A BRAVE MOVE PAYS DIVIDENDS. MILA ASKAROVA was born and raised in Azerbaijan, before settling in London in 2002. After graduating from the London School of Economics with a BS in International Relations, she pursued her studies at Central Saint Martins and Christie’s, gaining a theoretical insight into Collecting Contemporary Art, Independent Curating and Art Business. She subsequently worked in the client development department at Sotheby’s. In 2010, Mila founded Gazelli Art House in London’s Mayfair as an additional space to its Baku gallery, which was founded in 2003.
Mila Askarova, what kind of family is yours?
My great uncle was one of the first gallerists in the country in the 1950s. I never met him, and the gallery closed down, but he was very much in touch with the local scene. My mother is a doctor and my father in aviation. Both are very supportive of the creative community in Azerbaijan. I was born in Baku; when I was six, our family moved to Istanbul where my sister and I went to a British school, speaking English at school and Russian at home; we returned to Baku when I was 12.
At 15, I came to London as my sister had gotten a position in a London university. I was always very interested in art, so as soon as I graduated, I went to work at Sotheby’s in client development and quickly understood that I wanted to be active on the business side of things. I wasn’t that serious about developing my own artistic practice – there are too many good artists out there – so I thought I’d be more helpful supporting artists who haven’t yet been recognized, promoted or worked with. In other words, artists who the market hasn’t caught up with.
Artists from where?
From all over. I started doing pop up shows under the gallery’s name across London, in Belgravia, Shoreditch, and Paddington. These pop-up shows led to the opening of the Dover Street space in Mayfair. Curatorially it was all linked.
Were these not yet well-known Azeri artists in your pop-up shows?
My aim was not to have an exclusively Azeri program here in London. It was more to bring artists from that region into a healthy dialogue with artists from all over. I was very cautious about not becoming a regional gallery. I wasn’t looking at where artists were from, I was just looking at what they were producing. The medium didn’t matter; sculpture or paintings, digital works. It’s very satisfying to work with a diverse group of artists and have the freedom of a different space each time, but in my mind, it always had to lead to a permanent space, so we opened the Gazelli Art House in London in 2012.
“I will do everything I can to help promoting and making superstars out of some of the artists coming from Azerbaijan”
Mila Askarova, why is it called Gazelli?
My mother opened Gazelli Cosmetics, the first cosmetics company in Azerbaijan that uses ingredients solely found in Azerbaijan. With Gazelli House she expanded into a concept where one works on their inner and outer appearance, the importance of growing as an individual and, of course, art and culture fits right in. One can spend a whole day at Gazelli House in Baku, from getting treatments to visiting the renovated gallery space.
What is Gazelli Art House?
Gazelli Art House is the art branch of Gazelli. Within the cafe at Gazelli House my mother would have artworks on the walls. My input started in 2010, making use of the history of Gazelli Art House and bringing it over here.
Did you find many clients?
Absolutely. We had younger, mainly European clients, and some Americans who were passing through. The defining point was the opening of the permanent space in Mayfair on the location of the old Richard Green Gallery. I thought that because of the neighbourhood, every exhibition that we had, and every artist that we would show, would be a roaring success with sell out shows. But that wasn’t the case. The clients that we had made over the few years leading up to the opening supported us, but it wasn’t enough. I was unknown, and the artists we worked with hadn’t been shown in galleries and didn’t have an active market.
It was more youthful naivete. It was an untraditional start, but five years into it we have established a certain form of trust and now, almost in our tenth year, we feel settled. Having said that, there will always be skepticism about ambitious younger dealers or gallerists popping up.
In an art market mainly made by auctions, there are a small number of galleries who have a few very valuable artists, like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz for Thaddaeus Ropac, or Urs Fischer, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Grotjahn for Larry Gagosian. Who buys less known artists?
