Arriving as a brand new expat in a previously unknown destination can be a daunting experience but here in Baku I needn’t have worried. I was quite amazed at how quickly I met interesting people and how welcoming they were. Age, nationality or family status pose no hurdles whatsoever and best of all, one gets to interact with a great variety of people one may not have come across at home. Almost all have fascinating tales to tell from previous postings and, having been here longer, are invaluable sources of local information. Here, you are taken as who you are without the usual ‘baggage’ which determines your identity at home. Where you live, how you dress, your political or religious beliefs, your previous job, your earnings, what you have or don’t have, who your family are or your established social life back in Blighty are all entirely irrelevant within the expat community and you start life with a completely blank slate and on your own merit. It’s a joy! Not long after my arrival in Baku in late September 2013, I was introduced to British contemporary conceptual painter Sarah Knill-Jones, currently based in Baku, who has made quite a name for herself in the UK and in Azerbaijan. I hugely admire her work and am the proud owner of one of her beautiful paintings. She has lived in Baku since 2010, having previously lived in London, Stavanger, Paris, Luanda, Seoul and Istanbul. I decided to pick her brains about life in Baku from her perspective.
Fizz of Life: Sarah, which aspects of life in Baku have you particularly enjoyed?
Sarah Knill-Jones: I have loved meeting people here, professionally and personally; the variety of spectacular landscapes constantly amazes me, and the chance to be here at a time of such change and development is a privilege.
Fizz of Life: Which challenges you have faced or are you facing living here?
Sarah Knill-Jones: While the ‘can do’ attitude is great, there is also a lack of attention to detail, which can be incredibly frustrating; not being able to buy a large range of quality art products locally is problematic for me, so I bring everything in from London for my work; and generally the amateur professionalism which abounds can be very wearing.
Fizz of Life: What are your aims and ambitions while you are living and working here in Baku?
Sarah Knill-Jones: Having taught at the Fine Art Academy here over the period of a year in collaboration with the British Council, I would like to see more grassroots events and happenings in the art world here. With some local colleagues we have set up an artist run organisation called ALOV project, to try to provide opportunities for discussion, critique and development to help young artists develop their practice as artist in a more professional and dynamic way.
Fizz of Life: Any comments you’d like to make about life in Baku/Azerbaijan?
Sarah Knill-Jones: Appearances are deceptive, look behind the facades and leave behind your own pre-conceived ideas of how you think society ought to operate.
Fizz of Life: I’m sure you have some stories to tell about working in Baku. What unusual experiences have you had?
Sarah Knill-Jones: For a collaborative painting project, involving a colleague coming in especially from Switzerland, I needed to install one old window and one new PVC window in a gallery in the old city in order to paint on them. We were not allowed to deliver the PVC window because they are prohibited from being used in construction here (take a walk around and check out the quantity already in place in the old city, and you’ll see why that is very laudable, on principle). However, it made things difficult for my art project! In the end we managed !
Fizz of Life: Which are your favourite places in the world?
Sarah Knill-Jones: Cloud catcher canyon and Xinaliq – stunning! Syria, such a beautiful country, and with such a rich history – we had the chance to visit just before the descent into total chaos.
Fizz of Life: What advice or recommendations do you have for newcomers to Baku?
Sarah Knill-Jones: The more you put in to the experience, the more you will get out of it; take the plunge to get involved – it is extremely rewarding! Don’t be put off by barriers of language or culture, I have met some truly wonderful people here, and it has been a joy to be involved, even although it can feel like an uphill struggle a lot of the time…
Additional pics and info on Sarah’s website: www.sarahknill-jones.co.uk
Don’t miss her fascinating, stimulating and poignant exhibition, ‘The (Dis-)Appearing Woman’ at the Museum of Modern Art, Baku, from 11th March to 1st April 2015