"Woman With Gaval (Tambourine)", 100 x 73 cm, oil on
Above right: Hamza Abdullayev, "Red
Camel", 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas, 1993.
Hamza Abdullayev, "The Path to the Sea", 80 x 100 cm,
oil on canvas, 1996.
"Two Ships", 100 x 65 cm, oil on canvas, 1994.
During the 1960 I tried to incorporate these new ideas into my
work. Of course, my teachers didn't like this, and I often had
quarrels with them. For example, in the second year, we were
taught to paint still lifes. Using a technique introduced by
the French artist Fernand Léger [1881-1955], I painted
the objects in my still life with pure colors and outlined them
with thick dark lines. The teacher approached me angrily and
said, "What are you doing? What is this that you're painting?"
I answered him in the passion of youth, "I see things this
way and I'm going to paint the way I see them." After a
brief argument, I was expelled from the class. In 1963, I was
reinstated in the class of another artist. In the third year,
when we were painting a nude, I put two sheets of paper on my
easel. When the teacher was around, I painted in the realistic
style on the top sheet, but when he was away, I painted as I
pleased on the other piece of paper. When the teacher, who happened
to be a weak painter himself, found out, he called me to his
studio and reprimanded me: "You're a sucker. You're naïve-not
aware of anything. Do you understand what period we're living
in? You could be arrested." So I was obliged to leave that
There were some very ridiculous incidents. For example, Golomshtak
and Sinyavsky published a book about Picasso in Moscow. But afterward,
those dissident authors had to leave the USSR. I had torn out
the reproductions from their book and pasted them into my notebook.
The pages contained the well-known artists' opinions about art
as well as the titles of books by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich
Nietzsche. (These books were forbidden, as were works by Sartre,
Kafka and several other authors.)
Left: Hamza Abdullayev, "White
Camel", 90 x 73 cm, oil on canvas, 1993.
During a lesson, our teacher saw me looking at this notebook.
He took it from me and held it up. Raging with anger, he exploded,
"Look here, comrades, the Soviet country is feeding Hamza,
but Hamza is looking at the works of capitalist artists and reading
Freud and Nietzsche. Besides, he is not a member of the Communist
Some time later, the Director of Studies Agabala Muallim (who
was a good guy indeed) came to my home and told my mother, "Your
son Hamza has to change his manner of thinking. He draws a fork
but claims that it's a ballerina." He meant that I wasn't
following the school of Social Realism and was creating symbolic
art instead. But I refused to change. As a result, I flunked
three exams and failed a grade. Instead of studying for five
years at the Institute, it took me six. That was the first major
blow that I received from the Soviet system.
Living in Buzovna
Aliyev studied with me in the School of Arts in the 1960s. He
was from Buzovna. Afterward, he painted beautiful landscapes
of the village where he grew up. We were very close friends,
and I would often go to his place in Buzovna. (I regret to say
that this talented artist died in his early forties.)
That landscape is etched in my memory forever: houses lost in
the sand, wells full of salty water, old fishermen's boots on
the shore, rocks like fantastic old dragons, strong winds blowing
from the sea, fig trees that looked as though they bent their
heads to the sand in the face of the strong winds off the Absheron
peninsula, stone walls, vineyards and roads that stretched to
Absheron and everything related to it became the main theme of
my creative activity. With Alovsat's help, I repaired an old
tumbled-down house near the seashore and lived there. We called
that house "The House of Sands." There were enormous
sand dunes in the area and the view was wild and fantastic. Strong
winds were always blowing. At night, it was difficult to sleep
because of the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the great Azerbaijani artist Javad
[Mirjavad] lived and worked in Buzovna in "Altay's Cottage."
His works and our personal contact played a critical role in
my maturing as an artist. Javad's discussions about art and his
mode of life set an example for me; I consider him to have been
one of my most important role models.
Other artists who were his age were already members of the Artists'
Union. They had already gained their "reputations"
and were dutifully serving the Communist regime with their works.
But Javad never bowed to the Artists' Union. Despite his financial
difficulties, he continued living in Buzovna. His tenacity reminded
me of the epic heroes in Azerbaijan's fairy tales. He was of
that generation of Ernest Hemingway [American writer], Nazim
Hikmat [Turkish poet] and others.
