Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Pages 32-39

Challenging the Monsters
Dissident Painter Rasim Babayev (1927-2007)
by Jean Patterson

During the Soviet period, artist Rasim Babayev, 74, expressed his contempt for the government by depicting its leaders as fierce monsters, or "divs", as they are known in Azeri. In a recent interview, we asked him to describe the pressure that he and his fellow artists faced under the scrutiny and expectations of the Soviet system.
Now that Azerbaijan has had ten years of independence under its belt, Babayev's own approach to art has changed accordingly.

Left: "Red General" reflects Rasim Babayev's impressions of the Soviet military complex when his son was doing military service in the 1980s. Rasim's works are among the most vivid in their depiction of the differences between the Soviet (1920-1991) and post-Soviet periods (since 1991). Enjoy more of his paintings at where the works of more than 115 Azeri artists are on exhibit.

He still feels the pull to focus on Azerbaijan's problems, yet he no longer has to deal with so many "divs" that used to get in his way. We chose to feature Rasim's work because it always reflects a political consciousness - no matter what system rules the country.

"Divs" are about as ugly as monsters can get - at least the way Rasim Babayev (1927-) paints them. They're huge. Humans cower beneath them. They have long claws and sharp teeth. They're vulgar, grotesque and brutish. In Azerbaijani folktales, they like to eat people, especially children.

Paintings of these ferocious divs surround the doorway to Rasim's apartment studio, from floor to ceiling. Inside there's a gentle, sensitive artist surrounded by a lifetime of art depicting the political eras he has lived through.

The div, which might be called Rasim's mascot, became an apt metaphor for the repressive Soviet system. "The div became a symbol of evil in my paintings
- the symbol of dictatorship," he says.

Divs are savage, callous and unconcerned about what happens to the people who get in their way. Azerbaijani children may see the div as just another scary monster, the stuff of nightmares. But for the adults who look at Rasim's paintings, the div brings to mind the fear and suffering that the Soviet people experienced at the hands of their leaders.

"There are still many problems in our nation, but they are different now. Admittedly, there are fewer 'divs' (monsters). We have freedom, but so often we don't really know how to use it."

- Rasim Babayev (1927-2007)

Targeting the System
"My idea of painting the div came from fairy tales," Rasim recalls. "My grandparents and my father used to tell me those stories. I didn't really understand what the div was back then. They used to tell me that it was some kind of giant creature, a monster."

In 1957 Rasim received an order from a publishing house to illustrate a children's book called "Jirtdan." This fairy tale, with a story similar to that of "Hansel and Gretel", is very popular among Azerbaijani children and has been passed down from generation to generation. It tells how a small child, Jirtdan (Tiny), outwits a powerful, scary monster (a "div") that loves to eat children. "Jirtdan is just a guy, a young child," Rasim explains. "He's a very small person in the society. But he is quick, he is clever. He outwits the div."

Inspired by the image of this creature, Rasim went on to paint many more of them during the 1970s. In his paintings, the divs are shown with gnashing teeth, flared nostrils and threatening stares. Some have many heads or many arms, another sign of their power. "Red General", which he painted when his son was recruited into the military, shows a div in a military uniform, armed with a set of sharp, pointed teeth.

Rasim's protest against the Soviet government made him a rarity among Azerbaijani artists. Others may have shared his feelings, but few dared to express them. "Ever since I was young, I couldn't understand the Soviet system," Rasim says. "I never liked it or approved of it. I don't think that anyone - especially a creative person - can accept a totalitarian system. Even an ant seeks freedom. It's only natural. That's why most of the things I painted were against the system. The div itself was a symbol of that system for me."

Pressure on Artists

Left: "The Happy Wanderer" (oil). Socialist Realism in Soviet art required that the artist portray only uplifting scenes with happy, contented people. This work by artist Rasim Babayev could be interpreted to be following the letter of the law, but in essence he may really have been trying to convey how naive and unthinking such an approach really was.

Soviet leaders believed that art had the power to propagate Communist ideals. They mandated that artists paint according to the style of "Socialist Realism". Art was supposed to glorify workers and the progress of industry. It had to be "realistic", demonstrating that life under the Soviet system was good and that workers were cheerful and contented, happy to be struggling for the welfare of the state. Paintings that depicted depressing or dismal scenes, no matter how realistic, were not allowed to be exhibited.

