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Archive for the 'azerbaijan' Category

Kal talks Cartoons in Azerbaijan

June 29th, 2008 | Category: News, azerbaijan

 

Press conference at the opening of Kal exhibition in Baku, Azerbaijan

During the cold war there was this joke about two cartoonists, a Russian and American. The American says:

 

“ In the USA we have the freedom to express our opinions. So in my cartoons, I am free to criticize my president whenever I want”.

 

The Russian cartoonist responds:

 

“ In Russia, we have the very same freedom.  In my cartoons I am free to criticize your president whenever I want”.

 

Funny but sadly true. Political cartoonists in much of the world today work with serious constraints. Drawing their head of state is a definite No-No. If they dare to use their cartoons as tools for domestic commentary they risk dangerous consequences. These cartoonists are the foot-soldiers in the battle for freedom of expression in their countries.

 

You would expect to find suppression of free thinkers like cartoonists in authoritarian regimes. But there are many new emerging democracies that are also struggling with issues of freedom of expression.

 

Many of these young democracies are former soviet era protectorates. After decades of Communist single party rule they have no tradition of robust, healthy and open political debate. These nation’s powerbrokers are skeptical and distrustful of criticism. These new countries struggle to embrace political dissent in the media and cartoons.

 

Azerbaijan is one of these countries.

 

Azerbaijan is a small secular Islamic nation of enormous potential. It is blessed with a literate population, a strategic location and an important resource: oil.

 

It is also a democracy… of sorts

 

In 2005, a highly irregular Presidential election placed Ilham Aliyev in office (others would say on the throne). He succeeded his recently deceased father and the “father” of modern Azerbaijan Gadar Aliyev.

 

In his short time in office he has consolidated his power and has shown iron- fisted “Putin-esque” tendencies when dealing with public criticism. Some suggest he is planning to be “re-elected” indefinitely until his 12-year-old son will be ready for succession.

 

It is into this political environment I ventured during a recent visit to Azerbaijan. I was there on the invitation of the US embassy to hold an exhibition of my cartoons and meet with diplomats, journalists, artists, filmmakers and citizens. Our discussions would center on political cartooning and its valuable role of free expression in western democracies.

 

Bringing a political cartoonist to Azerbaijan was a smart and effective initiative for the US Embassy. My exhibition was chock full of hard hitting cartoons targeting US Presidents of both parties. These were your typical fare for American audiences familiar with the long tradition of political satire and lampoonery in western media.  To the Azerbaijani audience, the exhibition was a revelation.

 

National television and press gave ample coverage to my exhibition and my visit. The consistent question posed to me was “ Do I ever get in trouble for portraying my leader in such negative light?” 

 

To their surprise my answer was no. I would tell the audience that not every one of my readers agreed with nor enjoyed the cartoons. I often received criticism from readers and political supporters of my targets. I told my questioners that my role as a cartoonist was not to make people laugh but to make them think. My cartoons are mini commentaries whose goal is to provoke discussion, not hostility.

 

There was plenty of discussion and laughter. Cartoons are great tools for engaging, entertaining, and addressing serious issues.

 

I have to commend the US Embassy in Baku.  My visit, my exhibition of cartoons, and my meeting with citizens created the perfect opportunity to partake in a conversation on the western tradition of freedom of expression in a vibrant democracy.

 

I have always thought you can judge the maturity of a democracy by the amount of satire it can endure. Azerbaijan is a young democracy. There is still hope that it can mature into a secure and representative nation. However, it will only be welcomed into the community of modern nations when it can tolerantly endure an environment of open debate.

 

An environment where no one fears to draw their head of state.

 

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Kal – Fashion Czar

June 21st, 2008 | Category: azerbaijan

My visit to Azerbaijan has been an intriguing whirlwind of meetings, gatherings and car rides (with requisite traffic jams). Among the many surprises on this visit was my invitation to the Baku Institute of Fine arts. This is one of the preeminent art colleges in the region with over 1000 students from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other central Asian nations studying undergraduate and post graduate degrees in graphic art, architecture, sculpture and fashion (among other subjects).

