There is a tendency to depict feminist resistance in primarily Muslim countries as being an almost futile reaction to violence. Acts of protest are viewed in isolation from each other and are often dismissed as a highly personalized act. However, what is often lost on outside observers is the fact that these symbolic acts of resistance challenge the very foundations of power: the belief of ‘what is today is forever’. Through acts of defiance, women across the world give body to a belief and show the superficiality of oppression.
Azeri photographer Sultana Ahmadbayli presents a fundamental challenge to the patriarchy that exists in Azerbaijan and the rest of the Caucasus. She directly confronts how both women’s bodies are depicted and for what purposes. Like other photographers before her, she re-appropriates both her body and the models she photographs from the male gaze. Her work offers one of the most exciting and brave protests emerging from Azerbaijan. In a climate where violence is openly encouraged towards women, Sultana’s work is both intriguing and confrontational. She studied Documentary Photography at Akdeniz Üniversitesi in Antalya, Turkey andpsychology at Naxchivan State University. Her nude work was first featured in Chai Khana, where it grabbed our attention. She kindly spoke to us about her work and how she is using nudity to confront gender violence in Azerbaijan.
Your work is political by nature. It looks to depict a space free of chauvinism and male domination. Can you speak about why you chose nudity as a means of challenging sexism in Azerbaijan?
I was born and grew up in the north-west of Azerbaijan, in a place called Zagatala – Balakan. It is considered the most liberal and tolerant place compared to other regions of the country, except Baku.
I left Balakan when I was 16 years old to study for my bachelor’s degree in the south-west of Azerbaijan, in Nakhchivan. There I faced the opposite of my culture compare to where I grew up. The way I was, the way I lived, thought and what I wore was much more different from those who were native to Nakhchivan. I was suffering and was questioning: why my soul was born in this female avatar? But despite this, I have never had any kind of gender issues where I grew up.
I moved to Baku after my academic education finished in 2012 and I’ve lived here since then. Despite this, I still have to face harassment because I am a woman. I decided to start this project after my experiences and observations as a female member and as an artist of this society. It is not only that they generally harrass women physically but one of the most uncomfortable ways of their harassment is this very unpleasant eye contact which mostly doesn’t win the debate.
Gender equality is a birthright for every human being on a spiritual level and it’s one of the most essential problems for our planet’s peace. This project is the question that I ask by setting my own position on gender against a social reality that clashes with it on a daily basis. The feminine beauty of the house and society’s judgement.
The majority of Azeri women ignore their physical and spiritual needs just to compromise their lives to the society’s male dominance – whether they are aware of it or not. It’s not just their husband but also their father, brothers, relatives and even neighbours. The average Azeri woman is not conscious of her body and her needs, to the point where she is afraid. She cannot express her needs while having intercourse and is uneducated about her body and soul – her husband rules her life till the end.
As a result, sexism is one of the major issues in our society. And that’s why my project and the reaction to my project reflects the proof of today’s gender inequality.
In our times of social media, projects like this can make a large impact and penetrate beyond the artistic community. Did you have any fear about any possible negative response from other individuals in posing nude?
I had no fear about any kind of negative response from the public at all. Because I am a member of this society and I could guess how they will react to my work. And it was as I expected. When I post some of my nude works on my Facebook page, a lot of people reported my posts and it led to my page being deleted, under Facebook’s policy, forever. But I kept my work and I published it for an exhibition which was held in the Brazilian and French embassies in Baku, in September 2017.
There has been a growing trend among artists in the Caucasus using nudity to confront oppression, despite a sexually restricted environment. I am thinking of Lasha Tsertsvadze and Lika Brutyan. What do you think it is about our current times that are encouraging artists to use nudity in their art?
The patriarchy is fundamental in Caucasus society and that’s why so many artists have been expressing gender equality in their artistry recently. I think art is the most influential and powerful way to speak up and to deeply affect our society and political issues that are happening today. And that’s why contemporary and new generation artists are using nudity as a tool to bring awareness, express their societies problems and let people start having dialogues about it.
After this experience, do you see yourself continuing to use nudity to confront oppression? What upcoming projects do you have?
After this project, some of my artist friends and my project curator Carolina del Castillo mentioned to me how important it is for me to continue my projects even after this one. I haven’t made any decision whether I will continue or not. I think I will keep doing projects as long as I am inspired and touched by our society’s daily realities.