Babi Badalov is a migrant, a nomad despite himself: from Azerbaijan where he was born to France where he found asylum, he has gone through a myriad of countries, cultures and languages. His migrations between the former Soviet Union, the United States, Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East catalyzed his pictorial and graphic work: ornamental poetry in which one can read and look at the cultural, historical and ideological conflicts of our globalized world. For a virulent and sensitive artist such as Babi Badalov, art is a means of revolutionary struggle.
Babi Badalov was born in 1959 in Azerbaijan (part of the Soviet Union back then), in a small village in the middle of the Talysh Mountains that spread along the Iranian border. When he reached legal age, he was called up to join the Soviet army; for the first time in his life, he was confronted with discrimination, persecution, and local racism that was common against the Talysh people because of their language—different from that of other Azeri. This strong sense of otherness was reinforced during his stay in Leningrad (Russia) in 1980. Despite the difficult cultural, ethnic and linguistic cleavages that he suffered from in the Russian cultural capital, this first experience abroad enabled the artist to discover “high culture” and the most contemporary artistic creations. He quickly joined the famous underground scene, collaborating on several projects with Timur Nivokov and Vadim Ovchinnikov—central figures of the 1980s art world in Russia, amid the Perestroika movement.Yet it was in the United States that he experienced true freedom for the first time in his life. In 1991—after the fall of the Wall—, he was invited with 18 other artists from St. Petersburg to participate in a group show entitled “Non-official art. What is forbidden is allowed.” There in California, far away from the West, Babi Badalov became fully aware of his profound otherness, and more precisely of his Orientalism. It was there that he devised his motto “I am Art-East” —title of his first solo show in the United States. With a very limited knowledge of the English language, of which he had only learned the phrase “I want to be ...” when arriving on American soil, Badalov spent two years roaming this vast territory without any legal identification, thus completely free but also completely clandestine. In 1993, he experienced his first deportation—the first of a long series.
On returning to Russia, he found that the country had totally changed; there he faced famine, poverty, racism, jingoism, discrimination... because he was different, he was caucasian; he was “black”; he was a homosexual. He was an outsider. At the time he thought he could find asylum in Turkey, where the culture, the mindsets and the religion seemed much closer to his. He nevertheless failed to find safe haven there and was forced to return to Baku. Suffocating from the lack of freedom in his homeland, it was impossible for him to stay very long. His internal compass pointed towards Great Britain, where he went on to lead a clandestine life for two years; two years of failed expectations for a refugee status, two years of arrests, detention centers, rejection and deportation. He returned to Baku but for three nights only—the three longest nights of his life and his very last in his city. He then returned to Saint Petersburg, his gateway to Europe, which he set about crossing through Finland, Germany, and Belgium in order to reach Paris. Once more, Badalov endured fear, misery, nights spent on the streets and in refugee hostels, before finally obtaining official recognition of his political refugee status in 2011—and with it the feeling of a real exile where he could begin to feel free, liberated from his past lives and without any kind of nostalgia. Yet in the cosmopolitan Paris of the 21st century, he is more than ever aware of being a migrant, an eternal fugitive, a stateless person belonging to a single nation: that of the art whose language he came to speak best.
Language is Babi Badalov’s primary work material. Considering himself as a “language victim,” he is convinced that every person is a book from which it is possible to analyze human nature. As a nomad, Babi Badalov knows seven languages: Talysh, Farsi, Azeri, Russian, Turkish, English and French. He speaks these seven languages, but none of them at the same time. Not one more than the other but all of them at once, without any real hierarchy, without a main language, nor even a mother tongue. Babi Badalov does not want to speak English because he is not English. He is no longer Azeri but will never be European nor French. He has become a constant foreigner, one that will always have an accent. His œuvre is his autobiographical diary: a testimony of his life as an emigrant recounted in an artistic language, the only language he can actually master. Most of his works play on linguistic paradoxes. In his paintings and his drawings, he mixes different languages, alphabets, signifier and signified, etymologies that have been more or less invented, and puns where scholarly semantics are replaced by an art of visual and sound poetry. The writing becomes ornamental, oscillating between Latin and Cyrillic characters and changing shape until becoming abstract—a distant evocation of a forgotten Ottoman writing. Babi Badalov, whose native language Azeri has changed alphabets four times in less than a century, composes languages and switches them around with the freedom of a nomad and of an artist. The outcome of his work is a synthesis, a paradoxical syncretism with deep mystical resonance. From these linguistic phenomena, that the artist calls “the paranoia of language,” stems a universal œuvre that echoes contemporary globalization, its conflicts and collisions, which could one day lead to the birth of a hybrid language common to all.
Leïla Jafarova, 2015