When I arrived at the Institute, I received the welcome of a diplomat. I was immediately whisked into a special oversized classroom. There I was escorted to the center of a long table at the front of the room occupied by an elite cadre faculty members and famous Azerbaijani artists. I was instructed to join them and sit in the center of the table. I was then informed that I was now an honorary member of the Institute’s jury for the graduating artists in Fashion design.

 

Spot the American above.

 

The event was an amazing spectacle. First, I had the best seat in the house. Impossibly tall and languid (as well as self conscience) models trapsed down the side aisle of the packed room to booming techno music.

The models would then walk the length of the judges table like it was a catwalk. On their return trip they would stop in front of me, swivel (with an attitude) and make eye contact with me. They were posing for me under the assumption I was the head of the jury. They then continued their stroll. It seemed at times like their show was being put on for my benefit!

What was most fascinating was the fashion statements by the students. The themes chosen were interesting fusions of old and new, east and west. They drew upon ancient images like the castle wall surrounding Baku’s old city and new progressive themes like “Emancipation of Woman”.

More importantly, The show gave a interesting insight to the emerging nation of Azerbaijan. This is a progressive liberal muslim country that feels comfortable with women exploring the extremes of fashion. It takes pride from its past yet embraces the present, is rooted in the culture of the east yet embraces the west. It was a privilege to witness such progress up close.

 

Fortunately, I was not asked to help grade the students work. I did get a tour of the school and had an opportunity to meet and talk with some students and faculty. I only wished I had dressed better.

My next entry will discuss the opening of an exhibition of my cartoons in Baku and teaching Azerbajainis how to draw George Bush.

 

 

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First Impressions from Azerbaijan

June 18th, 2008 | Category: azerbaijan

 

I am in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. I am here as a guest of the US embassy to meet with an variety of delegations in the art, journalist and diplomatic community. On friday and exhibition of my cartoons opens in a local gallery. The visit has been a interesting introduction to the fascinating area north of Iran known as The Caucusus.
 Baku is a sprawling capital city in a country that has the fastest growing economy in the world. Oil plays a major part of this country’s revenue although it has a rich agricultural region in the west. In 1910, Azerbaijan supplied half of the world’s oil and is likely to be a major player in the field of energy in the years to come. As a result the downtown area is growing increasingly prosperous. Much of it westernized with copious Mercedes, BMW’s and Nissans as well as stores such as Tommy Hiflinger, Boss and McDonalds. There is construction everywhere which is a sign of the booming economy (though locals are first to complain that without zoning laws, beautiful old buildings are being bulldozed to make way for scores of uninteresting tower blocks).
The old city (where I am staying) is packed with narrow lanes, beeping cars and cosmopolitan pedestrians. It is quite impressive with medieval walls surrounding much of it. UNESCO recently declared the Old City as one of its select “World Heritage Sites”.  
Although this is a Muslim country you wouldn’t know it from Baku (with the exception of the calling of prayers echoing through the cobbled streets several times a day). It is a very secular society which is more reminiscent of Italy than it is of Iran.  Outside of Baku is another story… less cosmopolitan but still not devout as its neighbor to the south.
 
The landscape is dry and uninteresting. The port very industrial but the Caspian Sea is enormous and visible from many places. Azerbaijan does not have much in the way of beaches (Turkey is The Place to go for that) but it does have one thing… WIND.
 
The wind has been gusting each day and all day since the moment I arrived. This, I am told is the permanent state of affairs. Baku is the original “Windy City”.  The winds off the Caspian Sea continuously engulf the city. The residents are used to the blustery environment and claim this keeps the city tolerable in the heat of the summer. They may have a point as the weather has been quite pleasant.  
I will talk tomorrow about my meetings with the locals.

 

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