We always kept in touch with our original younger collector group, but being in this neighbourhood has enabled us to get in contact with collectors who are more after the artists that you just mentioned. Five years ago, we started creating themed historical shows. The first one was the California Light and Space movement, with artists like DeWain Valentine and Mary Corse. Then we went onto exploring the Independent Group, with artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Derek Boshier, and most recently we have put on a show of the Absheron school of Azerbaijan with prominent Azeri masters – Ashraf Murad and Farkhad Khalilov. For the newer artists to be appreciated, we also needed to show more recognised names. As a result, the program became very diverse, so much so that people weren’t sure if we were contemporary or traditional, primary or secondary market. But I didn’t mind that, because diversity is exciting. Galleries shouldn’t be pigeonholed.
You should be eclectic?
“The collector base in Azerbaijan are highly educated and travel a lot”
Mila Askarova, surrounded by major London galleries, what is your aim?
We took the conscious decision of having a diverse and dynamic program. We have a portion of the gallery that exhibits and supports artists working in new media – digital artists working in virtual reality – and that’s for the next generation of collectors that we are trying to reach out to and start having a conversation with. The biggest portion of the gallery is mid-career artists, who have been working for a long time but have not yet had significant exposure or support in the UK and Europe. We contribute to bringing that additional level of exposure, through the spaces in London and Baku. Finally, within this program, there are artists from Azerbaijan and the region of Central Asia. We host one show a year which looks at Middle East and Central Asian artists. We do group shows here, because it is important for us to reach out and connect the spaces that we have in London and in Baku.
How are the artists in Baku?
Over the course of 20th century, artists in Azerbaijan produced works based on the richness of the land on the one hand – be it landscapes or industrial developments – and responded to the socialist realism influence on the other. Today, there is freedom of expression that artists are experimenting with, making the scene very vibrant. Exchange programs with residencies abroad allow for a deeper engagement with external audiences, thus raising exposure and creating support mechanisms to enable the growth locally too.
Have some of them become famous?
Absolutely – Faig Ahmed, Orkhan Huseynov, Niyaz Najafov, Rashad Alakbarov, Farid Rasulov, Aida Mahmudova, Farhad Farzaliyev – through Biennales, museum shows, and international gallery representations have been building on their audiences globally. Having said that, there are a number of very talented artists that are still yet to ‘breakthrough’.
Are artists from another part of the world of interest mostly to the young?
Not only the young. A lot of curators come to these group shows, and collectors that are experts from some of these countries are based here in London, as well as collectors who’ve already started supporting artists from the region.
When did you re-open the gallery in Baku?
In 2012. I thought that with my parents there and with a good network of people it would work very well, and that we could almost mirror the program in London and start bringing contemporary conceptual young artists. But there was a complete disconnect with the local audience. They were fascinated. They were extremely interested, and excited, too. We had the turn out, everyone knew about the gallery. But sales were flat. There is a strong market for local artists, but not yet for international ones – at least, not the younger and mid-career artists. So, we expanded the space to be able to showcase the local talent alongside the international, thus accommodating to a wider collector base.
What do you show in your space in Baku?
The bigger regional space that we opened in 2016 is 9000 square feet, a very significant space, and I thought it was time to start working with other galleries and artists that we would normally not work with here and present them at Gazelli Art House Baku. Most of these galleries, dealers and artists wouldn’t necessarily think of Baku as a potential exhibition place, but the mentality of the people there is very open minded, super curious, responsive and eager to learn and understand. Baku has a population of 4.5 million people, and some, who became wealthy from the oil & gas industry, still prefer to buy local Azeri artists. So, we try to swap it around and are bringing Azeri artists or more regional artists to London, and taking international artists with bigger names, like Michelangelo Pistoletto, to Baku.
Did they buy Pistoletto in Baku?
We sold the works, but it wasn’t to the local collector base. I think eventually it will happen – people are going to start understanding the importance of buying artworks from international artists in addition to Azeri ones. The collector base in Azerbaijan are highly educated and travel a lot, so it is interesting to see their buying patterns at home.
