Since at least 2011, Azerbaijan has used artists and art institutions for propaganda purposes to a degree that is unequaled in the contemporary era. In the last decade, scores of artists and institutions have taken money from the brutal dictatorship of Azerbaijan to artwash its reputation. This is especially important to call attention to now, since Azerbaijan is actively engaged in ethnically cleansing an Indigenous community and destroying millennia-old monuments, permanently robbing the world of a rich cultural record. To preserve endangered and invaluable artifacts, the art world needs to stop normalizing Azerbaijan’s monstrous behavior and start accepting responsibility for platforming despots. Any artist or cultural group that receives patronage or money from Azerbaijan is complicit with war crimes, oppression, and ethnic cleansing.

Aliyev Corruption

In the WikiLeaks dump of secret US documents, the US state department goes to great lengths to describe Azerbaijan’s government as a criminal organization that most resembles a medieval feudal fiefdom or the gangster Corleone family from the film The Godfather. This family, the Aliyevs, have ruled Azerbaijan in some manner for 50 years.

Freedom House gives Azerbaijan a democracy percentage score of 2.38 out of 100 (compared to its neighbors Armenia, which scores a 33, and Georgia, which gets a 38, while even Russia received a 7). Human Rights Watch reports that gay men and transgender women are routinely tortured by the state and extorted for money. Reporters Without Borders states that Azerbaijan has one of the worst press freedom records globally, with the second-highest number of journalists imprisoned per capita in the world. Torture and corruption are endemic in Azerbaijan, and its regime is routinely called a kleptocracy. The government’s moral compass is so low that it made an actual axe murderer a national hero. Racism and genocide denial are official state policy in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is so comfortable with this policy, that it recently issued postage stamps that appears to advocate ethnic cleansing and genocide through the use of extermination imagery.

The Calvert Journal recently reported on the anti-Armenian postage stamp issued by Azerbaijan after the November 2020 ceasefire that juxtaposed a solider with someone exterminating or fumigating the region of Artsakh. This type of imagery has links to genocidal rhetoric throughout history, including during the Nazi regime in Germany. To highlight the intention the fumes do not touch the region of Nakhichevan but cover the region of Syunik in Armenia, which Turkish and Azerbaijani expansionist rhetoric has claimed as part of Azerbaijan. During the recent war other genocidal imagery, like Nazi symbols, appeared in Azerbaijani controlled regions. (screenshot by author)

With all of this information public and well known, the number of cultural institutions and artists willing to artwash the country’s reputation is appalling. 

According to Civic Solidarity, “The main goal of this vast enterprise of international lobbying and corruption is to suppress international criticism of repression by the Azerbaijani government, boost the perceived legitimacy of the Aliyev regime.” An additional aim, it says, is “to send a message back home that there is nothing that can be done to remove Aliyev and to signal that the West is behind him.”

The bribing of artists, curators, and other art world personalities has the double function of making the Aliyev family acceptable on the world stage and normalizing the dictatorship to their people by demonstrating that Western democracies have no problems with it.

While investigating corruption a few years ago, Italian police uncovered emails about an aggressive strategy to improve Azerbaijan’s bloody image. The Orwellian-sounding plan named “Azerbaijan 2020: Smile Future” was authorized personally by President Ilham Aliyev in 2011. In addition to proven ties to European cultural programs via bribery, it seems likely that YARAT Contemporary Arts Center — which is almost certainly funded by the state (details below) and is run by the dictator’s family — was part of this operation. YARAT was founded the same year that “Azerbaijan 2020: Smile Future” was launched and is the main conduit for foreign artists working in Azerbaijan. YARAT is run by the dictator’s niece.

The Aliyev clan has ruled Azerbaijan under the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1987 and again as an independent country from 1993 to today. After a turbulent period following the fall of the Soviet Union, the former KGB country chief, Heydar Aliyev, assumed complete authority over Azerbaijan, turning it into one of the world’s most repressive states. Since his death, the veneration of Heydar Aliyev is often referred to as a personality cult; there are at least 50 museums dedicated to Heydar in the capital of Baku, which are reported to be empty most of the time.

