Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed transforms traditional techniques into lush 3D forms – interview

Azerbaijan’s Faig Ahmed merges fresh, modern textiles with traditional techniques. 

Faig Ahmed, one of Azerbaijan’s most internationally recognised visual artists, adds a decidedly modern twist to carpet weaving, string art and embroidery. Art Radar spoke with Ahmed to learn more about his most recent riffs on traditional Azerbaijani textiles, and how the artist prevents himself from being held “hostage to tradition”.

Faig Ahmed. Photograph by Rauf Askyarov.

Faig Ahmed (b. 1982, Baku, Azerbaijan) successfully completed his BFA in Sculpture from the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Arts in 2004. In 2013, the artist was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize 3 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Ahmed has exhibited his work throughout the world, including group and solo exhibitions in Europe, India, Hong Kong, New York, Russia and the UAE. His work is part of both private and public collections, such as the Amhem Museum, the Buta Foundation, the Seattle Art Museum and the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre.

Art Radar caught up with Ahmed to learn more about his creative process, what makes the Azerbaijani contemporary art scene unusual, and why he considers himself more of an “explorer” than an artist.

Creating outside of the box

I’ve read that you feel you are “not an artist but an explorer”. Please elaborate on this comment.

To me, an artist is someone who sees the tangible results of his/her ideas reflected in their artwork. You may think that I do the same, but no! The final result itself doesn’t interest me that much. The reality of my art is that it is still very much in the process of research and discovery. I create it and it’s just a part of the global system of art fairs and people’s opinions about each piece.

I’m an explorer, so I’m much more interested in what I unearth through my research. My artworks are just my reports that reflect various periods of my investigations.

Faig Ahmed, 'Gravity and Antigravity' installation (in process), 2014, handmade wool carpet, 120 x 250 cm. Photograph by Rauf Askyarov.

In 2014, you travelled to India for the first time. Regarding this journey, you said it was “a dream come true”. 

Throughout my life, India has had a great impact on me. I was dreaming about it even as a child. When I was ten, I found a yoga book that mesmerised me. I started practicing and it naturally brought me to Osho and other beautiful practices and philosophies. I even started learning Sanskrit. I dreamed of travelling to India and finding a guru.

So when I eventually travelled there, I thought I’d be prepared, but I was not. India is a place that influences all of your senses at the same time. I mean, if something is dirty, it’s really dirty. If the food is good, then it’s absolutely divine. This happens with everything. I had this experience on my own and had difficulties sharing these feelings with my friends when I returned home. Then, I started observing myself and found out that my best friend (just like when I was ten) is myself. I had to live twenty more years to understand that. Now, I’m ten again and I’m happy.

Has your recent interest in Indian embroidery influenced your artwork? How? 

In Delhi, I started doing my experimental artwork with Indian embroidery and I met two people who have really helped me with that – Valeria Corvo and Mala Shukla. Before my trip to India, all my artistic expression was directed outwards. After I went through the process of learning Indian embroidery, my expression is now internal and directed into myself.

Faig Ahmed. Photograph by Fakhriyya Mammadova.

How does one make a “liquid” carpet? Do you use local artisans for your work or do all of the work yourself?

I work with a group. Usually there are twenty to 25 people involved in the process. This group experience gives my work vitality and I’m the spark that ignites it.

When I decide to begin a piece, I first talk to the carpet makers and then edit and correct their work alongside my own sketch. Next, my artwork is transferred onto engineering paper. After these preparations, the weaving process begins. As a rule, the process itself is not that easy, and I have to visit the workshop often and make corrections all along the way.

Each work needs a different type of research. For a carpet from the “Fluid Forms” show, for example, I was pouring paint onto the walls to see how different colours blend into each other and flow. For the Geometric series of carpets, I was cutting different shapes from paper to place over the surfaces to see what kinds of shades they create.

Faig Ahmed, 'Rapture', 2010, handmade wool carpet, 100 x 150 cm. Photograph by Fakhriyya Mammadova.

Being held hostage by tradition

Tell us the story behind the carpet upcycled for the Recycled Tradition piece. Have you had the opportunity to send an image of the piece to the woman who sold the carpet to you? If so, what was her reaction? 

The idea of this artwork was born from the depth of the “transformed carpets” concept. Initially, I had done research analysing recycled culture. It was all very impersonal. I started to work four months before production to find the right carpet. What I needed was a 150 to 200-year-old carpet to be cut into the form of a “recycled” symbol.

I was shown different options, but there was only one that caught my attention. I wanted to start cutting it immediately after leaving the workshop, but the carpet seller asked me if I wanted to hear the story of the carpet first. He told me that there are gypsies who buy and resell old carpets. They suggested visiting an old woman in south Azerbaijan who had a beautiful old carpet in perfect condition. Initially, this woman rejected selling it, because she had inherited this carpet from her grandmother and it was the only thing she had taken with her from her father’s house when she got married many years ago. This was a tradition in the old days in Azerbaijan.

