New York

Faig Ahmed, Ledge, 2011, handmade wool carpet, 59 x 39 1/2".

Faig Ahmed, Ledge, 2011, handmade wool carpet, 59 x 39 1/2".

Faig Ahmed

Leila Heller Gallery | New York

Faig Ahmed, Ledge, 2011, handmade wool carpet, 59 x 39 1/2".

Set along the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, present-day Azerbaijan is heir to a long and storied history. Scholars have speculated that the country’s southern forests are the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, while its oil-rich Absheron Peninsula fell victim to some of the Soviet Union’s most devastating acts of environmental destruction; in the intervening years, this easternmost Caucasus nation has been captured, conquered, and occupied by such formidable empires, kingdoms, and khanates as those of the Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, Russians, and Soviets. The narrative of Azerbaijani art, in turn, is no less layered. In short form, the country’s applied arts—metalworking, engraving, and carpet weaving—take precedence, whereas its painting tradition in the pre-Soviet era was limited (Azerbaijan’s contributions to Persian and Ottoman miniature painting notwithstanding). As such, the country’s participation in the early discourse of European modernism, which was predominantly centered around painting, was minimal. So when the nation emerged in 1991 from seventy years of Soviet rule and began to more broadly interface with the world again, its indigenous visual discourse found little traction within the global conversation of contemporary art.

Two decades later, Faig Ahmed is among a new generation of Azerbaijani artists. This spring, Ahmed, who, though only in his early thirties, has now twice represented his country at the Venice Biennale, staged his first presentation in the US with a solo show at New York’s Leila Heller Gallery. The exhibition, which was organized in conjunction with the Baku-based Yarat Contemporary Art Space, featured five pieces hung on the walls like typical paintings. Yet these works weren’t paintings; they were carpets, each reflecting a different, distinctly Azerbaijani pattern. In the first degree, Ahmed’s material support could be taken as readymade—carpet as Silk Road commodity, as nationalistic symbol, as political device, as touristic kitsch. But these carpets have been corrupted. Working with highly skilled technicians, the artist has produced carpets whose patterns seem to have been hacked, breaking down or becoming engorged. In a roughly five-by-three-foot work titled Ledge, 2011, for example, the top third of the pattern has been rendered according to convention, but from there, the composition swells, producing the illusion of a massive globular protuberance from the otherwise metered design. The effect—in which an informational array, assumed to be as flat as a carpet lying on the ground, suddenly becomes dysmorphic, warping the orthogonal grid—is not unlike that of early screen savers. In another work, Spreading, 2013, a rectangular segment of the carpet’s design extends to the left of its main frame. It is as though, in dragging an image of the carpet across a computer screen, one chunk of the file froze, leaving a trail of pixelated lines.

It’s not a far leap from weaving patterns to proto–computer programming—the under/over schemas of carpet making becoming the Turing machine’s on/off zeros and ones, which themselves can be traced to the mechanization of weaving, most famously by the Jacquard loom—making Ahmed’s insistence on the handmade, on the analog process of shuttling strands of wool through a strung loom to pictorialize the digital glitch, all the more poignant. There is a postcolonialist tendency to deny non-Western cultural producers the agency to employ irony and empty signifiers and to misread codes, but Ahmed has utilized these operations to great effect. In Baku, Azerbaijani painting is still largely informed by the legacy of Soviet training, and the painter subject still perceived as the kind the Soviets sought to engender—an innocuous, technically skilled artist who would, along with a cadre of colleagues, create art acceptable in Moscow’s eyes. In using textile-as-motif and carpet-as-painting, Ahmed is not merely rejecting the ossified paradigm of the Soviet artist but fusing the local and the specific to a now near-universal visual language of the screen.

Caroline Busta