Interview with Raoef Mamedov for

May 2023

Why he went through the hell of a mental institution, how he sold his work to tycoon and collector Boris Berezovsky and why he photographs people with Down syndrome – the artist Raoef Mamedov told in an exclusive interview.

Your creative biography began with the movie “Island of Lost Ships”. Years later, of course, it seems very naive.

  • We started shooting this movie back in 1986. Perestroika was only just accelerating and the legacy of the past was still strong and tangible. And with my co-director Yevgeny Ginzburg we decided to go a little crazy and completely rewrote the script bought by “Lenfilm” based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Belyaev. After the release of the movie, the official press even denigrated the picture in the spirit that “this is an undermining of our foundations, there was no such thing in the book.”
    But for us, this work was a breath of freedom! The result was a movie about totalitarian regime and freedom, where the “Island” is a model of society. And the character Sholom, played by Konstantin Raikin, was indeed in some ways a naive, kind and honest man who was the conscience of the islanders. Although at the same time was a confidant of the governor. The movie, by the way, was specially shown on Easter night – the television management decided that this was the best “medicine” to distract people from going to church.

With such a successful start in movies, why did you quickly quit directing?

  • That’s not entirely true. I still make a lot of documentaries. It became difficult with feature films – there was a worldview mismatch. And with Ginzburg we then made another two-part film “The Girl from Rouen, nicknamed Boule de Suif”, after Guy de Maupassant, which, like “The Island of Lost Ships”, was awarded the “Silver Rose of Montreux” at the festival in Switzerland. I was not allowed out of the country there, by the way – it was only 1989.
    But perestroika was now in full swing, and I naively decided that it was time to make a more conceptual movie. Ginzburg, to whom I am sincerely grateful, and I saw the place of cinematography differently at that time, and we diverged somewhat. And that’s when I had a sense of desperation. At that moment, I was very much concerned with the theme of people’s otherness – after all, even before VGIK (Film Academy in Moscow), I had worked in a psychiatric clinic in Azerbaijan.

What did this experience give you?

  • A very important sense of time, because I plunged into hell and then came back from it, like Odysseus from Hades after communicating with the soul of the soothsayer Tiresias. To this day, some of the images I create still come from there, from the clinic. I was an orderly in a God-forsaken ward, where the most hopeless patients were hidden, literally in confinement. They lay there for 30-40 years, no one would come to them, they were not taken for walks, they did not remember what the sun was. It was a netherworld. In short I longed for work, and that’s when I remembered how during my military service I worked as an artist in a unit, drawing posters – all in the style of Social Realism. And I decided to return to artistic experiments.
    Of course, I was also influenced by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “Capitalism and Schizophrenia”. I was pleased and encouraged by their basic postulate that only schizophrenics can be both the subject and the object of art! The discovery was on shaky but fertile ground: unlike paranoia, schizophrenia can be very light, fun and creatively productive. I worked with people with this diagnosis in my art. I also use people with Down syndrome. I never call them ill. They’re just other people to me. Their otherness, their encounters with the outside world, that’s what is interesting.
    And it is also important to remember that no matter how well-meaning and hypocritical people are, the most important human problem is the theme of death. It haunts us everywhere, including in art. Art is a sublimation of the fear of death. I think that’s the most accurate definition of it. And these people in the clinic have no fear of death! They don’t understand what death is. We, the people on the other side of the whitewashed stone fence, have such a desperate and subconscious fear. It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s actually quite disturbing to me. Maybe these people from the clinics can help us, in a healthy sort of way.

How did your work appear at the Museum of Modern Art in Israel?

  • It was in 2000. At that time, the Berezovsky family purchased and donated my “The Last Supper” to the State of Israel. At that time, this work was already a colossal success at an international art fair in Basel, where it was presented by Gallery Lilja Zakirova at the main venue for contemporary art in the world.
    I suspect, like many, I have a lot to do with Jewish people in my life. Including the story of my really big success. I had my first exhibition in the Netherlands, and there was a huge queue at the gallery, and late at night a charismatic elderly Jewish man knocked on the door of the gallery and gave me a pair of fine designer shoes. As it turned out, he was the owner of the shoe store across the street from the gallery. That day he had the kind of business he hadn’t had in a year, so he decided to thank me.

Most of your works are on biblical themes. Why is that?

  • It’s from my childhood. I lived in the provincial Azerbaijani town of Gandja. Where my nanny, aunt Nastya, was an Orthodox Christian who always dragged me to church. Besides, artists should start from big stories. And biblical stories are such meta-histories. I mean, we’re all picking up the pieces of a broken mirror. And don’t think that biblical narratives are just beautiful tales from the past that have nothing to do with us. The same biblical collisions are in our every deed, in our every action.

Your paintings can be unsettling to the untrained viewer. Have there been protests against your exhibitions?

  • Yes, from time to time there are problems. For example, there was Deacon Kuraev, who, under the toga of sincere indignation, called to gather and physically disrupt my next exhibition. Allegedly, my works were a mockery of Christianity. I have no such thoughts.
    But after Kuraev’s incitation, the crowd had the expected reaction – to chop up my works with axes, kill me at the same time, and wrap my body in pigskin. It got to the point that on the eve of the exhibition I had to hide my children in other people’s apartments. And that’s surprising, because I’m not trying to make jokes about Christianity. On the contrary. And in the Netherlands, my works are even exhibited in cathedrals and monasteries.

Do you work with American galleries?

  • At one time, but for a very short time, I worked with Bruce Silverstein, who is a big gallery owner in Manhattan. He even bought some of my work and wanted to collaborate with me. But I confess I was afraid. After all, in Russia I work with everyone on my word of honor, as is our custom. But there, the American system is different. They brought me a voluminous contract which I had to sign. And in it, for example, it said that I had no right to disappear from the gallery’s sight for more than three days. And if I drew something, even on a napkin in a café. – it belonged to the gallery. I can’t give that napkin to anyone. It was all very tense, so I didn’t sign the contract.

Getting back to the topic of people with otherness: you described your experiences in a mental health clinic as an experience of being in hell, but what about that hell?

  • I am an opponent of clinics. Those who are diagnosed with schizophrenia should be let out of there immediately. We need to set these people free. I once wrote a story called “Dedicated to a Friend.” According to this story, working in the clinic, I was supposed to release a man, but I did not dare: I was afraid that he would not survive among healthy people. And this cowardice, which I fell victim to, tormented me, did not give me peace. After this incident, I wrote a statement and left the clinic. So, my work is also an escape from guilt.
  • Mikhail Chernov, journalist,

For the entire “The Last Supper” project and accompanying novelle please click here.