To encourage the artists to create this type of propaganda, the Artists' Union provided them with apartments, studios and special privileges. Often, the artists would all be housed together in a single building. While it may seem like the state was building a creative environment for the artists, Rasim thinks that this arrangement actually helped the government keep an eye on them.

"At first glance, if you don't scrutinize the idea very much, this practice seems like a normal thing, or maybe even a good thing
- the Soviets were taking good care of their artists. But if you delve deeper, you realize that something was wrong. Not just something - everything was wrong. The government controlled the artists, even on an everyday basis. Is it possible for independent art to develop under such circumstances?"

Left: "My Grandmother's House" (Oil on canvas, 180 x 200 cm, 1970s). During the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks confiscated the homes of thousands of people. Artist Rasim Babayev depicts the government as monsters stripping his grandmother of her property.

The artists were like slaves, he adds. "The government wasn't afraid to keep the artists together. It's easy to keep slaves - just give them something to eat and drink and they will always be slaves. But don't dare neglect them or give them less to eat. That's when the slaves rebel."

Rasim himself rebelled against this type of slavery, joining the ranks of dissident Azerbaijani artists like his cousin Javad Mirjavadov, Ashraf Muradoghlu, Tofig Javadov, Gorkhmaz Afandiyev, Kamal Ahmad and sculptor Fazil Najafov. Many of these artists were less respected and had difficulty making a living, but they stuck to their belief that artists should interpret social issues and express their own artistic visions, not bow to the restrictions and demands of the state.

Since Azerbaijani artists weren't allowed to sell their works during the Soviet period, they were largely dependent on jobs that were commissioned by the State. These assignments included portraits, placards and posters for themed exhibitions. For a sports exhibition, for instance, posters about sports would be exhibited.

Left: "Divs" became a symbol for Babayev of what he considered to be the monstrous political system of the USSR.

One exhibition in the 1970s was dedicated to Lenin's 100th Jubilee. By that time, after the Khrushchev "thaw", artists didn't live under as many restrictions. "I remember I drew a picture for the Jubilee called 'For Whom the Bells Toll'," Rasim recalls. "It showed the gravestones of the nearby Sufi Hamid cemetery. I was standing in the picture, too. I was trying to say that everything comes to an end, and that the Soviet system would come to an end, too."

At the time, Rasim was widely criticized for his controversial work. One artist said, "Look at this, we're celebrating Lenin's 100th Jubilee, and he's drawn a graveyard." In fact, Rasim was showing the people that Lenin had killed.

Many of the State's orders and commissions were doled out to "People's Artists", those artists who had been officially recognized for their efforts. "For instance, the State farms or collective farms would say that they needed ten nature pictures," Rasim explains. "The artist would draw them, and then the Artists' Union would have to give their approval. Then the pictures would be taken to the farms."

In terms of regular financial support from the government, People's Artists received twice as much as regular artists did. "That group of slaves
- the People's Artists and Honored Artists - didn't understand or even imagine that there could be independent art. The state provided them with a car, a house, a studio, a telephone. Some were even chosen as deputies in the Parliament. They were given major contracts. In general, the government would do whatever they wanted." In return, those favored artists had to follow orders and submit to pressure from Soviet leaders.

Early Influences

Left: "Wreath of Spring" (oil). Rasim Babayev's works have changed dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he indulges in the light subtleties of pastel shades compared to the heavy dark primary colors that used to fill his canvases.

Even before he became an artist, Rasim was aware of the evils of the Soviet system. When he was five or six years old, his grandmother told him the story of how her home and property had been confiscated by the Bolsheviks.

"This happened in the 1920s, before I was born," Rasim tells. "My grandparents owned several stores. They sold kitchen utensils and were doing trade back and forth with Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw and other European cities.

Their store was on Zevin Street, where an art gallery is now. Today it's called Aziz Alizade Street [off Fountain Square]. She also had a home in Baku, on Sheikh Shamil Street. But when the Soviets came, they took it all away. She became a refugee, you might say, in her own Motherland."

Rasim says that his grandmother's story has influenced his painting in a profound way: "I knew about my grandmother's life and her unhappiness. How else would a person feel in such a situation? My grandmother used to say that Soviet power had pushed her into the corner. How could I not be affected by that?"

In the 1970s, Rasim painted "Grandmother", which shows an old woman standing in her doorway surrounded by angry divs. The monsters are taking her home away from her. "My grandmother's house was confiscated by Soviet power," Rasim says about the painting.

