By Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova is the recipient of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. An Azerbaijani journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), she has gained international acclaim for her hard-hitting investigative reporting on official corruption. After a years-long government campaign against her, Khadija was arrested on December 5, 2014, on spurious charges of inciting a former colleague to suicide—a charge she vehemently rejects. She remains in pre-trial detention, which has been twice extended through May 24, 2015.

In the Canadian hamlet of Niagara-on-the-Lake stands an unusual monumentespecially for a North American town of fewer than 15,000 inhabitants. It’s a statue of Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, styled as a “divine muse.”

The statue was raised as part of a drive by cash-rich Azerbaijan to make a global name for itself. Drawing on its abundant profits from energy exports, Aliyev’s administration seems determined to gain international attention for something other than imprisoned bloggers and protest crackdowns, and the artsboth performing and fine artsare proving the ticket.

This past August, Niagara-on-the-Lake hosted a four-day promotion of Azerbaijani culture and arts, with particular focus on mugham, Azerbaijan’s distinctive form of folk music. To hear participating musician Ismayil Hajiyev tell it, “Azerbaijani music is very often played in this city.” Maybe. But knowing where fact ends and fiction takes off in descriptions of cultural events sponsored by the Azerbaijani government can prove a challenge.

In large part, that has to do with the influence of the public figure who headlines all such international initiatives. First Lady Aliyeva, a UNESCO Goodwill ambassador, currently runs the organizational committee for Eurovision 2012 in Baku. In addition, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, which she heads, has shelled out generous sums for such cultural institutions as Versailles and the Louvre, while her Friends of Azerbaijani Culture Foundation backs various Azerbaijani artists and musicians, and organizes mugham festivals and art exhibits abroad.

For Azerbaijani politics, such activity is new, commented Elmir Mirzoyev, editor of, a web portal covering Azerbaijani arts and culture. In the past, under the late president Heydar Aliyev (1993-2003), who was also a former head of the Azerbaijani Communist Party (1969-1982), official patronage of the arts was intended mostly for “internal political use,” Mirzoyev said. But the ambitions of his son, Ilham Aliyev, go further. “He seeks international approval and generously spends oil money to create a European image of his own regime,” asserted Mirzoyev.

In many waysapart from a controversy over Azerbaijan concealing one of its Venice Biennale exhibitsBaku’s arts-related spending seems to be having the desired international impact. Aliyeva received a gold medal in 2010 from UNESCO for her “efforts in establishing an intercultural dialogue.”

But that dialogue narrows when attention swerves to the arts scene at home. Most Azerbaijani artists contacted by for this article declined to discuss the state of the art world in Azerbaijan.

Hikmet Gahramanov, a professor of graphics and art at the State Pedagogical University and an applied and graphics artist, commented that the problem for Azerbaijani artists has less to do with actual government censorship than with economic survival. “There is no censorship like in Soviet times.…But the mainstream [of Azerbaijani art] is still unofficially ordered from above,” said Gahramanov. “Sculptures of senior government officialsand their family members“are the products most in demand,” he continued.

“[O]ne way to do well is to work on these orders, to create sculptures for parks in each district, [government] office, and so on,” Gahramanov added. “Another way is called among artists ‘to reach out to the family’it is when you have a target audience and it is limited to one family.…Those who choose to blaze their own path ‘struggle to find jobs.’”

Art depends on its practitioners making that choice, noted art critic and philosopher Rahman Badalov. “You can’t expect new ideas and a creative approach when most of the art projects, from architectural decisions for renovated parks to serious art projects, are tuned to the taste of the First Lady,” Badalov said. [Editor’s Note: Badalov is a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the Soros network].

An Azerbaijani artist who has enjoyed official favor has a different take on the arts scene. Azerbaijani artists do not routinely receive patronage from the Ministry of Culture or the government, insisted Tora Agabekova. “A limited number of young artists get a $250 stipend per year.…I don’t know of any young artist who is given a space for work,” said Agabekova, a former stipend recipient now featured at a Baku gallery supported by the Aliyev-family-friendly ArtExEast Foundation. “When the government buys some works, it doesn’t even pay much.”

Most of the government’s domestic work with the arts is focused on exhibits and the publication of catalogues, she added.

That certainly seems to be the case for Galib Gasimov, head of the Ministry of Culture’s Visual and Decorative Arts Department. Gasimov told that he was too busy organizing exhibits and publishing catalogues to explain how the ministry selects artists to exhibit. “The Ministry of Culture sets priorities based on the orders of [the late] national leader Heydar Aliyev, and Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev],” he said, referring to online presidential orders for more information.

But it is not only the Aliyev administration that looks on cultural events as an opportunity for image-shaping. With an eye on next year’s Eurovision contest, the movement “A Free Song Contest in a Non-Free Country” wants to highlight problems with civil rights, including freedom of artistic expression. In its 2011 world report, Human Rights Watch ranked Azerbaijan’s rights record as “poor,” highlighting prisoner abuse and limitations on freedom of religion, assembly and expression.

“We live in a country where rock clubs receive phone calls from the presidential administration to cancel the concert of a rock singer who sings about problems and freedom,” elaborated one of the movement’s co-founders, Rasul Jafarov, in reference to rock singer Jirttan (Azer Mamedov), a Facebook star whose Baku performances have twice been canceled.

A petition sent by the group to First Lady Aliyeva’s Eurovision committee about increasing respect for human rights has not been answered, Jafarov added.

Whether Eurovision or such campaigns will end up influencing the domestic arts scene remains unknown, but Badalov, the art critic, asserts that a first step for garnering positive international attention would be freeing the arts from the establishment’s embrace. “You can’t monopolize art,” he said.


This report was originally published by