This woman couldn’t take anything from her home, because her parents were against her marriage and only her grandmother had supported her, giving her this carpet and helping her run away with her lover. After several visits and after she knew the carpet would be sold to an artist, she agreed to sell it.

I also discovered that this carpet was a Garabakh carpet, which is in another part of Azerbaijan. This lady can’t go there anymore, because this territory is occupied by Armenia and there are armed clashes between the two countries. So, when I took a cutting knife to cut the carpet, I couldn’t do it. Suddenly, I realised that I’m also a hostage of tradition! This story’s impact on me was so huge that I couldn’t destroy this carpet with my own hands.

I then passed it to an art production company to prepare it for me and didn’t tell them how old it was. After the work was done and Recycled Tradition was sent to Holland for the exhibition, I tried to find this lady. She had moved to another city, and that happened all of a sudden. I wanted to talk to her. I spoke to her on the telephone before it was processed and she told me that she wanted to see the result. Maybe she saw the artwork and doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?

Faig Ahmed, 'Recycled', 2014, handmade wool carpet, 140 x 140 cm.Photograph by Fakhriyya Mammadova.

What did it teach you about being a “hostage to tradition”?

I love being a hostage, because it’s a quiz and you have to take it to set yourself free. I think we are never completely free anyway, but you should exactly know where your own cage ends.

Please tell us a bit about your Embroidery Space installation. What were some of the challenges that you experienced with this installation? Were there any surprises?

Maybe it’s my most interesting artwork, because it can be exactly divided into parts. The first part is totally traditional regarding the rules of composition. Usually my assistants make this part. The second, or freestyle section, is the most spontaneous and unexpected, because I always decide how to do it on-site.

I did this installation in Dubai in 2014 and decided to connect two buildings with threads. It was so difficult to get the permit for that! Eventually we got permission, on the condition that the work could only be done after nine o’clock at night. I had to drink energy drinks to stay up day and night!

The result was amazing: threads were connecting buildings from the roofs to the balconies and back. All the people who worked in this area were totally unprepared for this change in their environment. It was so beautiful until the wind started blowing and the rain started falling – along with the threads.

What is the inspiration behind the combination of traditional Islamic forms and patterns within your contemporary structures?

Islamic shapes have been developed over many hundreds of years and have reached an apogee of ornament and geometry. Because of this tradition, it’s a huge responsibility to work with such difficult and complex patterns and try to pull a new form out of there.

Brave new world

How would you explain the current Azerbaijani art scene to someone who is new to the country and its creative traditions?

Contemporary art in Azerbaijan is not new, but it is developing and still very fresh. After the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, most local artists were using abstract and Western art as a model. Today, they try to find their way by looking back to traditional art forms and techniques. Perhaps I have in some small way helped with this transition, as I have curated shows with several young local artists in the recent past.

I think it’s difficult to define the face of contemporary art in Azerbaijan. I like that there are lots of young artists who explore and research the culture and history of our country, in both ancient and contemporary times. There are enormous amounts of resources and energy there.

Faig Ahmed, 'Gravity and Antigravity' installation from the "Exploring Inward" exhibition at Louise Blouin Foundation, 2014, handmade wool carpet, 120 x 250 cm. Photograph by Nathan Browning.

Is life in contemporary Azerbaijan changing? As an artist, do you feel that it is important to embrace the past, while breaking away from some of the possibly outdated traditions and stereotypes?

You can’t move forward without leaving some parts of tradition and culture behind, but it’s tradition that observes and examines a country.

Azerbaijanis are very flexible. We have been conquered many times and have been a part of different empires, spoken many languages and changed alphabets many times – from Farsi to Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin. At the same time, the majority of the people use traditional elements of home decoration – like carpets – to connect with some kind of cultural ground under their feet.

It’s a delicate balance. You have to be sensitive to changes while keeping your identity and remembering your roots.

Faig Ahmed, "Gravity and Antigravity" installation (detail) from "Exploring Inward" exhibition at Louise Blouin Foundation, 2014, handmade wool carpet, 120 x 250 cm. Photograph by Nathan Browning.

Any interesting stories on how the audience reacts to your work both inside Azerbaijan and abroad?

I like the reaction of kids. They have the most honest and transparent reactions to my art. During one of exhibitions, a boy ten or eleven years old approached my Flood of Yellow Weight carpet and asked his mother if the boy who stained the carpet was punished like he was! I asked the mother if she punished her son for staining the carpet and she answered that she did. I told her that my parents didn’t punish me for doing so, and maybe that’s the reason why I dare to do all these manipulations with the carpets and maybe she has to give him more freedom.

Faig Ahmed, 'Shift', 2014, handmade wool rug with natural colours and threads, stainless steel, 170 x 110 x 100cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Are there any upcoming shows, exhibitions and biennales where your work is being shown in the next six months?