Now that Azerbaijan is independent, some of his grandmother's property has been returned to the family. In fact, Rasim's sister lives in one of the buildings today.

Study in Moscow
In 1949, Rasim went to Moscow to study at the Art Institute. Nearly every day, he would visit the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum to look at its permanent collection of works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Rafael. "It was a revelation to me to see them," he says. "But then they closed the museum down because it was seen as glorifying Western art."

To make matters worse, the museum was then turned into a display of the gifts that world leaders had given to Stalin on his 70th birthday. "It became Stalin's personal museum," he says. "That was when I began to see the manipulation of art first-hand. How could I not protest after seeing things like that?"

During his study at the Art Institute, Rasim repeatedly thwarted the expectations of his instructors. "I began protesting at the Institute," he tells. "I didn't fit in with the program because I was painting in a different style. The colors were not conventional and the body lines of my figures were not realistic."

Left: "Crying Angel" ( oil on canvas), 160 x 128 cm, 1997. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rasim Babayev has begun painting angels; however, that doesn't mean they are free of worry and stress.

In his third year, Rasim was almost expelled for his unorthodox paintings. "The Rector told me, 'You can't paint. You just spread the colors around and don't actually show what you are trying to represent.'"

Rasim studied at the Institute for six years but never received his diploma. The school's committee failed him on his final project because the people in the painting didn't look "Soviet" enough. So Rasim returned to Baku without his degree.

Six or seven years later, Rasim ran into the Institute's Rector at the Artists' All-Union Congress held in Baku. By that time, Rasim was a member of the Artists' Union in Azerbaijan and the Artists' Union of the USSR. The Rector told Rasim that he was welcome to go and pick up his diploma, but Rasim wasn't interested. "I told him, 'I'm leaving it for you. I don't need it anymore.'"

The pressure continued. In 1967, Rasim's exhibition in Azerbaijan was closed down after only half an hour. He recalls: "The officials shut down the exhibition right away because the works were not in the spirit of Socialist Realism."

Left: Rasim Babayev has always perceived of life as complex with many nuances and shades, not simply black and white. This recent post-Soviet work was inspired by early Turkic script.

KGB agents would screen Rasim's exhibitions before anyone else had a chance to see them. Works that were deemed too controversial were taken away before the exhibition opened. For instance, at Rasim's own personal exhibition in Moscow in 1976, nine works were excluded.

Rasim objected, but the officials were adamant. "The Secretaries of the Artists' Union of the USSR told me that if they didn't exclude those works, then there wouldn't be an exhibition at all. I asked if these works were able to destroy the mighty Soviet Union. They said no, but that it would be better to exclude them. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any exhibition. So I had to take them out."

Rasim was not well liked by the KGB. "Once, during the Soviet period, one of the workers from the KGB asked me why I protested. I told him that I didn't know of any artist who didn't protest. Like our poet Nasimi said: 'There's enough room for two worlds inside me, but I myself can't find enough room in this world' Poets like Seyid Azim Shirvani and Sabir were protestors. Why shouldn't I be able to protest? If somebody doesn't like my work
- so what - they shouldn't look at it. Of course, I couldn't say that back then."

Hard Times
During the Soviet period, it was difficult for dissident artists like Rasim to survive financially. "I had difficulty selling my works," he remembers. "It wasn't so much that people were afraid to display my works in their homes. Simply, artists were prohibited from selling their own works. Today I sell my works fairly easily.

"I remember that there was a person who

came from Germany. He had a very significant collection and wanted to buy some works from me. He told me that he could pay me with foreign currency. But I was afraid to sell anything because I didn't want the Soviets to think that I had a private business going on the side. You couldn't do things like that back then
- everything had to be done officially. So I told him that I would just give the work to him. And that's what I did."

Occasionally, Rasim would be forced to work on state orders just to pay the bills. "I had to do it," he recalls. "When you have no other choice, you have to do something. You can't keep borrowing money. You have to pay back your debt. I had a family and two children. That's why I had to go to the Artists' Union and get some works from them."

When Rasim worked on these commissions in his studio, he used to turn his other paintings around to face the wall, almost as if they had eyes to reproach him. "It was like I was hiding them from myself," he says. "I would do those commissions on a separate table and even use a separate palette of paints. I didn't want to destroy the purity of what I had been working on myself. It was like I was trying to fool myself."