The Aliyev family owns, in part or whole, almost every aspect of Azerbaijan’s economic life, including banks, gas, oil, insurance, aviation, mobile phones, luxury hotels, construction companies, gold mines, a television station, and cosmetics manufacturing. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has identified over $140 million in luxury apartments that the Aliyev clan maintains worldwide, with the possibility that others have gone unrecorded. It should be noted that for a wealthy country with ample gas and oil reserves, Azerbaijan has substantial unrecorded poverty outside of Baku’s central areas. The capital itself has been listed as the world’s dirtiest city and has one of the lowest recorded quality of life standards. The money stolen by the Aliyevs could help solve these problems.

Influence Buying

Azerbaijan’s government is also one of the largest foreign buyers of influence in the United States. Azerbaijan has spent millions to sway opinion, injecting money into the State Department, Harvard University, state governments, the US Democratic party, and the Trump family

The regime has also spent billions in Israel and Europe. Of course, this is just the traceable money; likely, there is more in uncounted bribes and gifts to politicians and cultural figures.

This influence buying has worked; Azerbaijan does not endure the same sanctions as other repressive governments, and the Aliyevs are allowed in British society. They associate with royalty and celebrities, such as accused pedophile Prince Andrew, accused rapist actor Gérard Depardieu, News Corp heiress Elisabeth Murdoch, actor Steven Seagal, and art market personality Simon de Pury

The Aliyev’s social acceptance has a practical side for the state, but there are also personal reasons. The Aliyev clan and their retainers are all-powerful in their country, but Azerbaijan is a small playground for oil-wealth-sized ambitions. The dictator Ilham Aliyev throws billions at sports, sponsoring the soccer team Atlético Madrid, holding the European Games, and Formula One racing in Baku to be one of the boys. But his wife, daughters, and niece aim to be accepted in society through culture.

Ilham Aliyev and Mehriban Aliyeva attended the opening of the Baku Crystal Hall, the venue of Eurovision’s 2012 Song contest. (via Wikipedia)

Mehriban Aliyeva, the first lady and the vice president of Azerbaijan (for life), has apparently bought a Goodwill ambassadorship from UNESCO. Leyla Aliyeva, the oldest daughter, has a vanity magazine published by Condé Nast and dabbles in art. Her less active sister Arzu Aliyeva spends time around the film industry. Their cousin Aida Mahmudova runs YARAT arts center in Baku, which has patronized many artists, mostly from Europe and the United States. The entire family is invested in socializing.

Arts and Cultural Agencies

Recently, investigative journalists from the Organized Crime and Reporting Project (OCCRP) caught Azerbaijan buying votes and silencing critics in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which ironically investigates corruption and has some cultural activities. 

Azerbaijan’s influence on UNESCO has called the UN agency’s independence and ethics into question (image Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Azerbaijan has also targeted the United Nations. Mehriban Aliyeva has been given a UNESCO award and was made a UN Goodwill Ambassador for culture. Many see this due to Azerbaijan’s $5 million USD contribution to the cash-strapped cultural heritage organization. More significantly, nowhere on the UN site will you find out about the illegal “laundromat payments” of $468,000 to the former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova’s husband from Azerbaijan for “supervision services” (an excuse that has been discounted by the OCCRP). 

UNESCO director Bokova has been one of Azerbaijan’s biggest boosters. Under Bokova, Layla Aliyeva was named a Goodwill Ambassador and UNESCO hosted a photo exhibition titled “Azerbaijan – Land of Tolerance” at its headquarters in Paris. During this opening, a journalist asked Mehriban Aliyeva about the ironic title of the exhibition, given the widespread repression in Azerbaijan, and the reporter, the Washington Post editorial board points out, was shoved away by her bodyguards. Most odiously, UNESCO chose Azerbaijan as the location of the 2019 session of the World Heritage Committee. This event took place after Azerbaijan was widely exposed as committing the largest cultural genocide of the 21st century.

The previous director general of UNESCO, Kōichirō Matsuura, was awarded an “Order of Glory” medal by Ilham Aliyev. Three months later, the ancient site of Djlufa was destroyed by Azerbaijan without comment from UNESCO or Matsuura. Since his retirement, Matsuura has found work as a propagandist for Azerbaijan’s “Baku International Multiculturalism Centre.” Matsuura has been honored repeatedly by Azerbaijan, including another medal this year. Researcher Simon Maghakyan wrote that “As terrible as Bokova was, Matsuura was even worse — he just didn’t get caught.”

