Summer 1999 (7.2)
The Expressive Magnificence of Stone
The haunting images found in Fazil Najafov's Sculpture Garden invite you to speculate on their ambiguous meanings. For example, his bronze sculpture "Three Blind Men" (1979) shows three men clutching onto each other, struggling to remain standing. Two of them stare blankly up into the sky, oblivious to the sun above them.
The emphasis here is not on realistic detail-their clothing, hair or anatomical correctness-is unimportant. Instead, Fazil seems to be revealing something more symbolic.
Perhaps, it was the crippling blindness of living under a repressive Soviet government (that would collapse 12 years later) or could it imply the blind aspiration of our generation busily scurrying about not knowing the direction of their own destination?
Fazil says that he based the sculpture on childhood memories of blind men who used to wander along the streets praying. He refers to this sculpture as one of his more "pessimistic and sensitive" works.
In April 1999, we asked Fazil about what it was like struggling to maintain his artistic vision, especially when confronted by a Soviet government that strongly disapproved of such ominous abstract images
Fazil Najafov was an extraordinary student at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. For his final art project in 1961, he decided to create a work specific to Azerbaijan, something that reflected the life of the oil workers in his country. His clay sculpture depicted an exhausted oil worker leaning his tired body against a steel pipeline. The inspiration for the sculpture had come from Fazil's visit to Oil Rocks, where he witnessed the difficult conditions under which the oil workers lived and worked. At that time, this small town built up over the Caspian on wooden piers was hardly ten years old. Oil Rocks was the first experiment by the oil industry for drilling offshore for oil, not only in Azerbaijan but in the entire world.
When Fazil turned in his project, the authorities deemed it unacceptable and "unprofessional". What they meant was that it was too controversial - Soviet workers weren't supposed to look fatigued. Labor was to be glorified, workers to be romanticized. The authorities thought that Fazil's tired workers looked more like convicts than contented workers.
Right: Fazil Najafov, "Morning", 2x1x1m, stone, 1983.
He was ordered to destroy the sculpture and submit a different work. He refused. They threatened him by saying that he wouldn't receive his university degree, but Fazil wouldn't budge. They gave him another chance to submit a different project, this time suggesting that he create a small statue of a Pioneer (youth group of the Communist party). They even offered him 2,500 rubles for it. Fazil still turned them down and returned to Baku without his degree.
The Purpose of Art
This kind of treatment was typical for artists during Soviet rule. Art was to be created for propagandizing the government's goals. Many of Fazil's professors who disagreed with this concept were fired. Fazil himself disagreed with the government's restrictions. He recalls, "When we read in books and heard from others about art from democratic republics, we saw that the purpose of art was far different from what we had been taught."
Fazil came up against similar objections when he submitted a work for an exhibition commemorating World War II which was held in Moscow in 1965. Again, his work was rejected for being too "pessimistic".
Left: Fazil Najafov, "Echo of an Epoch," 85x65x45cm, bronze, 1979.
Even though it had been praised in Azerbaijan, the Russian generals on the committee of the Moscow exhibition objected, saying that it would be a shame to exhibit such a work, since the Soviet Union had been victorious in the war.
At that time, Soviet art was supposed to reflect only one kind of "ism" - Social Realism. All other "isms" - Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Modernism - were held under suspicion and considered dangerous - like a ticking bomb ready to go off at any time.
Artists who were willing to promote Communist ideology were courted by the Soviet regime. Those who chose to erect monuments to past and present Soviet leaders received awards and privileges, were offered studios and honorariums and were assigned government contracts. Accordingly, most artists chose to submit to the government's mandates.
Exhibitions were planned around political themes, such as "We Are Building Socialism," "Labor and Human Beings," "Lenin's Anniversary" - commemorating his 70th Jubilee (date of birth), then his 80th, 90th and 100th. No artist could stray far from the given theme and still expect to place his work in the exhibition.
In Azerbaijan, however, the pressure on artists to conform was not as severe as it was in Moscow. Since the professional level was lower, according to Fazil, and there were fewer artists, it was easier for him to make a name for himself as an artist despite not having the government's blessing.
Fazil says that the Soviet regime influenced the great majority of Azerbaijani artists; only a few managed to create what he would identify as "real art".
This alternate group of artists included such outstanding artists as Fuad Abdurrahmanov, Javad Mirjavad and his brother Tofig Javadov along with their cousin Rasim Babayev. Artists from the following generation included Kamal Ahmad, Husein Hagverdiyev and Ujal Hagverdiyev.