Above: "Khanim" (Lady), oil on canvas 120 x 100, 1993.

Life as a Dissident

In the 1960s, during the Khrushchev "thaw", artists were given slightly more freedom. Controversial works like Rasim's were not banned completely. In fact, people who were visiting from foreign countries would be taken to Rasim's studio to see his Primitivistic style, to be convinced that Soviet artists were being allowed to paint in their own styles. "That's why they didn't touch me," Rasim says.

Still, as an Azerbaijani dissident, Rasim was not respected. "When I was living in Russia, the dissidents there looked down on Azerbaijani dissidents. They didn't take us seriously. It's difficult enough to be a dissident, but being an Azerbaijani dissident was even more difficult. There wasn't much support from the other dissidents."

Left: Rasim Babayev with his granddaughter Jeyla, 10, surrounded by his works in his studio which is located in a building full of artists' studios not far from the Hyatt Regency hotel.

New Struggles

Now that Azerbaijan is independent, artists have even more creative freedom. There are no government censors to tell them what they can and cannot paint. There is still an Artists' Union to help artists, but it is independent from the government and doesn't have the large budget that it once did.

"The pressure that artists felt during the Soviet period
- I'm talking about my life here - doesn't exist now," Rasim explains. "It used to feel like something heavy was hanging over my head.

"Now there's no such pressure from the outside. But the artist must still have a kind of pressure that comes from inside, from his or her own inner world. In hindsight, I'd have to admit that that pressure was good for me. It was like a stimulus. Maybe I didn't appreciate it at the time. But in the end I got a lot of satisfaction out of expressing myself despite the pressures."

Another very real pressure for today's Azerbaijani artists is that they have to find their own market for selling works. It's difficult to find buyers in Azerbaijan who can afford to buy art. And many Azerbaijani artists, despite their great talent and magnificent work, have yet to establish an international reputation.

Rasim himself feels uncomfortable selling his paintings. "I hang onto my paintings as long as I can," he says. "They're kind of like daughters to me. But eventually you have to release them, just like you have to let your daughters get married."

Changing with the Times
Rasim says that most Azerbaijani artists who are his age have either stopped working or are still working in the same style that they used in the past. Rasim, on the other hand, is always moving and changing. Even though he's no longer confronting the Soviet system, he's still very sensitive to political issues. "I live in this world, so I can't ignore political events," he says.

He notices that he doesn't feel the need to paint so many divs anymore. But they haven't totally disappeared. "I can't run away from the divs," he explains. "They still exist. They probably always will. I paint them when I come across them or when I feel them."

During the past decade since Azerbaijan gained its independence, Rasim's palette of colors has become clearer and brighter. He has started including angels in some of his paintings: one angel is shown weeping for the condition of Azerbaijanis, another offers a wreath of spring flowers as a symbol of hope. "When I draw angels, I want to draw heaven," he says. "I haven't seen heaven, but there are probably monsters there, too.

"Life itself is complex. When I paint, I can't imagine just black or white; there are many nuances and shades." Rasim's color palette has changed dramatically. Gone are the heavy blacks and greys and primary colors, especially the violent reds. "I always felt the strain of so much stress. How else could I express my anger and protest? You can't express those emotions with quiet pastels." Today pastels mostly fill his canvas
- especially light turquoise. Many of his colors seem to celebrate the "coming of Spring".

"There are still many problems in our nation, but they are different now," Rasim says. "Admittedly, there are fewer 'divs' now. We have freedom, but so often we don't really know how to use it. And that's a problem, too. Freedom was given to us, whether we were ready for it or not. Now we need to find out how to cherish and protect the freedom that we were dreaming about all our lives."

For more examples of Rasim Babayev's art, visit, a Web site for art lovers organized by Azerbaijan International magazine. This comprehensive site features more than 1,700 works by more than 115 Azerbaijani artists. Telephone numbers are listed so that you can contact the artists directly. Note that Rasim's work "Closed Doors" is featured on our cover. In the past, his covers also defined the content of "Verbal Folklore" (Autumn 1996, AI 4.3) and "Journeys" (Summer 1998, AI 6.2). Interviews with Rasim can also be found in "Crisis in the Arts" (Spring 1994, AI 3.1) and "Colors of the Century" (Summer 1999, AI 7.2).
Visit Rasim in his studio, call (994-12) 38-22-87 (home) or (850) 315-1546 (mobile).

Azerbaijan International (9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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