On the­­­­­­­ UNESCO website one can still find traces of Azerbaijan’s unfounded conspiracy theory to justify destroying thousands of ancient monuments. As analyzed by Hyperallergic, there is no basis for their pseudoscience. In light of Azerbaijan’s continued human rights abuses and cultural destruction, there have been calls by The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and others to remove Mehriban Aliyeva as a Goodwill Ambassador.

Aside from the UN, the Aliyevs have also courted various European cultural groups from the Vatican to the Eurovision song contest.

The Heydar Aliyev Fund, which is run by Mehriban Aliyeva, has donated an undisclosed sum to the Palace of Versailles for the restoration of art; a €1 million gift to the Louvre; and a €40,000 gift for the restoration of three stained glass windows in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg, France.  The fund additionally has helped restore two Norman churches and sponsor jazz and dance festivals in France. Mehriban Aliyeva has been made an officer of the Légion d’Honneur for her services and loyalty to France. After this prize was given, France announced it would make the award more selective and “merit-based.” Past recipients have included the autocratic leaders Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Nicolae Ceausescu, Benito Mussolini, and Manuel Noriega.

One of the many statues of the Aliyev clan in Baku (image courtesy the author)

The Heydar Aliyev Fund, through Mehriban Aliyeva, has also donated undisclosed sums to finance restoration work at the Vatican, including repairs to the Sistine Chapel, the restoration of two catacombs, and the preservation and digitization of manuscripts. It has been reported that the Vatican is very low on funds. These contributions must have been a welcome infusion of cash. Mehriban Aliyeva was rewarded for these donations with a meeting with Pope Francis, and a Papal Order of Knighthood. In 2020, the Heydar Aliyev Fund funded the restoration of a bas-relief of the meeting between Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun in St. Peter’s. The Azerbaijais see themselves as related to the Huns, so the symbolism was intentional.

Seven months before Azerbaijan started the brutal, war-crime-filled invasion of neighboring Artsakh, Pope Francis received Ilham Aliyev again. The Vatican reported that they talked about “… the importance of intercultural and interreligious dialogue that supports peaceful coexistence among the various religious and ethnic groups.” The dictator used this visit to bolster his claim that “The example of tolerance and coexistence offered by Azerbaijan is one of the main criteria contributing to the elimination of conflicts and confrontations in the world.” Referring to the defaced Armenian church of Nij, he said, “Azerbaijan’s policy on multiculturalism and inter-religious relations is praised by the whole world and world leaders.” Elsewhere he would claim, “I can say that we have won the information war.” 

Eurovision is famous for being one of the world’s kitschiest spectacles, making it an odd prize for the status-conscious Aliyevs. As journalist Giorgi Lomsadze commented before the 2012 competition in Baku,  “the contest will bring along demographics that are not particularly popular in Baku — journalists, Armenians and gays.” These same categories were singled out by Azerbaijan’s ally, the increasingly authoritarian President of Turkey, Rayyip Erdogan in 2015.

Azerbaijan’s dictator, Ilham Aliyev, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending the parade dedicated to 100th anniversary of liberation of Baku in 2018 (image via Wikipedia)

Despite these issues, Azerbaijan was widely reported as bribing judges to bring the contest to Baku in 2012. One Turkish newspaper reported that the bribes amounted to USD $30 million and were personally overseen by Mehriban Aliyeva. An entire neighborhood of Baku was illegally razed, and thousands were made homeless for the event. Crystal Hall built for Eurovision Azerbaijan with  a price tag of $134 million, was constructed by a construction company that was secretly owned by Mehriban, Leyla, and Arzu Aliyeva. The Azerbaijani journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who uncovered the shell companies that hid the Aliyev family’s ownership of the Crystal Hall’s construction firm, was blackmailed as a result of her reporting, shamed in government newspapers for lax morals, and later arrested and jailed . Two months before Eurovision was held, several Azeri dissident musicians were tortured for days. Mehriban Aliyeva organized the event. Over 100 million television viewers watched. Armenia was the only country that boycotted the 2012 contest as Armenians have no solid assurances that their safety would be guaranteed in Azerbajian.