Left: Fazil Najafov, "Commemoration of Victims of World War II, 25 years later," 3x1x1m, 1965.
As a rule, these artists were less respected and less popular and often passed over, instead of recognized. Many of these "underground" artists were not granted university diplomas, another deterrent that held them back professionally.
Without his diploma but still determined to be an artist, Fazil returned to Baku after his confrontation at the Art Institute. He took part in various exhibitions and joined the USSR Artists' Union. In 1969, he was allocated the studio space where he still works today.
Recalling what it was like to make a name for himself in Baku, Fazil says, "Though I was young, I was esteemed among the professional artists. No matter what exhibition I offered my works, they accepted them. Sometimes my works were even sent to Moscow, which was considered very prestigious at the time."
One of Fazil's first official assignments in Baku, a commission by architect Yusif Gadimov, was the copperwork on the outside walls of the House of Actors (1970). "The concept of this work is intellectual since the House of Actors is an institution of intellectual and thinking people," says Fazil. "There were different motifs and forms in the work. I tried to express something with movement and pantomime. I wanted to symbolize these things."
Apparently, Baku's art officials didn't understand Fazil's symbolism. After the sculpture was erected, he was attacked for being "formalistic". The sculpture was promptly removed and Fazil had to write an "explanation" of what he had done. He was essentially blacklisted and accused in speeches by high-ranking officials. Fazil spent many of the following years in disgrace; even his close friends avoided him. Later, at the Tbilisi Biennial Art Exhibition in 1986, he was awarded the Grand Prize for being the "Most Disgraced of the Most Talented Artists."
Fazil got into trouble because Soviet art was supposed to use realistic forms, not symbolic ones. Artists who added abstract notions to their works ran the risk of being considered "anti-Soviet". For instance, one of Fazil's bronzes entitled "Stories of Life" (1987) holds controversial layers of meaning that may not be so obvious at first glance. The sculpture depicts two themes: on the top level, he depicts family members all smiling, content and lovingly embracing each other. The lower part of the sculpture reveals hidden, grotesque faces and relationships that are never exposed to the world. The work depicts a family, but could it not also represent larger institutions and nations?
The constraints imposed by the Soviet government on artists have been far-reaching. It's true that during the Soviet period, many individuals did get the chance to study and pursue careers in art. Today there are more than 800 sculptors and painters in Baku but few among them, according to Fazil, are "real" artists. "Without contracts from the government, most Azerbaijani artists have no means of support. In the past they were used to fulfilling the orders that they were assigned, but many of them don't know how to do anything besides that. The human initiative and creativity that Soviet system snuffed out has been slow to reemerge," Fazil observes.
Right: Fazil Najafov, "Stories of Life", bronze, 1987. Happiness is exposed to the public; misery is hidden.
"For artists in Azerbaijan today, it's as if an army general commanded his soldiers to take off their heavy shoulder straps and cumbersome waist belts and begin to move about freely. It's as if he told them: 'Go and do what you are able to do,'" says Fazil. "If you're an artist capable of doing something, if you're someone who really comprehends what art is all about, you'll be able to achieve something. Those who can't are in an awkward situation. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many artists have succumbed to the whims of commercialization to satisfy the wishes of potential customers-not all artists, of course. There are still those who create real art."
Despite these current economic difficulties, Fazil says that he prefers the current situation. He has managed to sell some of his works to foreigners, but admits that he doesn't earn any more money today than he did prior to independence. "The difference is that now we have the freedom to work and create as we want to. Now we can express our thoughts freely."
With an eye to the future, Fazil concentrates on his favorite medium-stone. "I have always been sensitive to stone. It seems that I understand the nature of stone and, in turn, it understands me, too. Stone retains the memory of millions of years, guarding the secrets of time deep inside it. With stone you can create something monumental, something eternal; you're not dealing with cardboard. In a single word, I love stone. I like bronze, too, but nothing attracts me as much as the expressive monumental silence of stone."
For more photos of Fazil's sculptures, see "Fazil Najafov: Frozen Images of Transition" [AI 3.1, Spring 1995]. His studio is located at Ashug Juma Street, 851/52. Home Tel: (99-412) 61-53-49; Studio: 66-71-09; Fax: 93-12-76.
From Azerbaijan International (7.2) Summer 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.