The Azerbaijani visual artist and poet talks to Kristina Spencer about his nomadic life, his creative work and the search for comfort in his own skin
Artist and poet Babi Badalov lives and works in Paris, but the path that led him there was not straightforward. He was born in 1959 in Lerik, a small city in the southern part of Azerbaijan that’s not far from the Iranian border. “I don’t feel nostalgic at all,” he says about his childhood, “I don’t want to remember my past.” For Badalov was born into a family that struggled – Babi only bought his first new shirt aged 15 — and his parents wanted him to study medicine. However, Badalov, an anxious boy, only felt happy when he was drawing.
At the age of 15, he was studying at Baku’s Academy of Arts. He spent two years in the Soviet Army and then moved to Leningrad – today St. Petersburg – where he lived until the late 1990’s. “I told everyone I was applying to the Academy [the Imperial Academy of Arts], but there was no Academy in my plans. The Academy was traditional and Soviet, and I was interested in the avant-garde.” Instead, he joined the underground scene, living in squats and creating art every spare minute. Was it hard? “Yes, I lived in very strange places. I worked as a night guard and construction worker, but art always saved me from the hardships of everyday life.”
In the early 90s, Badalov exhibited with his fellow Nonconformist artists. Timur Novikov, one of the movement’s most influential proponents, was a friend, along with Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe and Sergei Bugaev (or “Afrika”, as he is known). What was it like for artists living in Russia as the Iron Wall collapsed and society underwent seismic political and cultural changes? “For a few years after perestroika, it was an amazing time to be an artist. The borders opened up, and gallerists and collectors flooded to Russia. All of the art was bought, because they were interested in everything. But when our artists went there [abroad], they were lost. Many artists saw how advanced and serious the art was there, and they froze up.”
Badalov felt frozen, too. Until he discovered “assemblage”, the art of grouping together different objects. This developed into one of his signature modes of self-expression: adding his poetry to canvas, although he is quick to assert that he is not a poet. “I never have been a poet. I am an artist, a visual poet. Visual collage, visual poetry, poetic art — I guess you can call it that.” Badalov’s work explores the limits of language and the borders it imposes on people. “We are not separated by borders; we are separated by language and its absurdity.” This was something Badalov experienced first-hand when he moved to Leningrad and could barely speak Russian. This same sense of disconnection felt even more pronounced in America.
He lived in the U.S. for three years before concluding that, quite simply, he couldn’t bear it. “I can’t turn around and say that America is bad, but I don’t like the American mentality. I always felt that people were fake, plastic. There is ‘freedom’, but it is a land of puritans. They always want to copy something they see on the telly.” From here, our conversation leads to the subject of capitalism and how it has become entangled with the art scene. Badalov is very passionate about this: “it is the worst thing that can happen to art; [capitalism] is an angry monster who tries to convince you to buy something. We need to fight it. With my art I try to do that.”
Babi’s work is a combination of manipulated pictures, found objects and linguistic research, expressing his ideas through written words, objects, installations and live performances. The nomadic life he’s led thus far lends itself to the questions surrounding artists, refugees and migrants. His work brings to life the challenges of language barriers and cross-cultural confusion. Having been refused political asylum by the UK Home Office, he was deported to Azerbaijan, where he feared for his life because of his sexuality. Badalov is homosexual though he doesn’t describe himself as gay. “I have specific views on being gay. I am absolutely a homosexual – I am open now, but I don’t like talking about it.”
These days, the artist has made Paris his home and is finally comfortable in his own skin. And at the age of 60, he is more certain than ever about his lifework. “Art is a responsibility, a cultural morale. True art transcends everything – and it is my mission to preserve this for the future generations. And I need to continue on this path.”
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