In the Studio with Azeri Sarah Aghayeva

In the studio with Azeri Sarah Aghayeva, whose works explore objects with animated expressions, blurring the lines between inanimate and animate, flattened figures within a fish-bowl atmosphere collapse perspective. We met with Azeri to tell us more about growing up in Azerbaijan, her greatest influences, and what events have mobilised change through her practice.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

When I realised that astronaut and firefighter were not realistic options for me after the age of 8.

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’m from a small village in Azerbaijan, a Turkic country in the middle east that was, until the 90s, under soviet rule. I was very young when I moved to London and learned about western concepts such as divorce, mental health and McDonald’s happy meals that don’t make you happy. Whilst I don’t make work about my social/cultural background because my practice is an escape from what I’m already subject to everyday, I’m aware that subconsciously the weight of my experiences and upbringing affect my work. The fiery atmospheres and manipulated light sources within my paintings are undoubtedly from Zoroastrian influences growing up in my home country, and the carpets are the ones you can find in my own mini Azerbaijan in my 3rd floor flat in London.

When I was a child my mother used to take me to Wandsworth cinema every Saturday for the early morning kids super saver ticket films. Being an immigrant trying to provide a normal life for her daughter in a new city, this was all she could afford, but I hated waking up so early and travelling so far from home to see films that were out-of-their-date, so the kids at school would smirk when I’d tell them about a film they’d seen a while ago. The art world does not hide its marginalization and social exclusivity, but I never realised that these issues was prevalent in the mass media industry, which was inaccessible to me until I was an adult, by which time I didn’t know how to enjoy them, how to sit before a screen and give myself away to a 2 hour stimulus which always sounded like pain. Perhaps this is the true reason I can’t stand watching films. While people would talk about classic films, I came to accept that this will be a world I will never know or be educated about.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

There is a pain and heaviness that comes when creating work. I suppose this is inevitable being a creator of anything and having a deep sense of responsibility for what you bring to life. There may not have been an exact point I can say I decided to pursue art, but a growing sense of angst takes over and forms  as an urgency and necessity to make, more than what you feel doing a hobby. Going to the studio and to classes became painful and carried a sense of dread so I would skive classes just to go and doodle in a cafe, somewhere where it didn’t matter, or rent out a studio so I could work from midnight till the morning. The time when everyone else is sleeping and the whole world is oblivious to what you’re creating always felt like the safest and best time for creation, the only time I can actually call mine .

 There is no pivotal moment that I have felt I’m on the right track, because this angst and frustration always makes you hungry for the attainable. If this ‘pivotal moment’ comes to me one day, I will no longer have the hunger and urgency I feel now. This may be why most creators are ruthlessly self-critical; it saves us from getting comfortable or satiating that hunger, yet we are all searching for a peace and calm that will never come because it threatens the very nature of our work.

Who & what are your greatest influences? 

For most of my artistic education I have looked up to many Western name because the Western narrative of art saturates academies and galleries. In learning about my background I came to deeply admire 15th/16th century islamic abstraction. Islamic clerics forebode naturalistic depiction, and the result of this restraint pushed artists to focus on abstract forms of expression, years before abstraction came to the forefront in the West. The artists of their time dealt with this problem sophisticatedly; they knew the human form was the most powerful visual language because it’s one we all can connect with, but were forbidden to use representation. Hence they created, one of the most powerful abstract languages in figurative art, and reinvented a one-dimensional pictorial world devoid of depth,light and space, pervaded with geometry and calligraphy. There was no need for realism because recreating God’s creative force was seen as a sin. As a result, imagination, invention, reinventing scientific phenomena (light, weight, space) were valued instead of capturing things exactly as they are, centuries before the emergence of photography threatened painting. For many figurative artists of today, the issues of naturalistic depiction haunt our practice, and I am constantly battling with them when I paint.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I started a conspiracy that films are used by the government to control and satiate the population from their unsatisfactory lives, since through films we can live many lives, more eventful than our own. I don’t believe it, but it’s a great way to cut any movie related conversation dead, since I can’t stand watching them. During the lockdown I started watching movies. I didn’t enjoy it, but I began eating up my own conspiracy to satiate my unfulfilled life that was squeezed dry by the hands of a pandemic, and attempted to live the many lives of the unreal whilst my own was on pause. I doodled to fuel my attention whilst watching, and as this was the only thing aiding me watch a movie, slowly the movie became the only thing making me paint.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

