Summer 1999 (7.2)
Yesterday and Today, the Same -
We're Just Characters That Change Clothes
The intriguing characters in Nusrat Hajiyev's paintings look historical, but they're not meant to seem old-fashioned. You'll find the men dressed in baggy Turkish pants and turbans, while the women wear long dresses and veils, reminiscent of the traditional dress a century ago. Nusrat doesn't paint this way out of a sense of nostalgia or sentimentalism, but says, "Life today is still the same-we merely change our clothes." People wear clothing designed by Christian Dior today, Nusrat says, but he believes that their conversations, temperaments and emotions are the same as in the past. "You'll find someone hiding something from another person, someone trying to cheat another, and someone loving another with the same intensity and devotion as Romeo and Juliet did in the past." Nusrat's fusion of the past with the present lends a timeless quality to his work.
I remember that when I was about four or five years old and wasn't yet able to read, I had a book with wonderful illustrations in it. It was hard to separate me from that book. I used to become absorbed in those pictures. We were living in Ganja [north central Azerbaijan] at the time. Later during a move to Baku, the book was misplaced. It took us a couple of years to finally locate it, stashed away among some of my parents' books. I immediately remembered the book and since I could read by then, I found out that those drawings were made by an Italian artist. That book was my first introduction to art. Today, illustrating books brings me the greatest satisfaction of all.
Of course, I've had many kinds of artistic influences in my life. My father Suleyman was an architect who was involved with the theater and occasionally played the role of an artist in plays. He also made drawings. Elchin Mammad [a distinguished illustrator] is my relative. The famous Azerbaijani composer Fikrat Amirov [1922-1984] was my uncle [See Winter 97, AI 5.4]. I also had an aunt who was an actress. So I became an artist because I realized there was such a profession, thanks to the people who were part of my everyday life.
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev, "The Shah", 18 x 25 cm, watercolor on paper, 1998. Packed together like sardines, the Shah's subjects are passive and servile, expressing no personalities of their own.
However, it seems to me that primitive man is the most genius of artisans. He is the one who began the whole process of artistic expression in the beginning by picking up a stone or sharp object and drawing his impressions on cave walls. Somehow he had this urge to create and document the beauty of life around him. He wasn't just occupied with satisfying his physical needs.
Later when I started attending Baku's Art School (1969-1974), I had already decided what kind of artwork I wanted to do-watercolor miniatures related to history and folklore. I drew a lot of inspiration from 13th- and 14th-century artists such as Soltan Mohammad and Behzad. They were members of the famous miniature school in Tabriz, one of the most developed art schools of its time. Soltan Mohammad brought the portrait genre to this school with works such as "The Prince with a Book," which is supposed to be a portrait of the Safavid ruler Tahmasib, who ruled a region that extended 1 million square kilometers and included Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
At the time, my desire to pursue miniature artwork would have been considered "nationalistic" and severely reprimanded and discouraged. Other artists who had tried to express nationalistic views ran into difficulties and couldn't get their works exhibited.
For example, when I was a student, there used to be art exhibitions at the Lenin Museum in Baku [now the Carpet Museum]. One day when I was passing near the Boulevard, I saw Rasim Babayev [see page 45] walking with his head down and a painting under his arm. The work, called "Pistachio Tree", had been pulled from the exhibition that was to open the following day. I still remember the dejected look on his face.
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev "Old Baku", 26 x 22.5 cm, watercolor on paper, 1997.
It was the first indication I had of how things could be for me in the future. But still artists like Rasim and Kamal Ahmad [see page 66] used to bring their works to show exactly how they were working, even if their works were usually rejected. Today, they are among the most respected artists in our country.
Public vs. Private
I soon learned to make a distinction between public and private art. I created two kinds of works: one for society and the other for myself. The first group of works was shown in exhibitions organized by the Artists' Union. The second group remained privately in my studio.
For my public art, I made posters for exhibitions. They were easy. Each poster was dedicated to a certain theme. As part of our homework for art school, we created works for exhibitions around certain themes.
For example, there were exhibitions dedicated to the October Revolution, Women's Day or Lenin. A few months prior to each exhibition, the theme would be identified so that we could start our work. For my first exhibition in 1972, I depicted Ichari Shahar (Baku's medieval Inner City).
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev, "Malikmammad", 6.25" x 9", watercolor.
In my private collection of art, I created works related to history, legends and customs. But it was impossible to exhibit them. Only my relatives and friends saw them. I didn't hide them, nor do I think anyone would have arrested me if they had seen them.