I was a very romantic guy. My brain was crammed with Eastern
legends: jinns, dragons and magic carpets. Good and evil forces
were real notions for me. Sometimes on moonlit nights, I could
see all of those things in the sandy place where I was living.
Once I asked Javad, "Have you ever seen jinns?" He
answered me very seriously that he had. He told me that there
were some jinns living in the domed bathhouses in Fatmayi [a
village in Baku] and that it was very risky to go there at night.
Those years at Buzovna were wonderful and unforgettable moments
of my life. I considered Javad my mentor and it was the beginning
of the creation of what came to be known as the Absheron School
of Arts. This group included the youth who knew Javad very well,
those who were in contact with him and either living in Buzovna
or visiting frequently. At the head of the Absheron School of
Arts stood Javad himself, as well as his friends, well-known
artists like Rasim Babayev, Gorkhmaz Afandiyev and Togrul Narimanbeyov.
The entire group of today's major artists in Azerbaijan are somehow
connected with this school. It's part of their genetic roots
and they have all derived advantages of their association with
it despite the fact that afterwards, they all went their own
Study in Moscow
In 1968, I went to study at the Moscow Fine Arts Institute. The
tedious lectures and seminars there bored me. I became fed up
with classes like Political Economy and Party History that had
nothing to do with art. I skipped class to visit museums and
become more familiar with the world of artists and musicians
in the city.
Those years were very hard for artists. A shocking incident had
occurred in Moscow; afterward it became known as the "Bulldozer
Exhibition." Dissident artists who were against the Soviet
system and had not been allowed to exhibit their works for years
had managed to organize an open-air exhibition in Moscow. The
KGB and Communist party officials found out about it right away
and sent bulldozers in to destroy the exhibition.
The artists were branded as "formalists," "abstracters"
and "charlatans". "Formalist" meant that
they used ways of expressing their thoughts that were different
from the prescribed Social Realism method. "Charlatans"
was a curse that referred to artists who went against the system.
The Soviet people were urged not to accept these dissident artists.
Hostile speeches by Ilichov, the secretary of ideological affairs
of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, were published
in newspapers like "Pravda" (Truth) and "Izvestiya"
At the time, there were two kinds of art: official Soviet art,
which was supported by the Communist Party, and what could be
called "real art", which was created in cellar studios.
Enormous paintings promoting the Soviet system were on display
in the "Manege" central showroom. Those pictures, which
were very weak from a professional point of view, depicted stumpy,
broad-shouldered miners, participants in parades holding the
Soviet flag high, rosy-cheeked collective farmers, statesmen
and party leaders. Real artists were not allowed to exhibit and
had to organize shows in their own apartments. Later, many of
them immigrated to Western Europe and America.
One of these dissident artists who escaped from the USSR was
sculptor Ernest Neizvestny. After the "Manege" exhibition
in Moscow, he was targeted by Khrushchev, the Politburo and other
government officials. I enjoyed visiting his studio, learning
from him as he showed his works to me. Once he told me jokingly:
"It looks like the center of world art has been transferred
from Paris to Baku." Of course, after my contact with artists
like Ernest, lectures back at the Institute held no interest
Finding His Roots
Absheron very much, so I decided to leave the Institute in Moscow.
My mother didn't want me to leave, so I continued my study via
correspondence courses. In 1979, I returned to Baku. I wanted
to find my own path as an artist, to find my own roots. My search
for individuality helped me become more familiar with ancient
monuments, Eastern art and Azerbaijani applied art.
I explored the mystery of the stone monuments scattered throughout
the region as well as the beauty of the "white camel"
in the Sufi Hamid cemetery (not far from Baku). The creative
languages of miniatures, the artists of the Gajar period and
the unknown creators of ancient grave monuments impressed me.
In these works, I saw other styles, other ways of expression
that were quite different from those found in European art. This
style was very familiar to me as an Easterner and as a person
with a Turkic background.
I support nationalism in art. When I say "nationalism",
I don't mean Eastern ornaments or national clothes. Nationalism
runs in one's blood and is embedded in one's memory. Of course,
this way of thinking overstepped the boundaries of official Soviet
ideology and was not supported by the leaders of the Artists'
Artists my age went to constructions, collective farms and Party
Congresses. They did paintings from nature, creating very dull
works, and yet had exhibitions and received honorary titles and
prizes from the Komsomol. Their portraits of party leaders and
statesmen hung in exhibitions as examples of great art.
