Innovating Tradition: Faig Ahmed Talks Carpets and Community from His Baku Studio
Faig Ahmed shares his Baku studio with what he refers to as his “Tribe,” a group of young artists who split materials, bookshelves, and even food, in a communal setting. In 2011, the painter Aida Mahmudova and a group of local artists including Ahmed, founded YARAT as a platform for contemporary art in Azerbaijan. Along with a 2,000-square-meter flagship space neighboring the recently built European Games stadium, and the social enterprise space YAY Gallery, YARAT offers both established and emerging artists like Ahmed studio spaces in a turquoise block, hidden up a hill in a less developed part of town.
Although it has rapidly Westernized in recent years, Azerbaijan values its cultural history so much that there is even a national carpet museum in Baku which is a major tourist attraction and has been cleverly built in the shape of a tightly coiled rug. Ahmed is known for re-appropriating traditional carpets into three dimensional textile installations that spill onto gallery floors like liquid, or break down into minimalist threads that zigzag between walls like laser beams from a science fiction novel. From the studio he drafts his installations on the computer, with each colored pixel corresponding to a knot that will be tied by a local weaver in an offsite workshop.
Liquid, 2014, Woolen handmade rug © Faig Ahmed Studio
I spent a humid summer afternoon on the low, worn couch in Ahmed’s studio talking about meditation, creative stagnation, and carpet weaving. He was preparing to participate in a September group exhibition of four YAY artists from Baku, set to open at Cuadro in Dubai, followed by a solo show in November at a museum in Rome.
Halfway through our conversation, members of Ahmed’s “Tribe” wandered in, tan and with paint under their nails, to share vegetarian pumpkin soup. Later we listened to a recording of carpet weavers dashing their shuttles through the warp and weft of taut strings at the loom. The staccato symphony may be pushing Ahmed in the direction of sound art next.
Faig Ahmed's YARAT studio in Baku, Azerbaijan. All studio photos: Danna Lorch
Danna Lorch: What happened in the past that pushed you to want to invest so heavily in cultivating a community of contemporary artists in Azerbaijan?
Faig Ahmed: I graduated from the Sculpture Faculty at the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Art, which taught a very traditional, technical, USSR style of art. It was the opposite of my upbringing. My parents’ home was incredibly democratic and free—they let me draw on the walls as a child. The academy years were the worst time of my life. They just taught us to become craft makers.
DL: Did you feel as though you could not express new ideas?
FA: You couldn’t invent anything outside the system. I studied sculpture and we always worked with the human body. The materials and the ideas were limited. The professors would announce a topic like Human and Nature. We were told to produce something depicting a man and a dog.
DL: Was there any benefit to being confined artistically?
FA: On one hand, the structure they imposed was good. I learned systems and proportions and could apply them to other things. But art doesn’t work in systems. Artists have to be free. The best thing that teachers can do is to make artists feel free. That’s why I created this studio. For the last eight months I’ve been running an experiment in which I share everything with four other artists in this space.
DL: Do you each have your own territory here?
FA: We work wherever suits our practice. We decide together. If someone needs a wall or a corner for a project, then she can have it.
Flood of yellow light, 2012, Handmade woolen carpet © Faig Ahmed Studio
DL: The other artists are younger than you. Are you mentoring them?
FA: I have more experience, but my mind has been spoiled by the outside art world, while their minds are still clean. So I’m also learning from them, and it’s working.
DL: Your entire practice has been based on experimentation.
FA: It’s true. I decided that first I would experiment with my studio practices. Next I experimented with the medium of carpets. Now I’m experimenting with society itself.
Tradition in Pixel, 2010, Handmade woolen carpet © Faig Ahmed Studio
DL: Did you meet with any resistance when you first approached carpet weavers with your ideas?
FA: The hardest part was communicating with the weavers, who are the gatekeepers of this tradition. For about a year I just sat beside them and learned.
Initially, they called me a crazy man and wouldn’t accept my idea. They thought I was being disrespectful of our customs. Then I explained that centuries ago people created what we now think of as our classic carpet designs through the same kind of innovations.
Impossible Viscosity, 2012, Handmade woolen carpet © Faig Ahmed Studio
DL: Do you imagine you will ever reach a point in which your oeuvre will not be intimately linked to carpets?
FA: Everyone seems to know me now as the artist who works with carpets. Commercially speaking that is excellent. Many artists stick to the same medium yet continue to innovate. There is still more I could do with carpets. The reason I’m thinking of changing is that it’s working so well. It’s becoming recognizable.
DL: So you are concerned about creative and spiritual stagnation if you continue on your current path?
FA: I have to feel that I am pushing my limits in my studio practice. When you stop pushing it’s like you’re dead before you die. I think that next I need to work on something that I don’t enjoy.
ArtSlant would like to thank Faig Ahmed for his assistance in making this interview possible.