We didn't have any restrictions as to what themes we could choose. You could paint or draw anything. You could even bring the works to an exhibition, but they simply wouldn't be exhibited. I sensed which works to take to the exhibition and which not to take. To tell you the truth, the works I paint today would definitely have been excluded from the exhibitions.
I've loved to read since childhood. When I decided to become an artist, I wanted so much to have my art appear in books. I think books, especially children's books, bear
a lot of similarities to miniature art. Children like to read books with pictures. Since I inject national spirit into the works that are introduced into children's books, this helps to foster national spirit within children.
As a book illustrator, it's critical for me to transfer the spirit of each book into its graphics. It's not fair to take anything away from the general spirit of the book. But when I create other works on my own, I try to contribute my own ideas and imagination.
When I work on something, I try to inject my love into it from the bottom of my heart. I'm known for being very exacting and paying very close attention to detail. For instance, sometimes it takes me two hours just to draw a character's beard.
In terms of adding perspective, I try to make the scene convincing. That is, those who study my works can identify two schools in them: both the school of miniatures and the school of contemporary art.
I don't draw my figures with narrow eyes as they did in the past, simply because our people do not have narrow eyes. I think the artist has the responsibility to portray life from his own point of view. Why should art remain like it was in the past?
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev, "The Tale of Yusif", 6.25" x 9", watercolor.
I love humor and really enjoy being around people who have a sense of humor. That's why I try to add a touch of humor to my miniatures as well. I think humor is inseparable from intelligence. The themes I deal with primarily are authority and nationality. Such issues are eternal. They existed in the past, we experience them in our everyday lives today and they will exist in the future.
But it's not always easy to portray works from a historical point of view. Finding resources and references to draw the old costumes turns out to be quite difficult. There are some traditional costumes on exhibition at the Tagiyev History Museum, but this is not enough. My primary source comes from ancient miniatures. I've also found some books and postcards for references. Most artists have to resort to their own imaginations. It's difficult to create old settings, but I think it's important to be as authentic as possible.
If you look at the works I did 20 years ago and compare them to what I do now, you'll see a big difference. Sometimes it's hard for me to even recognize my own works. Sometimes I don't even want to remember how I used to draw because I have such a temperament that usually after finishing a work, the very next day I don't like it and start being critical of it.
Even though we have gained our independence, I don't think I will ever be able to feel completely free. In fact, I don't want to be free of all responsibilities. I am not living alone somewhere, isolated on an island. I have my relatives and my children, and to a certain extent, I depend on them as they do me.
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev, "The King and the
To be independent from a repressive government is a different issue, but moral dependence is necessary for mankind. We need our families, our children, our friends and our art. There can be no such thing as freedom here on earth. If such a thing could exist, man would be spoiled spiritually. I like the fact that I need to depend on someone and that I have specific duties towards them. When I fulfill these duties, I am the happiest man in the world. The same can be said about art. I am a human being and I am an artist. They are dependent on each other. When these two notions merge, they create something unique indeed.
Before Azerbaijan's independence, it was difficult to consider most artists who had gained strong reputations as "real artists". If the situation hadn't changed, no one would have known about Azerbaijan's talented dissident artists like Javad
Mirjavad [page 30] or Kamal. Among their peers, they were very respected, but among the general population, very few people knew them. No one even looked at them when they walked down the street. Meanwhile, the well-known artists who catered to the government's wishes were given the choice assignments, held high positions and made decisions about art projects (and who received the commissions and projects).
Left: Nusrat Hajiyev, "Jumping Over the Bonfire at Noruz" (Spring Solstice, March 21).
Today the situation is much different. We used to be dissatisfied in the past; it wouldn't be fair to say that we are dissatisfied today. We aren't, but yet we are. It's just that we have a different set of difficulties that we have to deal with. It's hard for average artists to make a living. One needs to be world-class and extremely talented to become well known. The main problem now is financial. I'm not talking about buying clothes and things like that. Sometimes I have to be concerned whether I will even be able to afford paint.
Still, I think art will continue here in Azerbaijan despite the difficult economic situation. It's something that can't be stopped. I remain optimistic about this. In the future I think there will be fewer artists. Very few parents will urge their children to become artists. But if a child is born with talent, that talent will emerge. As a result, in the future, I think the quantity of works will decrease while the quality increases.
Nusrat Hajiyev can be reached at (99-412) 92-15-90 (home) or 76-17-38 (studio). He has been a member of Azerbaijan's Artists' Union since 1978.
From Azerbaijan International (7.2) Summer 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.