Summer 1999 (7.2)
Quest for the Light
It's easy to distinguish Kamal Ahmad's paintings from those of his contemporaries. It's the interpretation that may be somewhat elusive, since his works are quite abstract. Kamal is known for using bright colors, especially piercing reds and oranges accented by black, emanating very strong visual images as shown on our cover-"A Woman Against a Carpet Background" (1987). Adversaries in Baku and Moscow used to call him "The Napoleon of Painting" and "Napoleon of the Black Color".
Kamal started working during the period when Social Realism was at its peak, but he refused to paint things as they appeared to the eye. He always felt that the artist was responsible for interpreting social issues. "Every canvas should show a problem, every painting should expose a problem." So passionate and intense was he about art that he once said, "If it wasn't for the fact that it would kill me, I would have painted with my own blood."
Kamal Ahmad had a very hard life. His family lived in the city of Agdam in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. When he was eight years old, he was orphaned. His mother, a kindergarten teacher, died during World War II. His father, a head engineer who had been wounded in the war, returned and died a few years later. Kamal's younger brother went to live with his grandmother, but Kamal was sent off to an orphanage. It was at that time that he first became interested in art, after his teachers embraced him and took him into their homes and exposed him to theaters, museums and other cultural places and events.
In 1957, he began studying art at the Azimzade School of Arts in Baku. By this time, he was already creating his own style of art, disregarding the instruction to follow the Soviet school of Social Realism. On more than one occasion, he was kicked out of school. Only because of some progressively minded professors was he able to graduate in 1964.
Left: Kamal Ahmad, "Crucifixion of Christ", 3' x 6', 1990s.
Kamal's name is often associated with Buzovna and the community of artists who lived in that sea coast village on the Absheron peninsula not far from Baku. Kamal lived in Buzovna until 1967.
He and Javad Mirjavad were both known for their bold, imaginative styles and their fusion of traditional miniature painting with elements of European progressive art. As a result, Kamal is considered to be one of the founders of the "Absheron School of Arts."
Symbols of Light
Kamal's paintings are full of symbols, often painted on dark, black backgrounds. Many symbols relate to concepts of light pitted against that darkness. Invariably, there is his signature moon hanging low in the sky.
The moon appears bright red, yellow, white or even pink or blue and seems to shed a mysterious light over the entire canvas. Usually, it is crescent in shape (just like the Turkic symbol on the Republic's new flag), but occasionally it appears almost as a "half moon".
Some say these moons symbolize "the incarnation of beauty and poetry". In one of his paintings from the 1970s, he even depicts the burial of the moon. The painting shows women carrying a coffin, which cradles the moon.
Kamal's wife Elmira says that he was trying to express his anxiety and distress about the demise of national poetry that he sensed was occurring. Kamal was talented in his ability to recite poetry. In his youth, he used to spend a great deal of time during his university years in the library learning on his own, reading voraciously, not only about the arts but about literature as well.
Left: Kamal Ahmad, "Dogs", 100 x 80 cm, oil on canvas, 1991.
Another important symbol related to this theme of light and darkness is the lamp, burning with a yellow or white-hot flame. As a carrier of light, the lamp represents hope in overcoming the darkness and gloom that fill much of the rest of the space on his canvases. Since the lamp illuminates only those things that are important to the artist, it often creates a haunting sadness. Elmira says that Kamal always felt some sort of a dark shadow hovering over him because of all the obstacles in his path. Many of them were artificially created by officials who did not like his opinionated works.
It was for this reason that Kamal left the city and went to live in the small village called Goradil near Fatmayi on the Absheron Peninsula. He lived there for several years. The families there helped him immensely every day taking turns and bringing him food. They called him "our artist". It's likely that many of them didn't even know his name. In essence, it was the generosity of these villagers that kept him alive, not the government. Kamal has a series of paintings dedicated to this village.
Many of Kamal's works were dedicated to the problems that affected Azerbaijanis in the 1980s and 1990s. In a painting entitled "Walking Woman" (1984), he sympathizes with a refugee woman who is fleeing from her home. On top of her head is a heavy bundle that shows a tiny picture of her home. Kamal was especially sensitive to the refugee issue since he himself had grown up in the region that became occupied by Armenians.
Left: Kamal Ahmad, "Walking Woman - Refugee from Karabakh", 50 x 80 cm, oil on plywood, 1984.
He also addressed the Black January incident of January 19-20, 1990, when Soviet troops attacked civilians in Baku's streets in their attempt to squelch the independence movement.
The "Massacre of Khojali" (February 1992) refers to the town where hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were murdered overnight as the Armenians began their siege of Karabakh. Kamal had anticipated many of these problems and, following the tradition of other poets and artists during the Soviet period, gave them names that identified geographical locations outside the Soviet Union, such as "Palestine Tragedy" and "Chile" because of censorship.
Kamal's subjects include strange, fantastic birds, dogs, donkeys and other animals. He also has a series of self-portraits. In the end, they seemed much more optimistic and even included new colors including a verdant green. In 1987, Kamal's first personal exhibition opened in Baku. He was 47 years old at the time. A milestone in his life, it signified the closure of what is known as his "Black Period". In the years that followed just as the Soviet Union itself was beginning to dissolve, he began to be acknowledged for his works. In 1988, he won a prize for his work "Absheron Women" in an all-Union Exhibition in Moscow. In 1989, he won first prize for his painting "Initiation to Salvador Dali" at the First Biennial of the Caspian Sea Republics (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan). In 1989, six of his works were exhibited in Italy. During the Noruz holidays of 1993, his series the "Artist's Family" went on exhibition in Baku.
Left: Kamal Ahmad, "Goradil, Path to Heaven", his last painting, oil, 1994
Kamal's marriage to a fellow artist, Zemfira Aliyeva, ended in divorce. Later he married his second wife, Elmira. The couple had one daughter. Elmira remembers Kamal as a person who had a very contradictory nature but was very kind and straightforward and could forgive every fault. He was critical of people, but deep inside he did not wish harm or injury to anyone. First and foremost, he was devoted to his art and expected everyone around him to make allowances for that. She said, "He would have sacrificed his life for us but not his art." Kamal met an untimely death in 1994 brought on, primarily, by self-neglect and abuse, sadness and disappointment in life. His worth as an artist is just beginning to be realized
Farhad Khalilov and Elmira Ahmadova (Kamal's wife) both contributed to this article. Elmira may be reached at Tel: (99-412) 71-98-54.
From Azerbaijan International (7.2) Summer 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.