The younger Aliyevs have sought to clean their clan’s bloody reputation by collaborating with contemporary art and artists, mainly through the YARAT Art Center in Baku. There are no public records for YARAT, but it is impossible to see how this organization is funded in any way but through the Aliyevs. Aida Mahmudova, the dictator’s niece, is the founder of YARAT and runs the center, and Leyla Aliyeva was an artist in residence at YARAT for six months shortly after it opened. Aida Mahmudova, when pressed in an interview, claimed that an unnamed bank backs YARAT. This bank is not listed on the website or anywhere, which is abnormal for sponsorships. However, as a clue, Leyla and Aida Aliyeva own at least six banks in Azerbaijan, and the family and close associates have ownership shares in seven other banks. YARAT has not responded to requests for comment on their relationship with the Azerbaijani state or the Aliyev family.

A view of the YARAT Art Center in Baku (photo courtesy the author)

Among the artists and curators who have worked for the Aliyev dynasty through YARAT is contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta, who organized a mind-bogglingly tone-deaf exhibition at YARAT on poets who have been jailed or killed for speaking out against injustice. This exhibition blithely ignored the present-day reality in Azerbaijan, where artists are continually oppressed. As Platform writes, “Many of Azerbaijan’s own artists are in spaces less seen by international visitors – its jails.”  Before Gupta’s show, diplomat Rebecca Vincent was thrown out of Azerbaijan for her campaign using art to promote democracy. 

When contacted for comment, Gupta, via email, refused to address the jarring juxtaposition of her show’s theme and the reality of life in Azerbaijan. Writing that she hoped that an oppressed person might walk into her show and be inspired, “many others who might even accidently [sic] walk into gallery spaces and encounter the work some hope to persist.” Ignoring the reality of how galleries run by dictatorships work.

Even more insidiously, Sara Raza of Punk Orientalism was brought in to be the head of education at YARAT and curator of its public art festival. Sara Raza espouses “cultures of resistance” on her website and in interviews, which is odd considering her long association with Aida Mahmudova, the dictator’s niece. Raza has conducted public forums with Mahmudova in Azerbaijan, in the Middle East, and Europe.

Raza’s work to clean the reputation of the Aliyevs through art is especially troubling since she is a Guggenheim curator for MENA (Middle East and North Africa) artists. Her extensive support by Azerbaijan with its history of institutionalized racism against Armenians, calls into question her impartiality as a curator. 

YARAT’s most significant show to date has been an Oscar Murillo solo exhibition. Murillo seems to have received a large grant from Azerbaijan since the show theme deals with an obscure Azeri town, and took months to set up. Murillo has not responded to requests for comment.

The website of YARAT with the page about the exhibition by Oscar Murillo (screenshot by the author)

Other arts centers in Baku sponsored by the state have also hosted well-known artists such as George Condo, who had a show at the Heydar Aliyev Center, opened by Leyla Aliyeva and organized by the enthusiastic supporter of the Aliyevs, Simon de Pury.

Not all artists have been completely complacent, though. As reported  in Hyperallergic, artist Ahmet Öğüt, who is Kurdish from Turkey, has accused YARAT of using his work as a “propaganda tool” and asked to be removed from its promotional literature. But it does raise questions as to why he accepted a sponsorship and exhibition from the dictatorship in the first place. The curator of Öğüt’s exhibition Mari Spirito, who runs Protocinema in Istanbul, has her own history of compliance with anti-Armenian policies and in 2017 told Hyperallergic’s editor-in-chief that her Istanbul location had a stipulation in its lease that she was not allowed to exhibit any art that grappled with controversial Armenian matters, which she agreed to. Why both of them, knowing the history of Azerbaijan and its cultural genocide, chose to exhibit in a dictator-supported space brings up the question if their move to remove the exhibition was simply a case of them feeling uncomfortable with their publicized complicity.

Not all artists are complicit; some have actively rejected sponsorship from the autocratic regime. The art team of Ackroyd and Harvey were invited to be part of a group show in London; they became suspicious when the show’s sponsor, Leyla Aliyeva, had a piece in it. On researching her, they discovered the human rights abuses perpetrated by her family and pulled out. They also turned down Leyla’s offer to buy their work for the University of Oxford.