As a result, they may prefer to buy their Pistoletto in London?
Absolutely. And we act as introducers to the main gallerists in London.
Are you trying to make Azerbaijani artists international so that one or two of them become stars?
For sure. I will do everything I can to help promoting and making superstars out of some of the artists coming from Azerbaijan.
Kalliopi Lemos-Bag of Aspirations
Kalliopi Lemos, Stiletto Heel (install shot), 2016
Kalliopi Lemos – The Plait – installed in Regents Park, London
Farhad Khalilov, From the series Meeting, 2016-19
Niyaz Najafov, Hide and Seek, 2011
Install shot, Domestic Alien group show, Baku. Artists from left to right: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Richard Wilson (sculpture), El Anatsui (x2), Franz Ackermann
“Art appreciation bridges the gap that lies between the heart and the head by connecting us to something much bigger than ourselves”
Mila Askarova, you mentioned Pistoletto, but who are the other well-known Western artists that you work with?
First the theme is chosen and then we get the artists, like El Anatsui, Franz Ackermann, Richard Wilson. In London there’s been a big focus on the 60s and 70s British modern abstract expressionist period. We’ve shown works by Bridget Riley, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Mitchell, Keith Haring, Lee Krasner amongst many others. We opened an exhibition in London with two Azerbaijani Masters, one who’s no longer alive and never been shown in London before, called Ashraf Murad. The other artist is in his 70s, a very notable artist in Azerbaijan, who has been exhibited in London a couple of times but never at the gallery. We opened this show in February and there were scheduled visits from the curators from Tate, the British Museum, who were very excited to see the exhibition. But then lockdown happened. When we reopened the space in June, the exhibition continued for about a month, and then in July we opened a show on American and British abstract expressionism – bringing together artists like Robert Motherwell, Perle Fine, Sam Francis, Betty Parsons, and Richard Smith, amongst others.
Have you had a bad time these past few months?
The secondary market in historical works has helped us. While we had the two Azerbaijani Masters that had little exposure here in London physically in the gallery, we were selling works of recognized artists online.
Is selling on the Internet going to become something really important? Will people buy without seeing?
It will become important, but it won’t replace the physical space that shows an artwork, an artist, an exhibition. None of the digital platforms will ever replace the need for physical space. For the next 5 or 10 years we will continue showing works and supporting artists that aren’t household names, whether they’re from Azerbaijan or other countries, as well as working with more established names. When you go into a gallery, you have a sense of the work’s presence, and see the details of the artworks. Art appreciation bridges the gap that lies between the heart and the head by connecting us to something much bigger than ourselves, and technology can ‘introduce’ art to a wider audience but it can never replace the experience of seeing the art in person. The online world helps you research secondary market auction prices, and for that it’s priceless, but to appreciate new artists, it’s much more rewarding to walk into a gallery and talk to the gallerist.
How often do you go to art fairs?
Our first was in 2012, so we have done them for the past 8 years. After I opened the space in London, we participated in the Silicon Valley Art Fair, Zona Maco in Mexico, Art Miami. In Europe we did Artissima in Turin and Photo London, and in Asia, Art Basel Hong Kong. In the Middle East, we have participated in Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art. This year we just participated in Frieze Sculpture Park in Regent’s Park with gallery artist Kalliopi Lemos, and we got accepted to the West Bund in Shanghai this November. Unfortunately, we will not be going there due to the two-week quarantine in place, but we are hoping to return next year.
Do you have a lot of Asian clients?
Not yet. That’s why with the Shanghai fair we were hoping that we could really dive into it.
And you have an important anniversary coming up. Is that right?
Next year is the ten-year anniversary of the gallery in London.
Will London remain a good place for art or will Brexit affect it?
London will never become less important, but it might evolve. London, like New York & Paris, will always be an important place for art.