By Lesley Gray
Baku-based artist Irina Eldarova was born in Moscow and educated at the Saint-Petersburg State Academy and Moscow State Institute. An established artist, her practice includes graphics, illustrations, video art, photography and painting. In addition to her artwork, she also designed massive marble reliefs for Baku’s Halglar Dostlugu metro station. As an artist who came of age during the Soviet Union, she has had the opportunity to work in projects in Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and she was given an award for the Best Media Project from the Kazakhstan Journalists Union in 2007. Her solo exhibitions include “Aggressive Still-Life” at Humay Gallery in London, UK in 1998, and exhibitions in 2007 at the Baku Centre of Arts, at the Museum Centre 2010, and at her studio in 2012. She participated in the large traveling exhibition of Azerbaijani art “Fly to Baku. Contemporary art from Azerbaijan” (2012–2014) in Austria, Russia, Germany, France and the UK. In 2013 she also exhibited work in the group exhibition “Home Sweet Home” in Paris, France. In Baku, her work was included in group exhibitions at Yarat in 2013 and the Aluminium contemporary art biennials in 2007 and 2012, in addition to many shows in the Museum Centre. She has also shown her work in Gabala, Ganja, and Shaki in Azerbaijan. Presently, she teaches at Western University in Baku and continues to develop her art practice.
While Irina’s practice spans a variety of media, she is perhaps best known in Azerbaijan for her paintings. In 2014, Yay Gallery in Icheri Sheher hosted a large solo exhibition of her work entitled “Women Prefer Oilman,” which was a humorous look at changing gender roles and expectations in Azerbaijan. Drenched in bright colors and nostalgic imagery, Irina used the iconic American actress Marilyn Monroe as a representation of traditional idea of femininity and beauty, as well as the past aspiration of women to meet rich husbands as a way to escape a mundane life as Marilyn’s characters often did in her films. Irina recasts the image of Marilyn to embody the tension that many women experience as they inhabit new roles in society while still feeling an obligation to conform to gender stereotypes despite having the freedom to pursue an independent future. In the paintings, the men are all oilmen, painted in a retro style that takes inspiration from 1960s newspaper photography, socialist realism, and pop art, which Irina combines to suggest that today, the dream of many women is to meet a rich and successful businessman to give them the life that they want as opposed to harboring fantasies of fairytale romances. Marilyn, as she is depicted in the paintings, has a dual role — she is the object of men’s desire but also women’s aspirations and limitations. The series is both ironic and reflective, asking viewers to consider how cultural roles shift but also stay the same.
In 2018, Irina also participated in the group exhibition “1918,” held at Gazelli Art House in Baku, which showcased artwork by contemporary Azerbaijani artists on the 100-year anniversary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The artworks all considered Azerbaijan’s history over the past century through a variety of media and themes. Irina’s painting and two collages of photography and acrylics highlight the effects of oil on the social life and culture of Azerbaijan, focusing both on industry leaders and the ordinary people whose lives have been shaped by the petroleum economy. Her work is a meditation on the ongoing flux of the present as it has emerged from the past, and how it can be shaped in the future to come.