In one large exhibition, there were about forty portraits of
Leonid Brezhnev painted by Azerbaijani artists. Another exhibition
featured portraits of Heroes of Socialist Labor. The government
paid the artists well for these works. During the 1970s and 1980s,
a large group of Azerbaijani artists competed for honorary titles,
prizes and cheap fame. Most of them forgot what real art was
Cost of Dissidence
In 1981 I wanted to get married, but was in serious financial
difficulties. Since I had to earn money to pay for my wedding,
I went to the Artists' Union and asked them to buy some of my
works. So I brought some of my paintings to the Union and left
them there. But nothing came out of it. I got married anyway
with the help of my relatives. But in 1983, the marriage ended
Even though two years had passed, not one of the works I had
left at the Artists' Union had been sold. The late artist Gorkhmaz
Afandiyev told me, "You know what? The chairman of the Artists'
Union is waiting for you to get tired of going back and forth
[to check on your paintings]. He's hoping that you'll just give
The chairman of the Artists' Union called me into his study and
told me, "The party doesn't allow us to paint this way.
That's why we can't accept your works."
That was the atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s. Artists were
dependent on Soviet cultural institutions. Those who bowed before
the totalitarian regime had everything they wanted. They were
given honorary titles, prizes, new apartments before it was their
turn, cars, etc. These honorable "artists" looked down
on dissident artists.
The great artist Ashraf Murad was one of the dissident artists
who faced cruel injustices. In 1979, after Ashraf's death, the
people's artist who had declared himself the owner of his studio
had Ashraf's works burned. Another dissident was the songster
of Old Baku-Alakbar Rezaguliyev. He painted his inimitable "Old
Baku" series after being in prison for 28 years. He had
been arrested as a political prisoner.
Plus there was Kamal Ahmad's studio-Kamal Ahmad was one of those
who had his own special place in Azerbaijani art. His studio
was located in the damp cellar of the Artists' Union building.
Javad Mirjavad had no studio of his own, so he worked out of
Art is my life! My life and everything that surrounds me arouses
deep feelings in my heart. If I couldn't transfer these feelings
onto canvas, life would lose its meaning for me. If I couldn't
create, then I couldn't live. Perhaps creating is like a biological
process or like God's creation of mountains and valleys.
Exceptional works are those that were created by Rembrandt, Van
Gogh, Ashraf Murad and Javad Mirjavad. These works were created
as a result of hard labor and a rejection of the blessings of
life. Those who created these works put their hearts into them.
It's no wonder Javad Mirjavad used to say: "Art is killing
I carry the plot of every work in my heart and thoughts for a
long time and let it nourish and grow there. I work on each canvas
for a long time, as though I want to lay open all the images
and meanings hidden in its depth. I want to show life as it is,
with all its contradictions: delight and tragedy, beauty and
ugliness. I want to create works that are like the nuances of
our traditional modal music, the mugam [pronounced moo-GAHM].
When I'm working on a canvas, I try to expend all of my talent
and strength as if were the last work of my life. Today, most
artists are working for the commercial market. When I'm creating
my works, however, I never think about whether I'll be able to
sell them or not.
When my work is in progress, I'm like a man surrounded by darkness
seeking the light. And the light I am longing for is the light
of Truth. If the work turns out right, if I have been able to
sing my song in the language of art, I feel at ease. It's a joy
that I cannot describe in words because life is fleeting, art
is eternal.s, artists in the USSR were compelled to follow the
style known as "Social Realism". Art was meant to reinforce
Communist ideology and the Soviet mode of life. Those who wanted
to create through symbolic approaches were branded as "formalists"
and their works were not allowed to be displayed at exhibitions,
nor did they receive government orders and commissions. Such
artists had to work in secret and keep their works hidden. All
of the works that did not meet the approval of the Soviet system
were taken away, even from museums, especially when we were under
the totalitarian rule of Stalin.
At art school, we were taught "Social Realism" in a
Russian academic manner. But already as a second-year art student
in 1962, I was interested in the works of European artists like
Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. Van Gogh's letters,
reflecting his thoughts about art, were like revelations for
me. Despite my teachers' strong objections, I would spend hours
at the library, reading books about contemporary art and looking
at rare and forbidden reproductions.
Hamza Abdullayev can be reached in Baku at (99-412) 95-67-15.
(7.2) Summer 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.
Hamza Abdullayev | AZgallery