Venetian mask: Azerbaijan censors its own Biennale entry

The Azerbaijan government has staged a literal cover-up at this year's Venice Biennale, the world's most high-profile showcase of contemporary art, by hiding the work of one of its own artists beneath a piece of cloth.

While the government claims this is because the art was "damaged during transport", senior sources at the exhibition say it is an act of censorship in contravention of the Biennale's spirit of apolitical artistic expression.

Senior government figures ordered that the work by Moscow-based artist Aidan Salakhova be concealed after being offended by its content, the official claimed. A government delegation, including Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev, visited the exhibition this week.

Two days later, two works, including Waiting Bride 2010-2011, which shows a woman in a black veil from head to foot, were hidden from view by being covered in a piece of white cloth. According to the witness, the move came because of government sensitives towards the nation's status as a secular Muslim country. Another sculpture, which shows the religious relic the Black Stone of Mecca contained in a vagina-like marble frame, was also considered insensitive.

"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," said the official. "He was most concerned with the marble artwork that is a replica of the sacred black stone that Muslims kiss during the Haj to Mecca. He felt this offensive to Islam."

The official added that Aliyev also did not like several works on paper which featured sexually explicit imagery in the context of Islam, such as a woman holding a minaret doubling as a phallic symbol. "The culture minister asked for the woman in a black veil to be covered up," they continued. "Now the pavilion is rushing to concoct a story to make it appear that there is no controversy, to save the country the embarrassment of going down in Biennale history as censoring their own pavilion the day before the opening."

Both the artist and the Azerbaijan government, however, are disputing the reasons for the concealment.

"I covered the statues because of certain technical problems which occurred during the transport of the items," said Salakhova in an official statement. "The ministry supported the pavilion and the six artists that are exhibited here." She added that she was "surprised" given the exhibition had original been sanctioned by the Azerbaijan state.

A government spokesperson said there was "damage to two sculptures during their transport to Venice", leading to their being temporarily covered, and also indicated that they had been renamed in light of their being covered. "This does not change the meaning of these artworks," said the spokesperson. "The sculptures will be fully revealed once they are restored."

It is the first time Salakhova, who owns galleries in Moscow and Azerbaijan's capital Baku, has exhibited sculpture at Venice. The artist is well known for works featuring intrauterine devices, as well as installations relating to abortion and motherhood.

A spokesperson for the Biennale declined to comment.

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