I will have a solo show in Rome at the Montoro 12 Contemporary Art Gallery in March/April, and in New Delhi in November. I’m also doing an installation during Art Dubai at the Dubai International Financial Centre and am included in a group show at the YARAT Contemporary Art Centre in March. In addition, I am planning solo shows in London and New York this year.

Lisa Pollman

Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed transforms traditional techniques into lush 3D forms – interview

A Little Thing to Wear That Speaks Volumes ‘Kimono: A Modern History’ at the Met Tells Rich Stories Through Fabric By KAREN ROSENBERGDEC. 25, 2014 From The New York Times


When clothing appears at the Metropolitan Museum, it’s typically a big to-do involving the Costume Institute, haute couture and numerous theatrical set pieces. (See, for instance, the current exhibition of Victorian mourning attire.) But “Kimono: A Modern History,” quietly folded into the museum’s Arts of Japan Galleries, is a different kind of fashion show.

It’s as stunning as anything the Costume Institute has to offer, with case after case of richly embroidered, dyed and printed robes. Its point of view, however, is more scholarly than sartorial. Really it’s a history of modern Japan, told through a garment with a simple T-shaped cut and a name that translates, simply, as “thing to wear.”

Despite its ceremonial, traditional reputation, the kimono belongs (and has always belonged) to a wider material culture that runs high to low and includes hanging scrolls, prints, books, magazines and decorative objects. Kimonos have even served as home décor, as seen in a pair of six-panel folding screens from the late 16th century that show pictures of robes draped over stands to form a makeshift room divider.


Folding screens from the late 16th century. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Edo period kimono pattern books, displayed alongside contemporaneous woodblock prints of kimono-wearing actors and glamour girls, link kimonos to the theater and to a flourishing publishing industry. Men’s kimonos from the 1930s and ’40s, printed with airplanes and battleships, meanwhile, do double duty as war propaganda.

Throughout, the show revels in the versatility of the kimono — a garment worn by men and women, commoners and elite samurai, Westerners and the Japanese alike. Although the curators include some incredibly luxurious examples, like the sky-blue silk satin robe embroidered with gold shells that may have been part of a wealthy young woman’s trousseau, they also make room for coats worn by farmers and firefighters (which, to a contemporary eye, are just as fabulous with their patchworks of recycled fabric and printed figures from Japanese folklore).

Although the most sumptuous textiles in the exhibition date from the Edo period (1615-1868), the section on the subsequent Meiji period (1868-1912) is even more stimulating. It unfolds as a lively back-and-forth between Japanese kimono designers and their Western counterparts, made possible by the opening of Japan’s ports to international trade. Prints by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi set the scene, showing a mix of Western-style dresses and kimonos in of Yokohama, a port city.

A coral silk velvet evening coat by Jean-Charles Worth, a great-grandson of the Paris-based English designer Charles Frederick Worth, attests to the kimono’s appeal for fashionable Western women (especially those who had tired of the corset). Corsets and bustles, meanwhile, found their way into the wardrobes of high-ranking Japanese women.


Prints depicting a period when corsets were au courant (just as kimonos were becoming popular in the West): top, “Nobility in the Evening Cool” (1887), and “Concert of European Music” (1889), bottom.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Materials and techniques were exchanged along with designs; wool traveled east and silk west, and a new, hybrid method of stencil dyeing, called kata-yuzen, evolved, enabling such gorgeous creations as a silk gauze kimono bordered by a summery scene of carp and waterlilies.

Synthetic Western dyes are responsible for the deep purples and other brilliant colors of kimonos of the Taisho period (1912-1926). And some early Showa period robes, from the 1920s and ’30s, borrow liberally from the stylized, swirling patterns of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Other Showa kimonos flaunt aggressively modern, representational motifs: Leicas and Rolleiflex cameras, in a men’s under-kimono from 1955, or Mickey Mouse, in a midcentury child’s kimono. These mass-produced items, sold in department stores and suitable for everyday wear, stand in vivid contrast to the show’s older, handmade kimonos (which, by midcentury, had become sought-after collector’s items).

Inspired by and dedicated to the independent textile historian and scholar Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, who wrote the detailed and insightful book that is the show’s catalog, “Kimono” was organized by the Met’s curator of Japanese art, John T. Carpenter, and the curatorial fellow Monika Bincsik.

It concludes with kimono-inspired fashions from the 1950s through the early 1990s, by designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, displayed alongside traditional kimonos made by Japanese artists who have been designated Living National Treasures. The show might have benefited from some more current examples; Mr. Miyake’s persimmon-colored shirt with long, spiraling sleeves, from 1991, is the most recent piece on view.

Fortunately, Ms. Milhaupt’s book (edited, after her death, by her widower, Curtis J. Milhaupt) offers an up-to-the-minute account of kimonos in contemporary culture, with nods to gatherings of kimono devotees in Ginza and Kyoto and kimono-promoting pop stars like Puffy AmiYumi. It also quotes some sage advice on kimono styling from Mr. Yamamoto, who reminds us not to get too fussy: “It’s only a kimono (meaning ‘material for wearing’).”