The contemporary art scene in Azerbaijan is mourning the loss of Leyla Akhundzadeh, the academic, curator, artist and cultural ministry advisor who tragically died, aged 56, following injuries sustained from a road accident on February 10. The Moscow-born Akhundzadeh was considered the nation’s matriarch of contemporary art.
In the years since graduating in art history from the Moscow State University in 1975, Akhundzadeh taught at the Institute of Architecture, Azerbaijan University of Culture and Art, University of Culture and Art, and the State Academy of Art. She witnessed unprecedented changes in Azerbaijan’s social environment during her academic career, from the chaotic demise of the Soviet Union to the frozen conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh occupied territories and Azerbaijan’s struggle to establish its identity as an independent nation. These socio-cultural issues became central to her teaching and the academic curricula that she designed.
Akhundzadeh founded the country’s first contemporary art collective, Zamanin Ganadlari (“Wings of Time”) in 2000, and organized exhibitions and workshops in Baku on new media and photography in the post-Soviet era, creating a peer resource that extended to include critics and musicians. In 2003 she directed “Aluminium,” the first international biennial in Azerbaijan. It was a position she held for the four subsequent editions of the festival.
More recently, Akhundzadeh focused on putting Azerbaijani artists on the global map, and worked closely with the Ministry of Culture to curate the inaugural Azerbaijan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. During that time, she supported the founding of Baku’s first contemporary art museum, the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, for which she was preparing the collection and designing the staff structure before its scheduled opening later in 2010.
Akhundzadeh’s passing leaves a void in the region’s contemporary art community, and the Ministry of Culture faces the difficult task of appointing a worthy successor.