Spring 1995 (3.1)
Berlin's Flying Cow
by Betty Blair & Pirouz Khanlou
It was a question of what architects call "negative space". What can you do with that uninviting space left over between buildings which somehow doesn't relate to anything and which doesn't appeal aesthetically because of darkness, disproportionate scale, or being sandwiched between massive forms.
Not so long ago, a Berlin developer-investor approached Tabrizi-born Azerbaijani artist, Akbar Behkalam (pronounced BEH-ka-lam) who has been living in Germany for the past 25 years, wondering if the artist could solve such a problem for him at a new shopping center.
Left: Akbar Behkalam, Azerbaijani Artist and Muralist from Tabriz living and working in Berlin. Photo: 1995 in Los Angeles.
When Behkalam first saw the construction site, he envisioned "clouds, clouds, clouds". He felt a great need to open up the claustrophobic spaces to the sky. But what could he add to those clouds that would capture the imagination of passersby? A bird? Maybe a human? Maybe an Icarus-type figure flying towards the sun? When he realized the location used to belong to a dairy, he hit upon the idea, "Why not a flying cow?" In ancient mythology, he recalled studying how the cow symbolized power and life. Central to Behkalam's works is human interaction, therefore, it was only natural that he would add a person in the mural. A naked woman? Somehow it evoked images from Greek mythology of a fearless, mysterious Amazonian riding bareback. Besides, he found it much more intriguing to paint than a male figure.
Left: Akbar Behkalam's "Flying Cow of Berlin" in the context of the newly built shopping center built on the site of a former dairy. The project took nearly one ton of paint and was completed late 1994.
A Ton of Paint
By early summer 1994, he was ready to climb the scaffolding and begin the gargantuan task of painting the 1,050 square meters of wall space. It would take nearly a ton of paint before the job was done. Behkalam lost 10 kilos of weight just swinging that 12-inch wide brush and climbing up and down the scaffolding. It was so difficult close range to understand what he was painting that he often had to go down and view the mural from 200 meter's distance just to get a sense of the contextual whole.
Actually, the concept for the mural is much like a mosaic, created by the illusion of panels, each 2.5 x 5 meters or the equivalent height of a two-storied building. Each panel can actually stand alone as an independent painting.
The finished mural has an extraordinary feeling of transparency and fluidity. Sometimes on a clear day, people tell him that it blends so well with the sky that it's hard to distinguish that it's really a painting on a solid wall. It appears more as a reflection of sky in a curtain glass walling.
Left: "Moloch" (Mixed media on paper, 240 x 200) by Akbar Behkalam. "This is our urban scene today-the combination of both good and evil."
Construction Workers As Best Critics
Unlike the isolation that artists often experience when painting alone
in their studios, an outdoor mural attracts critics at every stage. With several hundred construction laborers on site, Behkalam was showered with advice. But a rapport soon developed and the workers dramatically influenced the final design. At first, they didn't pay too much attention: A cloud? So what! But when Behkalam began painting the cow and the woman, it started capturing their imaginations. They would ask, "Why does the cow have only one leg?" And Behkalam would joke, "A painter who can draw one leg obviously can draw three just as easily, can't he?" But in Behkalam's mind a flying cow didn't need additional legs. Besides, four would have made it such an ordinary-looking creature!
Behkalam has a tendency not to concentrate on individual personalities of the people he paints.
Facial features are generally vague and non-identifiable. Maybe that's why he didn't paint a head on the lady at first. But the workers weren't happy and so Behkalam complied and the lady soon had her head. The readjustment and positioning added 15 days to the project. He finally finished the same day the scaffolding was scheduled to be dismantled by the contractor-in November 1994.
This is the fifth time since the late 1970s that the foreign-born artist has taken his brush to Berlin walls. Though he usually paints inside his studio in East Berlin now that "the Wall" has come down, it's possible that this mural will give him considerable exposure, perhaps even more that the hundreds of works he's painted before. "They're all part of me," Behkalam will admit, "the wall murals, the museum pieces, and the works starting to make their way into private collection." And upon close analysis, there is a distinctive style that unites them all.
Left: Behkalam's first impressions of the Germans when he arrived there: obsessed with eating. 1979.
Challenge of a New Audience
An artist's success depends upon his ability to interact with his audience. "Now that I live in Germany, I have a different audience to reach. When you leave your own land, you start to think about it more, you begin wondering 'Who am I?' 'What is this language I speak?' 'What is my past?' Sitting in Germany, I began searching for my roots. I realized I could never really be a 'Peter', 'Hans' or 'Jan', I could only imitate them. But when you know who you are, then you can work to make your art understood and accepted."