Most artists who have worked with the Aliyev regime were brought in through YARAT’s generous residency programs. Others were brought in for shows by the British Council’s robust art program in Azerbaijan. This program dwarfs the British Council’s work in the neighboring democratic countries of Georgia and Armenia

The 200 Azerbaijani manat note depicts Zaha Hadid’s building named after the dictator (via Wikipedia)

The influence buying has not been limited to artists as architecture has been a large part of Azerbaijan’s campaign of raising their image in global circles. One notable building is Zaha Hadid’s Aliyev center, which has received international awards for it’s supposed cutting-edge design. Construction on the building began in 2007, a year after the cultural genocide of Armenian monuments in the country’s Nakhichevan concluded, and in 2008 Hrag Vartanian wrote about the commission in the Brooklyn Rail:

I don’t think anything could have been more shocking to Western sensibilities than last year’s announcement that architect Zaha Hadid had agreed to design the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku at the request of Ilham Aliyev, Heydar’s son and current Azeri dictator. Hadid stopped by Baku and was televised laying flowers at the grave of Aliyev, a former KGB chief and the ruler of Azerbaijan until his death in 2003. When Hadid’s office was asked about the odd commission, a spokesman responded: “The centre is designed to the highest international standards, bringing performances and exhibitions from around the world to Baku. The centre will play an integral role in the redevelopment of the city,” adding that “protocol required flowers to be laid [at Heydar Aliyev’s grave].”

The site of the Hadid building was built on was formerly known as the Zavokzalnaya (literally “Behind The Train Station”) neighborhood, which until 1990 was mostly populated by Armenians and Russians. The Armenian residents were all forced to flee because of the violent anti-Armenian pogroms in 1990 and many Russians left after the chaos of the post-Soviet years. The Russian portion of the neighborhood included Molokanskaya Sloboda (Molokan Village), which is a reference to the 19th century settlement of the Russian Molokans (a non-Orthodox Christian sect). The neighborhood along with cemetery to the north were razed in the late 2000s in part to make way for projects, including Hadid’s Aliyev building.

Heydar Aliyev Center was bizarrely declared the Design of the Year by London’s Design Museum in 2014 even though there were a great many questions, as raised by The Guardian at the time, about the human rights being violated in the process.

Baku magazine is another vanity project with Leyla Aliyeva as a figurehead. It is published by Condé Nast, which puts out The New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Vogue, among others. According to The Economist, “The coup for the Aliyevs was to get Condé Nast, an internationally renowned media brand, to put its name to the publication. In the same article, a former employee of the magazine said, “Aliyeva is a ‘huge client’ for both Condé Nast and [Matthew] Freud.”

Matthew Freud, the nephew of artist Lucian Freud and cousin to the painter Jane McAdam Freud, is Leyla Aliyeva’s PR agent. Jane McAdam Freud was featured in Baku magazine and is a represented artist at Gazelli Art House (London, Baku), a gallery tied to the Aliyev family. The Azerbaijani oligarchic family — through their daughter Mila Askarova — owns Gazelli Art House and also co-owns a bank with Arzu Aliyeva. This is noteworthy because it represents the elements of society that the Aliyevs have bought access to. The Economist continues to say that the magazine “has helped smooth [Leya Aliyeva’s] passage into London high society.”

Baku is a slick, superficial magazine filled with advertisements for luxury products and profiles on artists of Mr. Brainwash’s caliber and promotes a breezy, airbrushed version of Azerbaijan. The art of Leyla Aliyeva and her cousin Aida Mahmudova are regular features in the magazine. Baku magazine is not found on Condé Nast’s website or Wikipedia page, nor is Azerbaijan listed as a market for Condé Nast, indicating a degree of internal embarrassment about the cash-grab operation.

Platform writes: “Since establishing the English edition of Baku magazine […] Aliyeva has been seeking to become part of the glamorous global art scene. Sometimes publicly sponsoring exhibitions, but more often discreetly buying art.”

The Azerbaijani pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale exhibited artists Rashad Alakbarov, Sanan Aleskerov, Chingiz Babayev, Butunay Hagverdiyev, Fakhriyya Mammadova, and Farid Rasulov and was a complete blending of many of the country’s artwashing and nationalist narratives. This work by Farid Rasulov is titled “Carpet Interior” (2013). (image courtesy Aleksandr Zykov’s Flickr page)

Artist Responses

Every artist who was found to have worked with Azerbaijan was contacted for comment for this article (save one, Evgeniy Kovtonuk, whose contact information could not be obtained). The very few responses received ranged from excuses to outrage and, in one case, regret. 

