For the third segment of the season Matters of Concern | Matières à panser, launched in April 2019 at La Verrière, the Brussels art space of the Fondation dentreprise Hermès
, curator Guillaume Désanges presents a solo exhibition by the France-based Azeri artist Babi Badalov.
Babi Badalovs generous, fertile oeuvre is a concrete exploration through drawings, collages, publications, wall painting, textiles and objects of the connection between words and pictures. It delves into the ways in which the non-mastery of a language can reinvent our relationship not only to knowledge, but also to others and the wider world, through a practice of alienation, alterity and poetry. Drawing on art brut, classicism, baroque and punk, his works offer a virtuosic play on form and colour, exploiting the arabesque in a handwritten script of words and slogans on supports of every kind. This obsessive calligraphy the defining characteristic of his art experiments with a kind of visual language, through wordplay, repetition and homophones combined with images and materials. Closely related to graffiti, his work bears the stamp of decorative art and ornamentation, and enacts the close kinship between script and drawing, obliterated by the West but which persists in the Muslim tradition, from which Badalov is partly descended. Using fragile or recycled materials, in an aesthetic of urgent immediacy of expression, his work draws on a distinctive, stylised artisan tradition, imbued with immense dignity and undeniably seductive appeal, despite its inherent poverty of means. Through this direct channel of communication, the artist addresses the social and geopolitical issues reflected in his own life and experiences. Cultural integration, globalisation, migration, gender, activism, post-colonialism: these are the themes and motifs that populate his graphic poetry. In a practice identifiable as contemporised agitprop, Badalov launches a broad gamut of attacks on the dominant ideologies of todays world. While his art is fundamentally political, its stance is dissident rather than propagandist: an escape, a deliberate expression of deviance from the norm, a refusal to conform, which is itself one definition of art. This defiance involves not only the artists identity in the social space, but at a deeper level his relationship to language itself. The function of language as part of a normative system is widely acknowledged. In Badalovs world, the norm crumbles, veers off course and escapes in every direction. This emancipation opens the doors to poetry and mystery, but also to the absurd and to idiocy which is, of course, another form of wisdom. By laying out Badalovs work in such a way as to show its richness and diversity, but also its coherence, this extensive exhibition seeks to capture a whole system of affects and ideas in the space of La Verrière.
The close connection between Babi Badalovs eventful, nomadic life and his work has been widely commented. Born to a large family in a village in Azerbaijan a satellite state of the USSR at the time with an Iranian mother and an Azeri father, Badalov was immersed in a linguistically and culturally hybrid family environment from childhood. As a young man, he took his first steps as an artist on the Saint Petersburg scene, then left for the United States, England and France, living as a clandestine migrant until he was granted political refugee status in 2011. His alternating experience of destitution and hope, speaking a multitude of languages but mastering none, has shaped the seam of harsh reality mined in his work (in particular, his repurposing of official and administrative documents connected with his status) an uncompromising narrative of the difficulties and conditions experienced by all political exiles. Beyond the individual circumstances of Badalovs story, his art is more broadly characterised by its intense focus on seemingly insignificant details. It is this that prompted his invitation to take part in Matters of Concern | Matières à panser: in our current ecological emergency, the exhibition series aims to highlight alternative forms of observation and making, other ways of relating to raw materials and objects, in a spirit of osmosis between artistic disciplines. Babi Badalovs work shows a heightened sensibility to everyday signs (pamphlets, brochures, packaging, tickets, etc.) and a profound respect for every product of human labour, every manifestation of life in the urban space, no matter how overlooked or despised. Repurposing, re-evaluating, and dismantling hierarchies are central to Badalovs defining ethic, and his economy of work. His oeuvre is guided by a true ecology of looking, devoid of irony or cynicism which may be seen as exemplary in an age when environmental awareness is a pledge of faith in a possible future for humanity. A few years ago, an installation by Babi Badalov at M HKA in Antwerp1 featured an arrangement of used pens and broken spectacles which, beyond their symbolic value, constituted both a critique and a monument to disregarded everyday materials. This emblematic sculptural work was conceived in connection with the many street photographs (of Paris, in particular) shared daily by the artist on social media. Badalovs photographs show accidental, unexpected compositions of discarded or repurposed objects, fragile appropriations of the public space, fortuitous collages of heterogenous forms that speak in their own way of societys multiculturalism. These framings function less as miserabilist, accusatory documents than as attentive responses to specific signs that open up artistic, even poetic perspectives in the heart of the everyday.