When I create I think about what I am saying and how I am saying it, but how it is received and what is taken from it I can only control to a degree, which has always been the beauty of going to a gallery and seeing art. Both the artwork and the viewer need to submit to one another; the viewer needs to be receptive, allow the work to affect them, and the work that is taken in is subject to be seen differently by different eyes and its meaning multiplied by an infinite number of refracted interpretations. Like a refraction, where the observed object remains constant, but how it is seen once it leaves the surface and travels to your eyes can change dramatically. I enjoy inverting and collapsing space in my paintings, often by playing with the shadows. I manipulate the light sources and arrange the shadows in awkward spaces, sometimes even donning faces and eyes to them. A common response to this has been that it makes the overall atmosphere ‘terrifying’. It’s never my intention to create a fear or horror in my painting, yet it is neither my place to say no, nor prescribe the viewer with the ‘correct’ feelings and message they should take from it. The very notion of space itself collapsing is terrifying. I am honored when anyone decides to give themselves to and experience the 2-dimensional arenas I conjure up.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice  How has your art evolved? 

Most of my experiments are a result of accidents or mistakes. During the first Christmas and peak of the pandemic, I rented out a studio space. I arrived everyday at this vacant studio, commuting through a lifeless London. The only companion I had was the studio’s Henry Hoover who kept me from insanity (ironically). I would ramble on to him, ask him his opinions about my work/general politics, and set up a chair for him at the table during lunchtimes. I’m aware it became sort of a ritual or worship, but the rest of the world was worshiping another fictitious red character at the time (Santa Claus), so I didn’t feel so insane or like Tom Hanks in the Cast-away. At least I was worshiping something that was in existence unlike Santa Claus (a riveting debate which I will not get into at this time). Weeks later, I composed a photoshoot with some friends for a painting. I never stage the models, I just create the arena for them to freely interact. Often using props that are at hand, which is why the fire extinguisher has been a repeating motif, but in this shoot, the models all decided that Henry should be included, not as a prop but as a character. They interacted with him and pretended to have conversations, embraced him, offered him a drink and made him part of the party, if not the life of the party. His presence in the corner of the room had the same effect on them as it did on me, and this became prevalent in the photos and the shoot.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

For me a ‘good’ piece of work usually occurs after hundreds of bad ones, as I’m sure is the case for many. I can’t know what is ‘good’ until I’ve experienced the hundreds of possible ways something can be bad. Of course this is time consuming and counterproductive. If a factory owner had to deal with hundreds of badly produced handbags until finally a good handbag was made he would be very pissed off.  That is how I feel. I may not be a bag factory owner but the feeling is simultaneously taxing for me, more emotionally taxing. My catalyst is therefore being pissed off, which if I haven’t made it clear beforehand with the working from films example, I’m at my all time high at creating when I’m pissed off.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

From this emerged a series of works called  ‘Red Rooms’, a room in which everything and nothing happens at once, whilst the outside world continued to stand still, fuelled by the things of films and a lust for life. Inspired by Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ when little Danny chants ‘Redrum’ (murder backwards), a film where there is also everything and nothing happening at once, which I’ve only come to realise is what my work is about. It is everything and nothing at once, momentarily held in a pictorial frame. The doodles grew life size, filled with an orchestra of cinematic motifs; characters, compositions, hues, and perspectives. Objects with animated expressions blur the lines between characters and props, flattened figures in a fish-bowl atmosphere collapse the perspective, leopards replace dogs on leashes, the shadows have eyes, the moon has a face, the hotel overlooking the cityscape screams ‘Hellton’, the carpet has fallen in love with the other one. Nothing is real yet it exists on a flat surface where a figure reaches out her hand inviting the viewer in. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I hope the same accidents occur. I hope I meet another inanimate object that leaves a mark on me the way Henry did. I hope I find other material that can piss me off enough to use it as a means to create paintings. I hope uncovering more from my background will open my eyes to a new way of depiction and visual language, and that I can continue learning about other non-western narratives and sects of art.