It Was Easy To Be Illegal Twenty-Five Years Ago

Interview with Babi Badalov

Artist and poet Babi Badalov was born in Lerik, Azerbaijan in 1959. From 1980, he lived in Leningrad, where he became a member of the “The New Artists” group formed by rebelling local artists as well as artists coming from distant places of the Soviet Union. The “New Artists,” gathering around Timur Novikov, engaged in conceptual painting, and presented their art works in unusual urban locations through illegal actions that were either tolerated or persecuted by the sate. After 1990 his 20-year long asylum seeking started during which he lived as an artist, gay rights and political activist. After an exhibition in Budapest, Badalov went to Germany then to the United States and in 1994, he returned to Saint Petersburg, and some years later, to Azerbaijan. He then moved to the United Kingdom where, after two years, he could not obtain the refugee status and was deported back to Azerbaijan. After spending three days in Azerbaijan and two months in Saint Petersburg, he went to several places within the Schengen Area, to Finland, Germany, Belgium, and then France where he sought asylum and was finally granted refugee status in 2011. He currently lives in Paris.

© Babi Badalov
© Babi Badalov

Dóra Hegyi: Babi, you claim you are a hybrid of eastern and western cultures. Can you describe these two worlds, and how they converge within you?

Babi Badalov: I was born to a fanatic Shiite Muslim family in Lerik, Azerbaijan, close to the border with Iran. They considered themselves a traditional family. Their culture was eastern and Islamic, but it was hugely influenced by Russia’s semi-western culture, which had been infected by the paranoia of the communist ideology. KGB spies were everywhere, even in schools. We villagers, who lived very far from Baku, imagined the Azerbaijani capital was like Paris. We were born with a natural attachment to our cultural traditional roots. There were sights and sounds buried deep in our memories. You cannot forget your mother tongue and your first visual impressions, the walls and the floors of your house, where there were colorful carpets and all kind of traditional clothes, the music played at village weddings and other traditional celebrations, and so on. Having lived more than thirty-five years far from home and my country, I have always found great pleasure in Russian and European modernism, post-modernism, and also what we call westernism—progressive European civil society, western culture. I have never felt any nostalgia and have never missed anyone except my mother, who passed away ten years ago. I am very much interested in showing how my life has been shaped and the process of my integration through an artistic rendering of documents and facts. It is important for me to objectively focus on reality as it has been reflected in the “body” of my cultural mission. It is essential for me to find a totally honest line between the eastern and western aspects of my life. I can sometimes be more melancholic about this past, but I am never nostalgic, except when it comes to my mysterious love for my mother. Being separated from her causes me to slip into a deep silence, which can be compared only to the immeasurable distances between the stars in the galaxy and us.

Babi Badalov: Poetical Activism, installation detail I Photo: Hajnalka Tulisz
Babi Badalov: Poetical Activism, installation detail I Photo: Hajnalka Tulisz

DH: Can you say something about your childhood? To what extent did local cultures and especially religion thrive during Soviet times?

BB: I was born to an extremely poor family. I was the seventh of ten children. Our house consisted of mud walls and a dirt floor covered with many poor old carpets. When I was a young boy, I don’t know why, but I felt so different from everyone else. I always wanted to appear more special than the others. I made drawings and wanted to look like an artist, but my family was so poor. I never had new clothes. The first time I got a new shirt in my life was when I was fifteen years old. I always wore hand-me-downs from my brothers, who had got them in turn from our rich cousins. There were holes in the knees and back of my pants, which had to be patched over and over again. Nowadays, I love holes on the knees of my pants, because they hark back to my childhood, and I feel so comfortable, the opposite of how I felt when I was a child. Back then, I always cried and felt unhappy that I looked poor. I remember my mother always took us to the Ashura ceremony in the month of Muharram, and I beat my naked chest strongly to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala. It was no problem in my village to hold religious ceremonies even in communist times, because it was so far from everywhere else.

© Babi Badalov
© Babi Badalov

DH: You left your village in your early twenties and went to Leningrad after serving in the Soviet army. What brought you there, and how did you find likeminded people? Did you have an identity as an artist and poet back then? Can you describe this period a bit?