This assiduous attention, this continuity between art and life, is the defining characteristic of Babi Badalovs sensitive practice. More than a profession, or craft, it is a regimen, a way of existing in the everyday. An art that never stops, with no limits or borders, that rejects exclusion, a way of apprehending and sharing the world. Not a soulful add-on, but soul, pure and simple. In short, Babi Badalovs art emanates from a permanent mobilisation of his core being, as suggested in the title chosen for the project at La Verrière.
In the first person
For me, the role of curator today involves far more than the basic function of an art-world professional responsible for the rigorous, objective selection of forms to create a fair and accurate presentation. It means orchestrating emotions, psychological responses, subjectivity and reason. In other words, being open to a whole, unquantifiable range of affects; and accepting that decision-making is shaped by intuition.
I discovered Babi Badalovs work in 2009, through the Monument to Transformation project by Vit Havranek and Zbynek Baladran, both of whom I had invited to take part in a group exhibition.2 Badalov had just arrived in Paris, and I was immediately struck by the power of his work, but also its joyous sincerity, his open curiosity towards things and people, and his way of reaching out to others to the other with refreshingly unguarded spontaneity. As if the otherness imposed upon him by his refugee status was, paradoxically, a natural condition for his relationships with other people. Subsequently, I came to see how far his personality bore out that first impression of humanity and sensitivity, his denial of distance despite linguistic barriers. Or, perhaps, precisely because of them. The Catalan psychiatrist François Tosquelles once explained in an interview3 the absurdity of the Western cultural perception of different languages as a curse sent by God to divide humanity against itself. On the contrary, Tosquelles argued, it is that very condition of foreignness that enables us to relate and interact. Just as poetry does not end with the writing down of the poem but must be continued by the reader, every conversation is the translation of a discourse into another language, necessitating an element of miscomprehension.
If you talk like me, I cannot translate you, and hence I cannot know you, said Tosquelles. Incomprehension, then, is a transmission belt, and translation in other words the messages partial invention by its recipient is vital to its sensory apprehension. Extrapolating from this, we might consider that all human interaction is based on errors of interpretation, stepping-stones of meaning, and wordplay. Hesitation, imprecision, obstacles are the guarantors of social cohesion the opposite of the sort of perfect, mathematical transmission that acts as an algorithm to connect with other algorithms: like connecting with like.
This is perhaps the greatest lesson of Babi Badalovs art: that difference is the precondition for love. Inviting him to exhibit his work means not only sharing his powerful forms but opening our space to his joyous humility, natural benevolence and sensitive intelligence as they penetrate the formal surface of things. It means taking time to listen to and share a discordant voice in the frequently homogenised ecosystem of art. It is, I feel, more vital than ever for La Verrière to serve as an echo chamber for dissident voices that refuse, like Babi, to choose between benevolence and social or systemic critique; and for curatorial practice as a whole to contest our systems of value production and highlight minority practices that persist, undaunted, in our increasingly turbulent world.
1 VOAIZOVA (War is over), 2010. M HKA Collection, Antwerp (Belgium).
2 The Watchmen, the Liars, the Dreamers Concrete Erudition 3, Le Plateau, Frac Île-de-France, Paris (France), 2010. Works by Agence, Mathieu K. Abonnenc, Jean Amblard, Éric Baudelaire, Luis Camnitzer, Julius Eastman, Mario Garcia Torres, Jean-Luc Godard, Les Groupes Medvedkine, Tamar Guimaraes, Chris Moukarbel, Boris Taslitzky, Walid Raad & Monument to Transformation (Vit Havranek, Zbynek Baladran + Vyacheslav Akhunov, Babi Badalov, Chto Delat, Hafiz, Lise Harlev, Ivan Moudov, Boris Ondreicka, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Haegue Yang).
3 Interviews with François Tosquelles, France Culture, October 11, 1985. Production © Cécile Hamsy.