Photo credit: UNDP Azerbaijan / Dilara Umudova

Elnara Isgandarova grew up surrounded by creative people. Her father was a poet and journalist and her mother was a carpet weaver. But when Elnara finished secondary school her father insisted on her pursuing a career in healthcare.

“It was his dream to see me working as a doctor,” Elnara says, “His sister was a doctor and he’d always admired her for achieving that as a woman.”

Elnara went along with her father’s wishes and completed a diploma in nursing. “I presented him with my certificate like a sort of gift,” she recalls, “But then I told him ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t see myself in this career - I want to become an artist.”

Elnara got her first arts-related job while in her second year at university, organizing art exhibitions and cultural events at the department of cultural affairs in Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company, where she continued working for the next nine years.

“That job involved a lot of responsibilities and I enjoyed being good at organising things,” she says, “but I wanted to use my talent and I wanted to feel like I was doing more good for people.”

Elnara spent the next six years teaching art at a school for children with mental health issues, finding a new sense of fulfilment as she saw the potential of art to help heal and give joy to vulnerable children.

Inspired by this experience, Elnara began to dream of opening her own gallery and giving her own art classes. Taking a big risk, she left the school and started giving private lessons from home. Her lessons soon became so popular she had to buy extra chairs.

“I knew I’d made the right decision to work independently,” she says, “but I was working round the clock without really getting any closer to having my own gallery. I didn’t know where to start.”

Starting up a business, especially in the arts, is daunting in most circumstances, but for women in Azerbaijan it has traditionally been beyond the realm of possibility, and few women – no matter their education and skills – see themselves as potential entrepreneurs.

Supporting women to launch their own businesses is one of the aims of the Women’s Resource Centres established by Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs and UNDP in eight districts of the country. The one in Khazar, near Baku, where Elnara was born and still lives and works today was funded with the generous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and implemented in partnership with UN Women.

Elnara successfully applied for and participated in all the courses and her art studio proposal won the approval of the reviewers and she received a grant to set up a studio and classroom.

Today Elnara, is finally living her dream running a bustling studio in Bina.

“I called it ‘El-Art’ for two reasons,” she explains, showing off the premises. “First because ‘El’ has two letters from my name, and second because ‘El’ means people in Azarbaijani and I want this studio to be for everybody – from all walks of life.”

As a teacher, Elnara mainly works with children of school age, many of whom have mental health impediments or physical disabilities. Some of the children with disabilities need to be accompanied by their parents, and Elnara has found the parents soon tend to get involved too.

“This is already becoming a community,” she says, “a space where no one is left behind and people can forget some of the troubles of the world and just immerse themselves in the beauty of art.”

Elnara’s experience of the Women’s Resource Centre not only helped her bring about a major improvement in her life but also informs her own practices. “It showed me the power of community and solidarity to rebuild people’s lives and give them confidence to start again or start something new,” she says, “and I’ll always take that lesson with me.”

In October 2019, Elnara was selected as a role model to represent the Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Caucasus project at the Beijing+25 regional intergovernmental Review Meeting in Switzerland.

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Story by Sandra Ismanovski, Arzu Jafarli, Dilara Umudova

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