Musician Werner Küspert wrote in an email referring to his participation in the Baku Jazz festival: “I have created a commissioned work for the Goethe-Institut […] The Goethe-Institut is politically neutral, but it is completely absurd to suggest that the work of the Goethe-Institut could serve to legitimize undemocratic forces.” Follow-up questions regarding artwashing and normalizing dictatorships were not answered. 

The idea that artists do not have agency was echoed by Canadian artist Zadie Xa, who wrote in an email that she was unaware of any human rights abuses by Azerbaijan until the email was sent to her from Hyperallergic. Noting, “I followed and trusted the partnerships formalised and introduced to me by the first commissioning organisation.” A follow-up question about regret was unanswered.

Franck Apertet of the dance group les gens d’Utepan, who performed at YARAT and gave an artist talk, used the excuse that everyone is dirty, writing in an email: “Come on, every bank, brand company, foundation or governement [sic] today use art to wash something unclean. About 70 countries in the world are homophobe, plus many others are against a given race, an ethnic group, its own people or world ecology.” In essence, he is asking, why should one try to be moral in an immoral world?

Italian artist Ryts Monet ignored questions about human rights violations and preferred to discuss how little money he received from YARAT. In response to an emailed question about whether he regretted taking money from a despot, he wrote: “The very small production fee that I received came half from Fondazione Pistoletto and half from YARAT, the last provided also the accommodation and studio.” He did not respond to follow-up questions.

Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye took the offensive tact of whimsy, responding to an email that being in Azerbaijan felt like he was the comic book character Tintin “... going to a new country.” Ignoring the colonial implications of this characterization,  Delvoye did not respond to follow-up queries about presence implying endorsement. He did mention that his catalogue was banned at the last minute in Azerbaijan because it had one Armenian name in it. He presented this as a humorous anecdote, writing “One funny detail …” rather than acknowledging how deadly this government-sanctioned racism is for Armenians and their cultural heritage.

One artist responded that they would comment only if allowed to do so anonymously. Via email, they reported being in Baku and reading the Hyperallergic article on Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing and feeling “… very uneasy, shocked …”. This artist found the foreign artist program in Azerbaijan to be “… an afterthought of a larger operation of appearing up and coming.”

René Müller, the press agent for the Migros Museum, referring to their current show with Löwenbräukunst Zurich at YARAT, which is open until February, wrote in an email about the ecological benefits of showing in Azerbaijan: “… the cooperation with Yarat [sic] has made it possible to take a more lively look at the topic of ecology  due to their location in Baku, they are directly affected by problems such as the drying up of the Caspian Sea, etc.” By doing this, Müller neatly combined artwashing with greenwashing, ignoring the real ecological threats in the area caused by Azerbaijan’s oil industry and the burning of forests in Artsakh with illegal white phosphorus munitions. Follow-up questions were not responded to.

Only one artist contacted, Laura Bianco, took the news that YARAT is a propaganda organ as an opportunity to reflect, writing in an email:

This is why I felt glad that you wrote to me in such a direct way and pushed me to go deeper in the analysis of what happened. If I have implicitly endorsed a regime, I can say that it was truly not my intention …. That said, I need to recognize that, far away from wanting to support any authoritarian regime, my behavior towards this experience may have been partially influenced by a kind of consumerist mindset — a mindset that pushes you to live things as sort of “disposable experiences”, that you consume and then forget, with no big consequences in your life. These superficial mindsets and habits are something that the artists coming from Western, privileged situations have to face.

Out of roughly 90 artists and 10 institutions contacted, only 11 have responded with a comment.

As a group known for ethical stances on the arts, Guerrilla Girls On Tour was asked about artists’ responsibility to know who they are working for. Aphra Behn of the group wrote in an email, “Artists should get involved when offered residencies, commissions and grants and research the agendas of the organizations offering them funding. Ask questions and find out more to decide whether to accept the support or not.”Artists have a responsibility to ask questions and to know who they are serving.

Michael Rakowitz, who was the first artist to make a conscientious withdrawal from the 2019 Whitney show after it was revealed that a board member was a war profiteer, supporting Trumps’ attacks on immigrants, wrote in an email: 

Many artists are committed to dismantling systems of harm and oppression. We have best practices for art. We need those same standards applied to artists. A cultural institution would not compromise the integrity of a work on paper by showing it in unsafe conditions. Why would they compromise the integrity of an artist or their work by asking them to show with support that makes conditions unsafe for others?

