Babi Badalov is a regular at "Les Trois Frères." The bistro, run by three Algerian brothers, is handy - teeming with life and a few yards from the studio of the Azerbaijani- turned-French artist. It is also one of the few serving alcohol in Barbès, possibly Paris’ least "Parisian" neighbourhood, at least as far as the bohemian stereotype of the French capital goes.
The 59-year-old artist, has been calling the multicultural district home since 2011 when his asylum request was accepted. It was the end of a long quest to settle outside his native Azerbaijan where his sexual orientation did not fit in. He has since then become a French citizen - and he feels for the pressing social issues in the country.
“I am actually willing to join the next yellow vests protest, taxes are becoming ridiculously [high] every month. The current government doesn’t know what it means to [be] working class,” he asserts.
Such is Babi - radical views translating in radical art. His life is not that of a migrant who happens to be an artist, rather that of an an artist who happened to migrate.
Badalov’s migration is not a one-off, but part of a steadily increasing migration from Azerbaijan in recent years. Figures from the State Statistical Committee showed that in 2012, 200 Azerbaijanis had left the country permanently, three years later the number had grown eightfold reaching 1,600. By 2017 the Azerbaijanis who had packed their lives and left were 1,901. Among them, there is a growing number of artists who head mostly to Turkey and Russia where it is easier to settle, a few luckier ones manage to grab a permit in Europe.
His life is a story of packing and unpacking suitcases — constantly in search of a place where his identity of a man and an artist could blossom. From his native Lerik, in the southernmost corner of Azerbaijan, he served in the army and in 1980 moved to then-Leningrad, the USSR’s artistic capital. He soon became a prominent figure in the underground art movement but the USSR, and later Russia, became increasingly difficult. After a few years in Azerbaijan and a failed request for asylum in the UK, he found shelter in France.
He shuns labels, but visual poetry is the only one he’d accept to define his artwork.
As a calligrapher Babi often incorporates words and calligraphy in his works, combining them with manipulated images — often strongly political — to create installations, objects, paintings or performances. As a poet, his approach to language is creative as he masters alliterations, assonances, gradual shifts from one word to another and neologisms. He uses his deep grasp of language to delve into its limits and the walls it can build among individuals — as languages exist to connect and yet they can divide and isolate individuals, cultures and nations.
Babi the artist addresses the geopolitical issues that echo his own experiences and impressions from migrating and travelling - words, drawings, photos, fabrics, shirts, shoes, paper, collages, walls, rubbish are merged, shakered, and transformed into a new artistic product. The world is in it: people and slogans, discrimination and propaganda, languages, and alphabets, his mother’s death, the nostalgia of the village of Lerik, art history, his detention in the UK, his sexual identity, his image and that of others, abuses and excesses of power all over the planet are put in words and visuals.
Art is his dialogue with the world outside his tiny studio - it is also all he needs in his world.
"There are days when I do not talk. To anyone. Maybe just to the baker," smiles Babi. Or the Algerian brothers.
His neighbourhood is simple, modest, chaotic, diverse and “full of real people,” he notes. Socially and culturally it reminds him of Lerik, the hometown he cannot return to, and it serves as a bridge between the poverty of his childhood and his life today, as he still owns almost nothing.
“This place, these people are unquenchable sources of inspiration for me as an artist," he notes.
In Barbès, Babi has found his home away from home.