International SXSW: A multimedia exhibition of Azeri art hosted by La Peña Gallery

Mary Cantrell

Glen Dolfi, the curator of La Peña’s latest art exhibit, is bringing Azerbaijan to Texas. 

The multimedia exhibition is a combination of photographs by Azeri photographer Rena Effendi, Azeri music and archival footage shot in Azerbaijan by French filmmaker Vincent Moon and radio-television-film senior Garson Ormiston. 

Dolfi said the artists he met during his travels to Azerbaijan captivated him. He knew he had to bring their unrecognized talents to America. 

“There are a lot of imaginative, creative people sort of hidden away,” Dolfi said. “Many people here don’t know anything about it.” 

Dolfi said the artists come together to represent a poetic voice from a relatively unknown country. The photo series, titled “Liquid Land — Land of Fire,” compiles Effendi’s portraits of Azeri people and images of regional butterflies that Effendi’s father took.  

“This is not just a photojournalism project; this is a connection from the area that [Effendi] grew up in,” Dolfi said. “She has this loving connection to her father, his work and photographs that were never published in his lifetime.” 

In addition to the photographs, a number of musical artists from Azerbaijan will perform at the gallery during South By Southwest. Qarabagh Ensemble and Qaraqan, who will perform at an official SXSW showcase of artists that perform traditional Mugham folk music, will take part in the exhibit. 

In an effort to make the exhibit interactive, Effendi’s printed photographs will hang along the north wall of the gallery and in trees surrounding the gallery — free for the taking. 

Dolfi said “Liquid Land” stands out in SXSW’s increasingly commercialized climate. The project seeks to offer personal art that aims to bridge a gap between two communities isolated from one another, according to Dolfi. 

“We’re bringing an international exhibit with international music to an international festival,” Dolfi said. “I think it’s a really positive step for the city of Austin and for La Peña to have the vision to bring international art.” 

Ormiston filmed Azeri musicians when he traveled the country last summer. His footage will play in the gallery alongside the photographs and music performances. He said the archival footage acts as a window into an unseen world. 

“I think it’s more like visual poetry. The way we shot it, it’s like a postcard of Azerbaijan,” Ormiston said. “It’s a way to show the culture, sites and sounds. It’s supposed to give you a sense of what the country’s like in a broad stroke.” 

UT’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern studies are co-sponsoring the event. Mary Neuburger, director at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, said the center supports the effort to inform people about the rich culture of Azerbaijan. 

“Exposure to these powerful images connects us to distant realities, like the Azeri one, that both differ dramatically from our own, and yet, in their enduring humanity, are also deeply familiar.” Neuberger said.