BB: In 1978, I went to serve in the Soviet Army, which at that time was every man’s obligation: no one could refuse to do it. The place where I did my two years of military service was forty minutes by train from Moscow. As I was born and raised in a village, I could not speak Russian, only Azeri and Talysh. In the army, I learned Russian more or less, but I could not read books. After military service, I went back to my village. I dreamt about going to Leningrad and living a happy life in a modern city and becoming an artist. I told my oldest brother, who was the most dominant figure in our family, more than my father, that I wanted to go to Leningrad and study at the art academy. In reality, I just wanted to leave my village. Another dream of mine was to live in that city with its great museums and where Dostoyevsky had also lived. I read Dostoyevsky’s books in Azeri and had studied them at school. When I finally arrived Leningrad, I produced free-form drawings, mostly with black ink. I wanted to be an avant-garde artist, to do something different from the official, socialist realist art. In Leningrad, I meet the underground artist Vadim Ovchinnikov, then the alternative artist and counterculture impresario Timur Novikov and his group. They changed my life. I may write poetry, but I have never called myself a poet. My friends really like my poetry, which often consists of grammatically incorrect sentences.

© Babi Badalov
© Babi Badalov

DH: Why did you decide not to return to the Soviet Union? Was that life full of control and fear? Could you sense the decline of the system? What was Budapest in 1990 like for you?

BB: 1990 was a hard and difficult time in the Soviet Union, which was on the verge of collapse. All the fifteen republics that made up the country were moving towards declaring independence. There was chaos everywhere, while at the same time, the western borders had started to open. Nationalism, organized crime, and homophobia were emerging everywhere. The ethnic groups in the republics talked freely about their cultural traditions that had been suppressed for seventy years under the communist regime. Since I was from the Caucasus, my life was in danger, as were those of many other minorities. In 1990, I was involved in a very important show, The New Artists from Saint Petersburg, at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle in Budapest. We lived in a private house that had a garden with apple trees. When we took the trolleybus in Budapest, our Hungarian friend told us, please, don’t speak Russian because Hungarians hate Russian communists and they might attack you. After the exhibition in Budapest, I did an artist residency in Münster in Germany. Then I had an exhibition in the US, in Eugene, Oregon, and later several more exhibitions in the States. I stayed there three years, two and a half years illegally, because I had no visa.

DH: I guess you were hoping for a more liberal life than the one controlled by the secret police back home. What was your experience as a sans-papiers? How do western democracies treat immigrants? Do you want to talk about these years?

BB: It was easy to be illegal twenty-five years ago. Maybe also because the whole world was focusing on perestroika, and how the Soviet Union had collapsed. At the same time, capitalism had just emerged in the east. Millions began to drink Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola and smoke Marlboro in the streets for the first time without fear. Living sans papiers was not a problem if you did not commit any crimes. I have been an immigrant in several countries. In the UK, for example, it is quite hard to be an illegal immigrant or a refugee. It is paradoxical, but more order means more control and thus less freedom. Many people want to seek asylum in the UK, because they immediately provide accommodation, as sleeping rough is against the law. In France, on the other hand, there is less order and less control. They do not provide accommodation, but you feel much freer and happier. It is easy to find a “camp,” a huge place where hundreds can sleep. Sometimes, it is a building with several floors. You can sleep there and have breakfast and go back out on the streets for the rest of the day. I have slept in many camps, in hotels for sans-papiers. When I walk around Paris these days, I often meet homeless drinkers whom I remember sleeping next to me in a camp. They are still sleeping rough or in camps. It makes me sad. When I claimed asylum in the UK, I was immediately detained. I have been in almost all of the refugee detention centers in the UK. I was also in Scotland, but I cannot say I was really there, because I was never free there. I was only at the Dungavel Immigration Removal Center, twenty kilometers from Glasgow. After ten days, they took me to another detention center, Campsfield Detention Center near Oxford. Finally, after two years of trying to claim asylum, three border policemen escorted me back to Azerbaijan. I saw so much horror during my two years of asylum seeking in the UK. My fingerprints, handprints, and DNA were taken so many times. I have so much experience of being discriminated against as an asylum seeker and refugee. I hate the immigration system. I think it is one of the most unjust and anti-democratic systems.

