Baku’s Fibers – A Portrait of the City

Baku, like many other cities in the world, is caught up in a swirling, lively motion, which changes its looks day after day; old, gray buildings are turned anew, demolitions sweep away old, peripheral neighborhoods, leaving room to new skyscrapers, and the city comes back to life.

Paola’s is not an archeologist job, but rather a skill crafted in contemporaneity; Baku’s portrait is not a matter of finding the Genius Loci but rather a tone and mood – it is not about going back to the sources. It is about sketching out a profile, showing what it takes to bring the city to life, whatever direction that might take.

In the optical-fiber era, Paola works with textile fibers. She is not drawn by a taste for antiques, for pre-industrial products, or for handicraft; she is drawn by the awareness of a fundamental anthropological condition – clothing – in any shape, at any time, this is what wraps around and houses the human body. This is how she traces the body of the city, the fibers of its buildings and of the people who inhabit it; this is how she grasps what really makes Baku, what Baku is.

The metaphorical depth of the storyline that can be found both in common sense and in social sciences teachings, shows how relationships are made up of full and of empty moments, and how wholeness really only is the sum of those parts. Fabrics are strong and fragile at the same time – living materials resistant to bad weather, but that wear out and consume. If we want to keep fabric from tearing, we need to take care of it: cohesion, elasticity, and resilience are to be a matter of texture.

In the portrait of Baku that Paola draws, fabrics and textiles become architecture and inhabitable sculptures. Folded over and over, almost as if they were origami, these fabrics get their volume, taking on unpredictable shapes: alveolar structures, elongated, vaguely organic, meteors floating in space without ever touching the ground, like some sort of forming archipelago or constellation. Shapes that either stand out like loners, or that are lumped together, almost shielding themselves, standing as a group. Hanging, suspended, tied to a thread, they challenge gravity, and let their precariousness seep through.

Paola’s are not uniquely figurative sculptures – they are also somewhat abstract. These artworks evoke everyday-life scenes that penetrate into the city’s fibers, since they originate from scrupulous documentation and research work, from street conversations, from feeling the city living through you.

In Paola’s work, the hand’s ingenuity thrives on an attentive and caring sensitivity, on extraordinary empathic skills, which confer a typical, experienced density to her sculptures. Experiences of people she met on her way and of lives we can only be left to imagine, but that textiles have the strength to evoke.

Paola’s work’s materials and patterns are perfectly recognizable by the audience visiting Baku’s exhibition, since they are taken from fabrics Paola found in the city’s markets and from the wools brought to her by shepherds from the surrounding mountains.

However, a disturbing element sneaks in among the popular and reassuring looks of those fabrics and fibers that are so often worn here, and this turns what was familiar into something partially foreign. The wool, reminiscent of the Azeri pastoral structures, takes on conic shapes, resembling skyscrapers, and creating a visual oxymoron, in which past and future overlap without ever coinciding.

Soft lines and colors don’t trace a harmonic and peaceful portrait of Baky, they are held together by a thread of tension – the fibers, remodeled by the artist, seen in a different light, seem to turn, in places, into forms of alien life.

Paola does not argue, and doesn’t discuss it, she just sets up an experience; she offered Azeri visitors a mirror, through which they can look at themselves and possibly only identify partially. This is not only because Paola’s is an external and foreign gaze, but also because what she offers is a deforming mirror, which reflects faithfully the evolving identity.

As Baku’s constellation now glides toward Milan, what will be its visitors’ experience? What if Milan revealed to be not that different from Baku?

By Ivan Bargna