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Azerbaijan's government has covered up two large-scale sculptures by artist Aidan Salakhova at its pavilion at the Venice Biennale after president Ilham Aliyev reportedly expressed concerns about their treatment of Islam and depiction of his country. Officially, Azerbaijan claims that the works were damaged in transport and will be repaired, but this version of events was disputed by a source at the Biennale.
"Waiting Bride" (2010-2011), a statue of a woman covered in a black veil from head to toe, and "Black Stone," a sculpture depicting the black stone in Mecca venerated by Muslims within a vagina-like marble frame, were both covered up, the Independent reports. "The day before the opening of the pavilion, the president of the country viewed the exhibition and didn't like several works in Aidan's exhibition," a Biennale official told the paper. "He was most concerned with the marble artwork that is a replica of the sacred black stone that Muslims kiss during the Hajj to Mecca. He felt this offensive to Islam."
The artist herself and the government present a different version of events. "I covered the statues because of certain technical problems which occurred during the transport of the items," Salakhova said in an official statement. The artist, who owns galleries in Moscow and Azerbaijan's capital Baku, is known for tackling issues of female sexuality and reproduction in her work, and is one of six artists appearing in the group show at the country's pavilion.
If press reports of the president's comments are true, he appears to be attempting to avoid angering devout Muslims while also presenting an image of the country as solidly secular. The blog Tamada Tales, the online version of the Russian culture magazine Snob, reports Aliyev personally covering Salakhova's statue of a black-veiled woman with a sheet and saying that such a work could not represent his secular nation's attitude toward women.
It was also reported that Aliyev didn't like several of Salakhova's works on paper that featured minarets as phallic symbols, although these were not hidden from view. "Now the pavilion is rushing to concoct a story to make it appear that there is no controversy," the Biennale official told the Independent, "to save the country the embarrassment of going down in Biennale history as censoring their own pavilion the day before the opening."
An oil-rich central Asian republic with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, Azerbaijan has been led by the same family since its independence from the former Soviet Union. This is its third appearance at the Venice Biennale. The first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, has been active in promoting the country's contemporary artists and appeared at the opening of a Azerbaijani group show in Paris this spring, according to Artclair. Her personal collection is said to be the basis for Baku's new modern art museum.
UPDATE: Pavilion curator Beral Madra has stated in a press release that the works in question have now been removed from Azerbaijan's pavilion because the culture ministry found them to be "controversial to the prestige of the country." The curator also stated that "the concept of the sculptures has been misinterpreted and misjudged by the authorities or by their advisers" and added that censorship "will do more harm to the image of the country than the sculpture itself." She was unable to convince the government of this point and added that in her 30 years of curating she has "never experienced this kind of conflict."