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 Jewish.ru 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, Jewish.ru
Dear Art Lover, dear Collector,
With warm, sunny days ahead, I would like to invite you to visit the exhibition Again About Time with the most recent works by Natalya Zaloznaya.
From her new home in Genoa, the artist elaborates as follows: “Sometimes time stands still…or flows out of time. And then you can hear eternity. One day, sitting on a warm summer day and watching the shadows of the leaves on the grass sway under the rays of the midday sun, a strange thought came to me, I thought that the time would come and I would no longer see it, and time would also flow further and the sun’s rays would have exactly the same sway. And everything will be again and again, always.”
There is also a selection of smaller works by Katerina Belkina (including the last available “Greeting the Rising Star”) and Boy With Thorn by Tania Kandracienka.
From the upcoming weekend of May 5 until may 21, the gallery will be open weekly from Thursday to Sunday, from 13:00 to 17:00.
Restaurant VanDijk in Heusden has my recommendation for your possible dinner plans. A special Gallery package has been put together for the customers of the gallery (reservation is recommended and I can of course also do it for you).
I would like to hear about your interest and hope for a sunny reunion.
I think you are the gallerist in Western Europe who has been selling Russian contemporary art for the longest – many other galleries have come and gone.
Oh yes, I feel like an old fighting veteran, I often notice that I’m keeping silent about the year of the foundation – I want to keep up the image of a new, young gallery! In the year one thousand nine hundred and ninetythree (a year after my final move here), I began to participate in art fairs and manifestations in the Netherlands and Belgium, and in ‘96, this led to a large gathering in the gallery and a ribbon of people queuing in front of the gallery door in Heusden as the opening ribbon was cut.
What is the reason for your success, and what do Western collectors like about Russian art?
The reasons for my longevity are many. First of all, this is the genius of my artists, their loyalty to their purpose and trust in me. Friendship connects me with every artist, no, this is not friendship, this is almost a marriage. And what is marriage, it is love, admiration, respect, money, money, and again money, but most importantly a joint spiritual development.
The location of the gallery is the second reason, yet no less important. The Netherlands! They are so small and so big and always very special. Just 400 years ago, foreigners who visited the Lowlands were amazed at the paintings on the walls of farmhouses. This means that there is a deep rooted tradition of acquiring a work of art. But I do not aim for the taste of modern Dutch farmers!
And possibly I would not have survived if in 1998 I would not have been invited to participate at Art Basel with the stunning and beautiful photographic series of Rauf Mamedov, The Last Supper. His now world-famous projects with recognizable actors with Down syndrome, brought my gallery into international orbit. All subsequent years, I managed to keep and develop my international relations from little Heusdan, and in 2007, many years of cooperation began with another very talented artist, also working in the medium of photography, Katerina Belkina.
In this historical fortified city, on the facade of my house between the windows of the second floor, the year of construction is 1583. The street is called Engstraat, which can be translated as Narrowstreet, but also as terrifyingstreet as in Medieval times this was the way to the place of execution. If Russian artists ask me where my gallery is geographically, I reply as follows: “In Brabant, near the city where Hieronymus Bosch was born and lived”. “Ahhh!” – followed by an interjection, —that’s great! And everything becomes clear to everyone.
My personal life, the gallery life, history of the Netherlands, art from Russia, everything is intertwined and everything polinates each other.
Collectors like the individual talent of my artists (like with an accelerated pulse and resonating heartbeat). Only later do they find out that the artist is from Russia or as they say from the post-Soviet area, such as the former professional monumentalist Anwar Abdoullaev, who was born in Uzbekistan.
I think that the collectors like a high dose of irrationality along with an almost messianic attitude to the profession, they like the existential depth: all life is all death, and as a result, the viewer’s approach to Aristotle catharsis.
Also, what do you think about the state of the international market for Russian contemporary art today?
Was there an international market for Russian contemporary art? Is it self-deception? And do we need to strive for a market on the Manhattan model?
In the late 80s – early 90s in the West there was such enthusiasm, curiosity and sincere interest in Russia and the most romantic expectations of the flourishing of Russia after liberation from communism. (Well, the Soviet Union was not mature enough to the phase of communism, but with these subtleties it didn’t bother itself here, communism was fallen and basta!)
The borders opened and the cultural dialogue became many times more intense, but as the brilliance of political fashion diminished, caution increased in the gallery community to the invasion of artists from Russia (or, as they said from Eastern bloc countries). Who wants to freely share their market that was developed with so much blood, sweat and tears? Then, already in pre-crisis times, I began to hear, like a refrain, from especially smart clients: do Russian oligarchs buy the works of this artist? In other words, does this name have a chance of capitalization?
This market appears to have declined over the last decade – do you agree?
In the Netherlands (and in Belgium), the market continues to live and breathe, that is, how elegant it sounds in Dutch – works of art continue to change owners. This process of cultural enrichment will continue, as a change of day and night, regardless of politics, as long as there are special people on earth, the artists. And while there are lovers of fine art. These people have a special organ behind the ears, it is not visible, it is covered with hair. These are the gills that open when contemplating a work of art and transform the sublime into life-giving oxygen. This public cannot live without art.
Do you think the market can grow stronger? If yes, why?
I do not know how to answer this question. After 26 years of life “in business,” this market seems to me to be more a natural element than a orderly institution. Why? I will answer with the stanza of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin:
Would Desdemona love her moor as
The Moon adores the gloom of night?
Because no wind’s blast, eagle’s flight,
Or maiden’s heart abides by orders …
Because the wind, the eagle and the heart of the maiden are no law.
Heusden, March 2019
Dear Art Collector, Art aficionado,
I hereby heartily invite you to come and visit my stand nr. 33 at the KunstRai International Artfair in Amsterdam from April 13-18.
The official opening will be on Wednesday the 13th at 16:00.
Due to behind the curtain activities the gallery will be closed from March 19-26.
Meanwhile please note our current selection on the internationale online platform Artsy.
On Sunday, february 20 at 15:00, Anwar Abdoullaev will be guest of honor at the gallery for a Meet and Greet where he will also provide an explanation on his most recent works.
Life has returned to my fortified city, the Heusden restaurants are opened and we welcome our guests with an Uzbek delicacy.
Followers of Katerina Belkina we gladly inform that her professionality and artistry has been awarded with the Canon New Talent Award for her series “Zweiraumwohnung”. Work from this series will also be on display in the gallery.