Faig Ahmed, Bakirə (Virgin), 2016, wool carpet, 118 1/8 × 59".

Faig Ahmed, Bakirə (Virgin), 2016, wool carpet, 118 1/8 × 59".

Faig Ahmed

Faig Ahmed, Bakirə (Virgin), 2016, wool carpet, 118 1/8 × 59".

To enter Faig Ahmed’s exhibition “Nə var, Odur” (It Is What It Is), you had to pass through Aramızdakı pərdə (Curtain In-between, all works 2016), a threshold of diaphanous drapes embellished with gold embroidery. Inside, you encountered exiting visitors as ghostly apparitions gradually emerging from behind the layers until they were suddenly right in front of you. This transformation reverberated throughout the show as a metaphor for the veiled mechanisms of control that serve to cohere (and divide) communities while conferring a tribal identity.

Azman (The Biggest), a hierarchical battalion of phallic pillars made of sugar, the tallest wrapped in a strand of pearls, the others trimmed in red with crystal borders, materialized on the other side of the curtains. Anthropomorphic and ominous, splendid and duplicitous, double entendres in drag, these forms suggest a power structure cloaked in pretty clothes and quite literally sugarcoated. They typify the sugar cones given to Azeri newlyweds by the groom’s family, which are to be consumed at the birth of the first boy, thus functioning as both fertility talismans and celebratory symbols of masculinity.

The essence of the show, curated by Björn Geldhof, was expressed in the video Cəmiyyət anatomiyası (Social Anatomy). It portrays performers moving in linear formations around icons symbolizing social rites of passage: boys reclined on tables awaiting the obligatory khatna-kilish (ritual circumcision), men wrestling in rings, and women dressed as fluffy white brides. The tents used for both weddings and funerals provide the principal symmetrical hubs for a composition of geometric shapes that evokes a folkloric carpet design. Shot from above, the groups of performers resemble an ant colony in their frenetic activity, ceaselessly repeating the perfunctory enactment of a circular dance: birth-maturation-wedding-funeral.

Circumcision marks a boy’s passage into manhood, and Ahmed’s series “Kiçik toy” (Small Wedding) depicts his own traumatic transition in seven drawings, each hidden behind a small red curtain and accessible only after climbing a ladder. These ceremonies are shrouded in mysticism, reinforcing their emotional impact, and followed by a big celebration, making an intimate and painful event very public. The artist’s narrative relates his experience with those of his father and grandfather, equating the sacrosanct social custom to a veiled form of authoritarian control about which any type of interrogation is taboo. The show’s title invokes this sense of fatalism inherent in traditional cultures.

A pyramid of cushions secured firmly with a red ribbon, Doqquz gecə (Nine Nights) signifies a pregnancy’s term as well as the prescribed stages of a woman’s life, from the tiny mattress given to a baby when she is born to the matrimonial one presented as part of a dowry when she weds. Constructed in an archetypal tomb shape, the work effectively incorporates a sense of death into life’s beginnings. The bolster at the base stands for the matriarchal ancestor, and the tiny pillow at the top represents the young bride, whose existence will culminate in the day of marriage and defloration. There is a terrifying beauty to Bakirə (Virgin),an ornate carpet whose florid designs gradually unravel toward the bottom into a bright red explosion of raw yarn. Like the red aprons boys wear during circumcision, it denotes the suffering that leads to metamorphosis. Yet the disintegration of the carpet’s pattern suggests not only the rupture of the hymen but also the breakdown of traditional society.

For Ahmed, the carpet is a cultural code, or DNA, incorporating a language of universal signs that has been carried across generations and cultures through the immemorial migration and intermingling of peoples, in this case along the Silk Road trade routes. The clash between tradition and modernization is nowhere more striking than in Azerbaijan, where the Swedish Nobel brothers sparked the first oil boom in the nineteenth century, rendering Baku—by 1901 producing more than half of the world’s oil—the spoils of world wars. Despite the increasing tension between social customs and individual expectations, we all need to fulfill a meaningful role within society—and these works point to the conventions that bind humanity together yet somehow rend it apart even after their original logic has been forgotten. The Curtain In-between feels like the series of unconscious layers you have to throw aside, one by one, to get to the truth behind reality—a murky and uncertain process.

Cathryn Drake