Babi Badalov is an unconventional artist. Born in a small village in Azerbajan, he served in the armed forces in Russia in Chekhov, close to Moscow, and spent formative years in bohemian apartments in St Petersburg, then still called Leningrad. He later moved to the UK for two years until he was deported, and lived in Paris as a ‘sans-papiers’ for many years before becoming French citizen in 2018. Badalov’s work is influenced by his own personal experiences of exclusion, and focus on geopolitics, gender and sexuality. His current solo exhibition in Baku is the first of this scale and arrives to the city in peculiar times. Openly gay, the artist doesn’t hide his queer outlook on the signs, symbols, language and iconography – which are all very present in his work.
The exhibition features fabric and various textiles as the main mediums in his multidimensional work. The installation comprises approximately 250 textiles hung in rows suspended from the gallery ceiling. The artist uses old sheets, pieces of curtains, found clothes and materials. Each textile is overlaid with Badalov’s poetic texts, that play with grammar and phonetics of the languages to which the artist was exposed to in his life. Apart from the textile works, the exhibition features drawings on paper that themselves act as the real evidence of the impurity and messiness of the used language, symbols and notions.
Do you feel your personal identity was affected by the linguistic barriers you faced post-emigration? Are there different ‘Babis’ within you – Russian, Azeri, British, French?
When I just arrived to St Petersburg I actually didn’t speak proper Russian. But I was very attracted by the city. I fell in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writings for example. The Museum of Freud in the city had become a very special social place, where I first presented my poetry. I spoke with harsh accent, the words in the rhymes often didn’t make any sense from the perspective of ‘correct’ and ‘pure’ language, and this linguistic complexity became attractive to the people who were gathering for a saloon for those interested in Freud’s heritage.
I have also never studied art, but cherished the idea of becoming a contemporary artist since I arrived to St Petersburg. Everyone who I was interested in from the art history, for instance Robert Rauschenberg, was harshly criticised by the official Soviet academic dogma then. The life was very harsh if you were striving for something alternative and unconventional. It was especially difficult due to my sexuality. Attraction to contemporary art I guess was also a way to discover myself. It seemed as strange, non-conforming to the norms, as I felt about myself and my position in the world. Beyond linguistic juxtapositions, there was also this identity searching and issue of not being even able to dream about being accepted for who I am and call any place I found myself in ‘home’.
How did you arrive to the medium of textile as a canvas for your work?
It is a hard question to respond actually. I can interpret it from several perspectives. First of all, it is cheap to work on when there is nothing else available. Secondly, the clothes as a symbol is very connected to the notion of honesty for me. One of the exhibitions I recently produced was called “To make art is to take the clothes off”, and took place in Palais de Tokyo in Paris. When you are undressing, everybody sees you, you are sort of transparent. We are so full of complexes that we need to hide our true selves behind things, and clothes is one of the strongest representations of this gesture. The clothes are always with us and around us: it is our reaction, our desired image, our character. We feel we have to cover ourselves as if we are constantly feeling ashamed.
Your work with text and languages suggests you’re critical to the static definitions of symbols and signs that represent political ideas. Do you see it as a way of subverting power or rather as a visual critique, meant to inspire rather than define?
As a person who suffered a lot in search of a home, and being a nomad for quite some time, I’ve always had complex struggle with politics. I haven’t become Russian or Azeri, I will never be French or English. I was suffering a lot from all these visas and borders. My protest against all these borders extends to the alphabets and language, and I am convinced that these notions are very connected. The linguistic differences are as violent. All these borders, countries – they’re all so extremely oppressing. People are living through complexes and nationalisms in the prisons of minds, and the passport is like a prison identity tag.
A lot of my work is operating through differences between the visible, symbolic in languages, and their phonetic meanings; geographical and linguistic confusions, dictated by the identity-forming cultures. Trauma of migration is heavy and irreparable. For example ‘my English’ needs to be translated to some sort of common ‘English’ by one of my friends if I need to communicate with someone in the titular culture. The same goes for ‘my French’ being translated to common ‘French’ by my partner, when I need to talk with the bank for example. Those little things – wrongly pronounced words, or names for the same type of things like coffee or bread – define our otherness wherever we are, mostly in a negative way. My art is about these challenges of languages, that shape the complexity of social and political experiences in life.
The ironic word-play of ‘Zara’ and ‘Zarathustra’ is peculiar: Is it coincidental irony or do you refer to a specific function that fast fashions like Zara play in the lives of people in our globalised world?
It came to my mind when I arrived in Baku to plan this exhibition. I didn’t recognize the city, as so many things had changed since my last trip to Azerbaijan. Capitalism changed the landscape of the city very much. A lot of this change, as I see it, is clear barbarism. I thought it was important to emphasize the resistance to this ‘sameness’, that is introduced everywhere.
I have a tattoo of [Mikhail] Bakunin on my arm, a famous Russian anarchist and one of the fathers of the anarchist movement. I initially thought of naming my exhibition after him – to highlight the essential need for the resistance in our times. ‘ZARAtustra’ comes from mixing the name of the founder of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster (Azerbaijan often referred to as the place where this religion was born), and high street brand Zara – one of the symbols of homogenisation through violent capitalist globalisation and introducing this ‘sameness’ everywhere. Combining them in one word I think is one of the ways to represent the ‘nowness’ of our culture.
I am not a patriot of anything political, but I have cultural identity and I do cherish it. I think this nomadic experience allows you to create critical some distance from yourself and from where you come from. There is nothing radically new in my message, but the actuality and urgency of it is very relevant. How to resist this blind capitalism which destroys livelihoods and to shift attention from what is unimportant – like all these signs of sick consumerism and tones of ready-made clothes – to things that actually matter for a good life.
What is your take on the artists’ role in politics? Is it a permanent societal role or something that changes over time?
I myself don’t like to associate with politics as it stands now. I wouldn’t want to be connected to the political world closely. I don’t want my struggle to be appropriated by some politician or a group in order to obtain power. I don’t think an artist should be the tool for politicians. I believe in stronger alternatives for future generations – where politics should be produced from other sources. ‘Political politics’ is dirty already and entering it leads to almost automatic disgrace and loss. Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once said that politicians always promise to build a bridge at the place where there is no river.
By Denis Maksimov