Babi Badalov: Poetical Activism, installation detail I Photo: Hajnalka Tulisz
Babi Badalov: Poetical Activism, installation detail I Photo: Hajnalka Tulisz

DH: What did the art community and activist friends mean for you during those years? What does it mean for you to share you work within the art world? How is this connected to your activist work? Or are the two intertwined, as suggested by the title of your show, Poetical Activism?

BB: Only a few of my artist friends know how much I suffered to get refugee status. I was discriminated against, because my country is not popular in France, because the dynastic family that governs Azerbaijan in a totalitarian manner has destroyed my country’s reputation. If I had been Armenian, I would have found lots of support in France. My art is part of my life, and I am documenting my new life in a new country without feeling any nostalgia towards the past. I want to speak simply to everyone and share my experience of childhood, my love, and my political opinions. I like to provoke. I like to cry. I like to scream and explain. I am always on the run from my traumatic past. I believe in poetry. Words are strong tools and part of a universal language that is few steps away from an ideal world, because poetry is dialogue. I don’t like art objects anymore. I think art objects are dead, non-functional pieces of design. I think Anish Kapoor is fooling millions of people. He is wasting millions on massive monumental sculptures to express his philosophy, which is something like children’s book illustration for adults. There are people in the art world who behave like cultural fascists, who are dishonest and who discriminate. This is especially the case with cultural workers in Turkey, which is culturally linked to the Turkish republics of the former Soviet Union. They do not invite artists and commission artworks, for example, from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and other geographically proximate and culturally “related” countries. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and my country gained independence in 1991, Azerbaijanis have been reading more Turkish books since our language is almost the same. In Istanbul, mostly only artists of Armenian origin are welcomed, because they are more spread around the world as a consequence of the genocide. I never get any attention and responses to my art from the east, from Islamic communities or countries. I am afraid this is maybe because I am openly homosexual. There has always been hypocrisy, and democratic liberal values have been abused in many ways. Small autonomous Eurocentric groups only engage with western intellectuals and seek democracy, civil society, and liberalism in totalitarian regimes, where opposing dictators is so hopeless without any infrastructural and leftist basis. We can see a paradox here: how left-liberals act like conservatives and are ignorant and arrogant themselves.

© Babi Badalov
© Babi Badalov

DH: You often share Bedouin tribal music with friends. What does this music mean to you? I read it as a deep affinity among groups of males and a kind of common trance state brought into being by the music.

BB: I love melancholic Arabic tribal desert music. It always links me with my mother’s soul, with the memory of her eyes. I always feel the presence of my mother. Maybe my ancestors were from a distant desert tribe, from a place where camels walked on sandy dunes along the horizon. I also like classical music. Mozart’s Requiem is one of my most favorite pieces of music. I love Mozart’s soul. I listen more often to Beethoven than to Bach. It depends on the day. Sometimes, I am more in the mood for Handel; I also find his music very congenial. I love to listen to all kinds of music, even punk music. In the morning, say, I might listen to Mozart, in the afternoon, to the Sex Pistols, and in the evening, to Brian Eno. I love to dance Moroccan style. I often dance alone, and I taught myself to dance.

DH: It seems that you love Paris. What does the city mean to you? You have found friends, people with similar views, and a mix of cultures there. What else?

BB: I love living in Paris, I feel extremely happy here. I love my room. I love my window, because it opens out onto Paris. I often feel almost like a bird when I leave my house and walk to the Metro. I feel so confident in a multicultural place. I love immigrants. I have such a good sense of them, because I can share my feelings with them.

 

In October 2015, Dóra Hegyi interviewed Babi Badalov on the occasion of his exhibition Poetical Activism at Mayakovsy 102, tranzit.hu’s open office in Budapest

 

About the author

Dóra Hegyi is an art historian, curator, and critique living in Budapest. Organizer of exhibitions and events in institutional and non-institutional context. Between 1996-2003 curator at the Ludwig Museum Budapest, since 2005 project leader of tranzit. hu. In this framework running discoursive, educational (Free School for Art Theory and Practice) and research programs in local and international collaboration.

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