Sanctified Selfies: an interview with Azerbaijan’s most well – known caricaturist, Gunduz Aghayev

Azerbaijani caricaturist Gunduz Aghayev is well – known for his political cartoons across the globe. However, he is not known solely for his work on political and societal events in Azerbaijan, but across the entire world, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Ukraine, France, the USA, Britain and other countries. Recently, his work has been published by many international media outlets.

– Gunduz, what can you tell our readers about your birthplace, and where you grew up?

– Whenever I think about my childhood, I can’t help but divide it into two periods, those of the Soviet Empire and the period of independence. Maybe because Bilesuvar during the Soviet period, my hometown was named Pushkin, and was changed after independence. And I don’t think I make a mistake in doing that. For example, I never remembered that on May 1st, a large parade took place in the center of Bilesuvar. Because parades happened only in


That period of time belongs entirely to that name. And Bilesuvar belongs to the Azerbaijan of today. In the center of Pushkin, there was a library, next to which was a toy store. In Bilesuvar, these places turned into a tea house and a bar. In our adolescence, we would sit in the old library and drink tea. In Pushkin, people had a simple life. We lived in a two story house on Jafar Jabbarli street. Now, that street carries the name of Heydar Aliyev. In our neighborhood there was a convenience store, a small hotel and a few food joints. There was not much in the way of choice. I don’t remember any gum other than “Cirtdan” in the transitional period. At that time, our neighborhood was colored by a specific selection of names, I remember: “Ahmad’s Cafeteria”, “Convenience Store Zarifa”, “Photographer Faiq”, “Trader Jeyran.” To buy shoes, you had to go to “Vidadi.” These people were so well – known that when we passed them on the street, we watched them carefully and with attention. Because it seemed to us that the only place Zarifa could be was at the convenience store. And we thought of teachers the same way – don’t they live at the school? It was strange to see teachers in their regular clothes. Everything was simple. . . our clothes, our toys. I remember the fall of the “empire” and the transition period as one time. I remember the 20th of January. It was a gloomy, grey day. One girl from my school saw me on the street as she was returning home and told me our teacher was crying. I was 9 years old. And it was the first time that I had heard the words “teacher” and “cry” in the same sentence. Then, everything changed completely. The flag of the USSR and Lenin’s portrait were removed from our class. The man we had formerly called grandfather was now called “the bald one”, and we made fun of his portrait. People started on their 180 degree turn. Yesterday’s Soviet postman turned into a rabid nationalist overnight. It was as if everything happened overnight. It felt as if everyone, who had otherwise been living quiet and orderly lives, had been thirsting for ‘freedom’ for years and years. And throughout all this, we kids still find ways to amuse ourselves. Because our street was on the road from Baku to Astara, pretty soon we had shipping trucks coming in from Iran and Turkey. We showed them the way, and in exchange, they gave us treats and gum. Next to our building were a few empty offices, that turned into a great grassy playing field. And then the news from Karabakh started coming in. And a dead soldier was brought in everyday. Those were hard years, my childhood.

-In Azerbaijan one could say there’s a tradition of sons continuing the profression of their fathers – writers’ sons become writers…even the president’s son became the president! Your father was an artist as well. Did you ‘continue his profession’ or did you, from your heart, really desire to continue in the same line?

This is more typical of families and situations in which questions of money and family reputation are of great importance. This is a contract by which both the father and son are bound. My father had neither reputation nor money – not even a workshop, for that matter. The only thing I have from him is a suitcase full of coloring pencils and other artists’ tools. He offered me a few times to go another route, to choose another profession, but I wouldn’t agree. From my childhood, my interest in the arts was limitless. All day I’d sit at home and draw. At the time I thought: ‘if I choose another trade, it would be a betrayal to art…’ I was a little bit funny like that!

– What was your first work that brought you a reputation as an artist?

Honestly, I don’t think there was a single work that won me acclaim or a reputation. However, if I had to choose, it would be my satirical series, “Holy Selfies”, which was published on a number of international media outlets. If I have a reputation, it started there.

– Your political views are interesting. Tell us more about them.

From a political point of view, I’m an individualist. I have an approach that works me. For me, the human element and the freedom of speech are the most important of all. For me, humans are creators. Mankind is untouchable. When man is repressed, when he is given orders, he loses himself, and other obstacles are created. He degrades, and starts to fall apart. And when that happens, man can no longer work for the benefit of society. When people are free, they display an interest to the world around them, and they are more dynamic. Therefore, it is alien for me to feel any support for any one party in particular. For that reason, I don’t believe in political manifestos or the words of politicians – I believe in the results of actions, of reality. Words can of course overlap, but I have my own blockades, my own system of barriers – and I don’t plan on leaving this approach anytime soon.

Speaking of politics, have politicians ever tried to talk to you and, with their praise, bring you ‘onto their side?’

Every once in a while I receive a message. But this is normal, for me, because I’m one of the only substantial caricaturists in the country. If I have a lot of fans, why shouldn’t they try to use me? But I try to be neutral.

– What trends do you see in world caricature, and modern art in general?

Recently, I participated at the 6th ‘World Caricature’ meeting in Caen, France. There were a number of well – known caricaturists present there. I would say that the works of artists from the Middle East are very relevant for European artists, not only in caricature, but in a number of art genres. For example, I was very much stricken by the works of arab caricaturists, whose works spoke of terrorism, religion and radicalism. The works of Iranian artists also hit home. They understood the meaning of religion better than the state, and they are fighting for the sake of freedom, and they are faithful to their cause. This kind of political – art is very relevant.

– What can you say about the country you live in?

Now I live in France. I had to leave Azerbaijan because of my work. Otherwise, I would have to stop my work. And I chose to emigrate to France. The nature is gorgeous here. After seeing some of the countryside, you start to better understand what the impressionists tried to do. Also, from the standpoint of ideology and history, France is one of the most important countries in Europe. There are constant political debates and discussions in the country, protests, demonstrations. Society here is very active.

– If you were back in your country, what would you do?

I’d leave again.

– Where do you see yourself in 10 – 15 years?

Haven’t thought about it yet.


You can see some of Gunduz Aghayev’s works below:

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