Aside from normalizing the dictatorship to its own people and giving the Aliyevs social cache internationally, artistic engagement with Azerbaijan paves the way for false moral equivalence. Echoing Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” argument, Thomas de Waal, a journalist turned think tanker who has been highly criticized for his supposed neutrality by at least one scholar and has been taken to task by one prominent Armenian-American newspaper that characterizes him as a former genocide denier who continues to trivialize the Armenian Genocide, has recently published an article on auction house publication Artnet News (which we will not link) that posits that the destruction of tens of thousands of ancient monuments as state policy by Azerbaijan, followed by the denial of the crime, is somehow the same as the failed upkeep of a mosque by the poorest country in the Caucasus region.

There is no such thing as art that exists on its own. Kareem Estefan’s introduction to Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, Cultural Production is very clear on this point: “ … art does not transcend the political conditions under which it is exhibited … ”

Chelsea Haines, writing about artist boycotts in the same book, states that artists have the “… right not to be a perpetrator — we don’t want to be complicit in systems of abuse, acts of refusal are necessary.”

If you make art for an authoritarian state, if you allow these people to show their propaganda through you, you are endorsing and enabling that state. If you patronize an artist or institution that receives money from a country engaged in ethnic cleansing and war crimes, you are stating that you believe this behavior is acceptable. A member of Azerbaijani group Art for Democracy told The Calvert Journal that “Almost all artistic venues and spaces [in Azerbaijan] are run or controlled either by someone who is close to the government, or directly by the authorities.”

By engaging with Azerbaijan’s regime, artists normalize their brutality and signal that the world accepts this despotic rule. This is not an original idea; the United Nations adopted resolutions calling on all countries to ban all academic, sports, entertainment, and cultural contacts with South Africa to protest apartheid. A list was made of artists who had violated this ban and had not expressed remorse for going.

Azerbaijan tortures LGBTQ+ people, artists, and political dissidents; they are among the most brutal, racist, and corrupt regimes on earth. Azerbaijan is currently engaging in massive ethnic cleansing. The Aliyevs should not be allowed to get away with artwashing their reputations. 

Here is our list of artists and institutions who have collaborated with the regime of Azerbaijan.

Editor’s note: The title for Tom de Waal has been changed from academic to journalist to accurately reflect his education and field, while more detailed description of the accusations against his work were added for clarity. We have also clarified the reported source of one of the quotations by Ilham Aliyev. After it was clarified that it was another individual named Leyla Aliyeva who presented the Eurovision award, and not the daughter of the dictator, the article was changed to reflect that.

Nevdon Jamgochian is a teacher, writer, and painter based in South East Asia.

3 replies on “Artwashing a Dictatorship”

  1. Thank you Dahlia. I wish I had tracked all of the threads. I feel that for every one thing I found there are at least three more hidden ones.
    Also, I really would like to know the scope of Aliyev’s secret plan “Azerbaijan 2020: Smile Future” for example, and if it planned for war way back in 2011.

  2. Super well researched and communicated, thank you. In many ways this puts ‘meat on the bone’. Perhaps even more important than the documented corruption and total lack of respect for any internationally recognised norms on the part of the Aliyevas and their cronies is the rot that fully permeates the societies and economies the west. The Aliyevas do not exist without the compliance of the Matthew Freuds, the Simon de Purys, the Anna Wintours. Oh, and artists as a group are no different from other people – only perhaps in the sense that they can be bought for so little.
    We probably cannot impact the behaviour of the Aliyevas from the west, but perhaps we can impact the behaviour of say Edward Enninful; a person of colour, a gay man, the right hand of Anna Wintour. While he proudly and rightly promotes diversity within Conde Nast and through the fashion industry, should he remain accepting of Conde Nast’s insistence of generating income – publishing Baku Mag – c/o the Aliyevas? And if Mr Enninful wants to side step any responsibility and hand it to the guys upstairs that would be the Newhouse family, observing (Russian) Jews. All for a few hundred thousand dollars. Their lack of dignity makes them obvious partners for the Aliyevas.
    Let’s talk Matthew Freud … let’s not!
    So the rot at the core of our society is truly disgusting. Whether its the Aliyevas, or the bin Sauds or any number of hugely wealthy autocrats around the globe, they know an Englishman, a Frenchman can be bought for literally nothing.

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