drawings by artists who have become very popular today. 

Art Centre

This institution, which was funded by the George Soros Foundation, has become a meeting place for our initiative group including me, Farid Abdullayev, and already famous artists Orhan Huseynov and Rashad Alakbarov. Leyla Akhundzade, art historian and head of a department at the University of Arts, acted as our advisor. The first disappointments and the first solid steps of our team are associated with this institution. Having drawn up our initial project, we waited for a response for a while, but when we realized that we were not getting any, we decided to transfer the management to Leyla Akhundzade. Then, having received a grant, we implemented the project Wings of Time, where we demonstrated video art pieces, performances, numerous installations, and street art for the first time in Azerbaijan. Later, we named our organization Wings of Time, after our first successful project.

Then, thanks to Leyla Akhundzade, we were able to lay the solid foundation of our activity.


It is not empty words when I tell young people that even if the door that you knock on is closed, you can always find ways and opportunities to bring your ideas to life in other ways.

A few months later, the same organization enlisted us in a new project called Cosmopolitica, a part of the music festival New Music from the Last Century, where our artists were invited to present a number of performances. 

International cooperation

After these projects, we received some international invitations for the first time. However, we also wanted to initiate international projects in our country. So in 2002, we organized a symposium and exhibition called Orientalism Inside and Outside. The event was attended by artists from six countries, and the sponsors included local diplomatic missions. The exhibition was also broadcast online. 

The next international project was a biennale. This time we wanted to make it different and dedicated it to technology. It was called Aluminum – a festival of art plus technology. To date, Aluminum has been held five times. Whereas the first Aluminum involved three galleries and artists from 10 countries, the fifth one involved 15 galleries and participats from 17 countries, and 60 foreign guests included not only artists, but also curators from a number of European galleries who have taken an interest in the Baku Biennale. 

Another theme-based international festival, Man and Woman, was held in 2005 under the auspices of the French Embassy in Azerbaijan. The participants of the festival were 124 artists from 22 countries.


In addition to managers, the core team of Wings of Time also included artists who successfully combined creativity with management skills. The founders of the organization were Orkhan Huseynov, Fakhriyya Mammadova, Rashad Alakbarov, Faig Ahmed and Jeyhun Odzhadov. The main lesson that I have learned from teamwork is that the implementation of a project requires each participant to understand their role and often to put personal ambitions aside. 


There is no doubt that one of the most important steps for our organization was participation in Azerbaijan’s pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. For the first time Azerbaijan was represented so extensively and at such a high level. Twelve artists were involved, and the curators of the first pavilion were Leyla Akhundzade and Sabina Shikhlinskaya. In 2009, our organization also contributed directly to Azerbaijan’s pavilion.


Our guru

The activities of our organization are mostly associated with the name of our head, Leyla Akhundzade, who tragically passed away in 2010. The name and activities of our organization departed together with her. But the team, artists and even audiences brought up by her continue to successfully participate in numerous exhibitions today.

The heritage of our organization that has survived to this day includes the festival Aluminum, which is now managed by the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan. The path to the Venice Biennale was trodden by our organization as well. And of course our team members: my friend and colleague Farid Abdullayev became the executive director of YARAT, the Azerbaijan’s largest art space. His background is evident in the management of this organization, which increased the number of employees from three to 53 and implemented more than 500 projects over the course of five years. The Arts Council Azerbaijan, which I represent, has implemented more than 300 projects.
Artists, who found themselves at our exhibitions and were brought up by them, are now well-known domestically and internationally: Rashad Alakbarov, Orkhan Huseynov, Faig Ahmed, Farid Rasulov, Ali Hasanov, Fakhriyya Mammadova, Jeyhun Odzhadov, Tora Agabekova, Niyaz Najafov, me and many others.

Elshan Ibrahimov

Orkhan Huseynov

Rashad Alakbarov,

Faig Ahmed

Fakhriyya Mammadova

Farid Rasulov

Ali Hasanov

Niyaz Najafov 

Tora Agabekova

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