Azerbaijan’s ranking in international reports and statistics has remained unchanged for years due to discrimination and violation of rights against LGBTIQ+ people.
It has become even more difficult for queers to engage in art, a field which is rife with censorship and stereotypes. Queer artists often face a variety of challenges. As a result, they either try to act within the frames imposed on them, or think about moving to countries without censorship.
Najaf Ozturk, who has just started making art, adopted this name for security reasons. Despite his new steps, he has already faced censorship of his queer content.
He says that, for example, the video installation “I Am Burning”, which is his first queer work, portrays the image of a person trying to cleanse his body polluted by traditions stuck on him. 21-year-old Najaf himself portrays this image with his naked body.
However, before the group exhibition, he was asked to change his video installation and to use clothes.
“But my curator insisted that the work should remain as it was regardless of what the exhibition venue is, encouraging me and saying that he would be supporting me until the end,” he notes.
However, this was not the last censorship faced by Najaf.
His second work titled “Holy”, which was made using women’s underwear and aimed at gender and virginity taboos, faced the same problems.
“As the work was made using women’s underwear, the organizers suggested that I replace them with a skirt so that the audience would not feel uncomfortable. But I said that one of the points I drew attention to is that women’s underwear is considered taboo, and indirectly, women and their specificities are also considered taboo in society and subjected to discrimination,” says the queer artist. According to him, although he started his performance on the day of the event, he could not get enough attention from the audience.
“Although I did my performance, no one saw it, but the pieces of my work continued to be exhibited in the room. Then the audience told me that they didn’t see the performance, so I had to explain it to some of them personally. In the following days, I noticed that my work was not included in the collection of works from the exhibition published by the organizers. Although this disappointed me a lot, I analyzed what happened and realized that I should not be discouraged,” says Najaf.
Another queer artist, 24-year-old director Nigar Safarova says that she does not feel comfortable enough anywhere, because the system in the country is against LGBTIQ+. She is the author of photos and videos with queer content, and also works as a DJ. Last year, Nigar was forced to close the studio she rented to create opportunities for herself and other queer artist friends. According to her, the landlord began to disturb her very soon. As it was not a safe environment, the artist decided to close her studio and leave.
“He said that he didn’t want to see people like me and my other queer artist friends in his house, and told my mother who used to come to see me that she should put me under control,” says Nigar, adding that the landlord threatened to report her to the police if she didn’t leave. Nigar had to leave in the end.
She also faces disturbing looks and words at venues where she performs as a DJ. “However, I want to do my work as an artist in these venues. But they either don’t admit the people because of their queerness to many places where they can earn money by performing their art, or they easily expel them without protecting their labour rights, leaving them without any compensation and wages. I and my other artist friends have faced similar situations many times,” she says.
According to Nigar, such illegal actions happen to queer people and artists more quickly than to other people, because everyone, every business owner in the country knows that Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies do not protect the rights of queer people.
“When the issue becomes public, the public justifies any injustice against queer people and wishes even bigger troubles for them.”
Local and international reports show that the situation regarding LGBTIQ+ rights in Azerbaijan has remained unchanged and problematic for years. Although homosexuality was decriminalized by the government in 2000, discrimination, harassment, assaults and imprisonment are common for LGBTIQ+ people. In the “Rainbow” map published by the ILGA-Europe in May 2023, Azerbaijan, along with neighbouring Turkey, was again ranked last according to the criteria of “gross violation of human rights, discrimination”.
Pro-government television channels have a special role in the attacks against LGBTIQ+. For example, already this year, “Confronting the state, police stations and LGBTs”, a documentary by Azerbaijani journalist Sevgi Ismayilbayli about the violations of rights and freedoms suffered by queers in the country, caught the attention of a local TV channel.
Real TV, which aired a report titled “Western-looking ‘lawyers’ – phobias of youngsters who are on the same page with America”, voiced homophobic statements about the queer characters in the documentary, meanwhile calling the people for hatred.
“It is well known to the West that family values and institutions are sensitive matter, in other words, an Achilles heel for Azerbaijan. Those in the West have in detail studied the reasons behind our victory in the 44-day war. What they are most afraid of is the passion of our young people who liberated Karabakh without ever seeing it. Although LGBT advocates use human rights as an excuse, the goals of this project are far more nefarious. The issue is not only to manage the demographic situation. That is, the degradation of national principles is the key condition for the West’s policy to germinate in Azerbaijan.”
“Salaam Cinema” team member, actor Elnur Musayev also participates in independent and collective performances. According to the 25-year-old queer artist, performances by queer artists often take place in closed events because they are not sure about the attitude of a wider audience.
“Most of the time, only independent media are allowed to those events, because non-independent media covers everything performed by queer artists from a negative perspective. This, in turn, radicalizes society’s attitude towards queer people and artists even more,” says the actor, who desires to have wide opportunities as a queer artist and bring his performances to a larger audience.
According to Elnur, as part of a documentary theater project, he interviewed people from different groups and reenacted them in different places. Part of it was a monologue in which an old man, who misses the past traditions and atmosphere, expresses concern about the current generation.
“I played it on one of the subway trains like ‘the current generation does the things which we did not do in our time.’ While getting off the train, an old woman objected to me, saying, “In our time, boys didn’t wear earrings or grow their hair long.” Although, the text I voiced was the voice of her generation, that woman did not even like me, who was voicing the text defending them and their values,” he says.
The actor also notes that although they are not established as a purely queer artist community, they try to get to know each other at events organized by various initiative groups.
“The fact that some queer artists live in the regions and have difficulties in reaching out to peers in Baku makes the creation of such a community of artists even more important. Although the situation in Baku leaves much to be desired, the fact that there are artists who feel alone in the regions is particularly disturbing.”
Tired of censorship in Azerbaijan, artists see a way out in moving to the neighbouring country of Georgia. The video material prepared by the ChaiKhana last year shows that Tbilisi has become a magnet for young Azerbaijanis looking for a safe place to work and to make art, and queer artists account for the majority of those who choose to move to this city.
“In terms of security, the situation is satisfactory… Cafes, entertainment centres, some clubs, etc. are especially queer-friendly places and they are even marked as such on Google Map,” said director Vusala Hajiyeva, who left Azerbaijan and moved to Tbilisi to escape the pressure against the LGBTIQ+ people.
Although Najaf Ozturk is aware that there are better conditions for queer artists abroad, he does not think of moving out of the country anytime soon.
“At the moment, I want to realize my personal queer identity in my country and fight to be a queer artist. I think there is a greater need for works with queer content here,” he emphasizes.
Elnur Musayev says that both local and international independent organizations and art foundations, that organize art exhibitions free of censorship against queer artists, prevail in Georgia. “I would like to go to various art events abroad. I am even going to perform in Georgia. But I am not willing to permanently move abroad and make an art there,” he says. “As a queer artist, how can I contribute to the countries that have become immune to these issues with my works?”
The article was created for “Çağdaşçılar” platform during QueeRadar’s Mentoring Program.