Apart from themes, he also brings some technique and style from his past. For example, the concept of miniature so common in paintings back home greatly influences his work. He's fascinated how a single frame can tell a complex story in itself and how the figures are not drawn to perspective; those in the upper part of the painting are understood to be further away even if they are larger. The frame is often an integral part of the painting.
Over the years, Behkalam has developed a distinctly recognizable style. He's fascinated with the ideas of motion, change, violence and suppression. Nor has he shied away from difficult themes. Typically, he does a lot of research before picking up his brush. He painted the "German Revolution of 1848" at a time when he was living through the emotional impact of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. His "Persepolis" series juxtaposes tragic scenes of repressive modern life upon the images of the glorious past. Recently, he has painted a series called, "Justice in the name of God." Behkalam doesn't claim to be a political painter but rather a mirror from which the reflection of some of the gross injustices of modern social experience.
Behkalam tends to pick a theme and explore it with numerous paintings. Like a mosaic, all the individual pieces together speak to the complexity of the idea. But after about 25-30 paintings on a given subject, he finds himself reaching a saturation point and repeating himself. That's when he pulls back and starts exploring another topic. "It makes me more creative to have to think about new concepts. It arouses my curiosity when I discover relationships and connections I've never seen before."
Behkalam believes that every painter passes through certain phases, artistically as well as thematically. Take color, for example. His earlier works incorporate many shades of brown. Then he experimented with gray, blue-gray, rust-brown and later yellow and some black and red. Conspicuously absent from his work are shades of green. He'll tell you it's because he grew up in Tabriz (Iranian Azerbaijan), where the winters were harsh; summers, hot; and landscape, rocky. So his eyes got used to the colors of earth and sky. He's the first to admit that his palette is quite different from most German artists'.
Left: Turks in Germany: "We Don't Want To Become the Jews of Tomorrow" (160 x 140, 1982) Commissioned to address fascism. Note historic newspaper clipping in background showing branded Jews. Each man in foreground protrays a portion of the original newspaper photo and a Turkish man.
Finding Universals Beyond Nationality
Behkalam has been living in Germany for 25 years now, but he still feels like a foreigner. "Twenty-five years from now, I'm sure I'll still feel the same. I have a German passport but I'm still a foreigner to everybody here." But Behkalam doesn't linger on the issue of whether he's Azerbaijani, Iranian or German. "I'm me," he'll tell you. "I bring a certain history to my work that gives me a specific perspective. I can't change that. I can't change what is inherent in me. Over time, I've tried to adapt to my environment; to 'soften' the differences between me and my German wife and our children. But, basically, I haven't really changed."
It's not the only thing he brings from his past. Actually, the very fact that he's Azerbaijani seems to have played a significant role in his becoming an artist. Behkalam traces the decision back to his youth and the process of foreign language learning. Born in 1944 in Tabriz, Iran's second largest city which is Azeri, from the first day of school onwards, he was required to learn to read and write in the official national language, Persian, and not his mother tongue, Azerbaijani. Behkalam admits to the difficulties that followed. To this day, he doesn't feel completely comfortable with Persian. "Early on, I began to realize it was easier for me to express myself in colors and lines than in a foreign language. From that time onward, I wanted to become a painter."
What's next? Not long ago the German Social Democrats in Berlin invited seven artists to compete for a sculpture they wanted to erect. Behkalam the only painter and six other sculptors were asked to come up with a design that would commemorate the tragic situation that occurred when the German court ordered a foreign immigrant expelled from their country. Choosing death over expulsion, the alien threw himself from his apartment to the sidewalk below. Behkalam proposed to carve negative space out of granite, creating the same effect that footprints make in snow and symbolizing the great loss of a life that somehow is reflected in the very common Azerbaijani expression, "Your placing is missing." Behkalam won the competition. Sculpturing is a new genre for him. If he succeeds, as he always has in the past, it will be one more landmark in the city of Berlin created by the touch of his genius.
For more information about his works, refer to Akbar Behkalam: Movement and Change: Paintings and Sketches 1977-1988. (112 pages). Published in 1989 by Mazda Publishers, PO Box 2603, Costa Mesa CA 92626, USA.
Akbar Behkalam: Bewegung und Veränderung, Bilder und Zeichnungen, 1976-1986. Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlungm: Berlin, 1987 (264 pages).
From Azerbaijan International (3.1) Spring 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.