Sitara Ibrahimbayli: The difficult task of being a (woman) artist in Caucasus

Sitara Ibrahimbayli. Self-portrait. 2018

The difficult task of being a (woman) artist in Caucasus

Interview by Ana Patladze

A.P. The project “A Woman’s Journey” documents women from different backgrounds from all over Azerbaijan. Each picture is then recreated by you wearing women’s clothes; you literally put yourself in their shoes… Women’s issues are one of the central subjects in your work. Can you tell me more about your creative process?

S.I. With this particular project, the idea behind me recreating each picture is to say that I am her, and she is me, society forms and shapes us equally; and yes, some are luckier, some know their rights a little better, went to a better school or had parents who were less strict but ultimately, we all share the same fate and there is no real difference between us.

When I travel and photograph these women, I’m always asked “why me?” “I’m not special, or successful, why would anyone be interested in my life?” Often these women are unhappy and very very lonely. I try to explain that they are not alone, and their struggle is our shared struggle, their story is worth telling and that maybe there is a young girl out there for whom this story can be important. The process itself – when I changed into their clothes – made the experience so much more intimate. It made the women feel like I accept them and I felt like I was trusted much more, and it made easier to share these experiences.

I am a feminist and my work represents this, but here the word feminism is met with such aggression. People believe that feminists want to put men down and somehow be above them, but our real hope is to talk and (together) solve issues like early marriages, or sex selective abortions. This misunderstanding or deliberate ignorance around feminism is not only harmful to women, but also to men. For a long time as a little girl, my dream was to be a boy because I saw how things were forbidden for me but not for my brother. He could do anything and I, nothing. Being a boy meant being free, being liberated… Only later I understood that men are victims of this society too. They have so much pressure to provide, to be masculine, to choose their partner in life, to allow themselves to be vulnerable. This is what my society has to understand and what also drives my art: The desire for an equal society for both men and women and thus, a healthier, happier nation.

A.P. When Chantal Akerman was asked if she was a feminist film maker she would reply that she is a woman and also makes films. The term “female photographer” often sounds like a sub-category of photography. Even if you work on such subjects like the aftermath of the Nagorno Karabakh war or a remote community of an ethnic minority, it can still be hard to rightly position yourself while also maintaining and embracing the feminine side as a tool for storytelling.

S.I. The new tendency around representing women is pretty obvious, with women’s festivals, women’s projects and so on. Even though there are these new, amazing spaces for women, I sometimes feel it is forced or made only for show. I recently got invited to a conference to speak about women’s issues because it is on March 8. It takes a little effort to tick a box and say “done” without any real understanding of our issues. Personally, I do not want to position myself only as a female photographer. I am a person, a photographer, and yes, I am a woman, but I don’t want to be regarded just on the basis of my sex. In the end, I think it is wrong to separate women and men. Our goal is the exact opposite of division. It is union and validation – that we can do everything equally, be it being a photographer or a doctor. The reason that I still choose women’s issues as a central theme in my work is because this is what I know and what I can express: what it means to be a girl in this society, in this school, at home, and what it means to become a woman after all that. So these experiences are very much my tools to tell my story and the stories of so many others that I meet along the way.

A.P. You mentioned in an interview that you feel you were born too early and this complicated tie with your time and era is also palpable in your photography. It seems you photograph Baku at some kind of a crossroads and your heroes represent that too; their background is traditional, yet their lifestyle is more modern and European. This passage and conversion is not an easy process, but rather a painful one, both for a person and for the whole country…

S. I. Azerbaijan is full of saturation and contradictions, from languages to religions to holidays when we celebrate both Ashura and Halloween. We infuse so many opposites. On one hand, it makes me proud of my culture but it is also difficult to command all these sides of one country. We have refugee camps in Baku and annual Formula 1 competitions; there are multiple parallel universes that have no idea about the existence of each other.

Azerbaijan has been independent for about 30 years, but even that concept is relative… So, we are still struggling. And for our common desire for our children to live in a better country, we have to start building it now, and a big part of that foundation is understanding all of the layers of our culture. However hard that might be, our growth has to happen in all the realms simultaneously and equally. As a documentary photographer, I try showing all parts of being Azeri. I get criticized either because I’m showing the new Baku – the hipster, joyous part of my city – while there are so many problems in the country. Or I get criticized because I only show the struggle when there is such progress going on. Both are realities of living here, and disregarding one or the other is not showing the full picture.

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