Andrej Babenko


Babenko is a Belgian visual artist of Ukrainian descent. He grows up in an environment permeated with Soviet propaganda. Socialist realism reigns: stately art depicting Soviet reality in its most heroic form to portray the ultimate dream of communism as the governing regime.

During his early school years, Babenko keeps a scrap book with the latest news from the newspapers Izvestij and Pravda. He spends his after-school hours in drawing school, where he is named the best painter, draftsman and lino-cutter. His artistic talent will continue to play a crucial role in his life: on the one hand to escape reality and find peace and quiet, on the other to decipher reality in all its complexity, in and through the creative process.

Using gouache he makes wall newspapers in which he incorporates his experimental photos. The small bathroom of barely five square meters functions as an improvised dark room: photos are developed between the bath, sink, toilet and washing machine. When someone needs to use the toilet, the folding table above the toilet is emptied to make room for more mundane needs.

In 1986 - Babenko is 12 years old - the unthinkable happens: nuclear reactor 4 of Chernobyl explodes. The entire family temporarily flees to North Ossetia. Despite the difficult circumstances the stay proves to be a great source of inspiration for the artist. The family visits the work of the painter Aivasovsky, known for his seascapes and coastal scenes. In nature, Babenko marvels at the sight of vultures and rainbow bee-eaters, indulges in swimming in the ice-cold Terek and dreams away at the view of the snowy peaks of the fairytale Kazbek and Elbrus. This new, exotic world is reflected in countless drawings in his sketchbook. Unfortunately, destruction is not far off here either. Tensions between the Ingush and Ossetians lead to street fights and Babenko unexpectedly ends up in an offshoot of a fight. At the residential block he is staying in, he is not only targeted as a foreigner, but also considered deviant. With his sketchbook full of bird portraits and nature scenes, the artist personally experiences the fighters’ stance towards the sensitive outsider that is Babenko.

Love for nature is a common thread through Babenko's life. Back in Kyiv, he finds an injured gray heron and nurses it in his bedroom. He does the same with a nest of newborn squirrels. The artist marvels at the exotic fauna and flora in the Red Data Book, his favorite USSR nature encyclopedia documenting rare and endangered animal and plant species. During his migration to Belgium, Babenko loses his precious copy, but thanks to a Russian musician friend - Nik Rock N Roll - he manages to get his hands on a second-hand first edition of the book.

From an early age, Babenko feels like an outsider. He falls short of the ideal of the sporty, spartan Soviet boy and prefers to indulge in daydreaming and drawing. It becomes more and more difficult to reconcile the imposed uniformity and hypocrisy of the Soviet ideal with his own otherness, sensitivity and interests. He radically withdraws from the Soviet idea and flees his parental home towards Saint Petersburg. In search of freedom and breathing space, he feeds on the art and culture he comes across. He becomes a member of a punkband, for which he writes cynical poems based on the absurd theater of Daniil Harms. The band MVD will later grow into the renowned Brati Gadukini. At the same time, he continues to draw and paint and remains inspired by the classical school of Ukrainian and Russian painters and writers who in turn have their roots in Greek mythology: Ivan Kotliarevsky Eneida, Taras Shevchenko, Gogol Vii, Bulgakov and Malevich.

After many wanderings in Russia and Ukraine, Babenko emigrates to Belgium, where he continues to develop his talents. He obtains a diploma as a free, artistic graphic designer, illustrator and painter and after his studies gets selected from more than 150 candidates to start working at Opera Ballet Flanders. Under the direction of intendant Aviel Cahn, Babenko leaves his mark on the visual material of the institution, ranging from banners and posters to program booklets and seasonal brochures. The artist guides the artistic process from concept to execution. For each production, he creates one or more drawings or paintings based on the concept, on which the visual material is based. Several of those drawings are in the private collection of Aviel Cahn. Another one is the best-selling piece at a charity gala organized by the opera house.

Driven by the success of his work at Opera Ballet Flanders, Babenko pursues his career as a full-time independent artist. Armed with his keen powers of observation, his work denounces the hypocrisy of people and society and pokes fun at the toxic positivity ideal. He depicts the alienation he experiences when he looks life's absurdity straight in the face. And always there is the feeling of being the eternal outsider: in his native country he did not live up to expectations, and also in his host country he remains the outsider. His work breathes deep humanity. In contrast with today’s desire for manufacturability, perfection, digitization and artificial intelligence, Babenko pleads for more humanity. Personal experiences of the artist are elevated to universal feelings through his work. Look for the subtle elements that harbor the naive conviction of the existence of a better world, of hope and of a suffering that can be alleviated: a bird of paradise, a blue morpho or the floral motif on the wallpaper in his grandmother’s house. Similarities with (neo)romanticism are easily detected in Babenko’s choice of themes and visual language.

Over the years, Babenko experiments with a variety of materials, from watercolor, acrylic and oil paint over markers, gouache and Chinese ink to stencils and graffiti spray cans. His work evolves from the somewhat underground style in the early years to increasingly systematically substantiated and finished creations. During the corona period, he returns to his roots and invests in his further development by taking a year-long course in classical Russian drawing and painting techniques. He learns to prepare canvases after the old fashion, with gelatin and pigment. He makes freehand drawings with graphite and charcoal, with interlocking primitive geometric figures, according to the golden ratio, in crossed or parallel perspectives. He develops them with pure pigment and pencil, searching for the light, the shadow and the mid tones. Tempera and watercolor powder add colour, and a rather unusual combination with glaze layers in oil paint brings depth. The whole is finished with graffiti spray cans as in his earlier years and a layer of varnish. The final result refers to the classic icons, in a contemporary rendition.

With the start of the war in Ukraine, Babenko, a restless soul by nature, again faces a major psychological challenge. With his entire family in and around Kyiv - and the impossibility of helping them - the artist is once again in the wrong place in the world. He starts his largest work to date, a canvas of 6 by 2 meters. The fear for the safety of his family, the reports of fallen friends and the harrowing stories of former classmates about their flight with their children drive the artist to despair. He continues to work to give structure to his life and thus to survive. In the process he finds comfort, and meaning in the meaningless. It is confirmed once again: painting helps him to escape reality and find peace and quiet, but also to face that reality razor-sharp. Art offers comfort, but above all it is also a silent, dear friend.

Babenko has shown his work in S.M.A.K., Dr. Guislain museum, M HKA, ExtraCity, at Pukkelpop and at various private institutions. In addition to classical exhibitions, he has been involved in museal crossover projects with live painting, music and poetry. In that context he collaborated with, among others, Mauro Pawlowski, Dirk De Wachter and Aleksey Gorbunov.

Hans Willemse, collection editor at the museum of contemporary art Antwerp, describes Babenko's work as follows: “What is special about his work is the striking synergy of styles and cultures. He mixes spray cans and oil paint, combines punk with jazz, and creates wild compositions with classical patterns. He is East and West, past and present, and slightly ahead of time. One reads Jheronimus Bosch or Brueghel in his work, but above all a lot of Babenko. It should come as no surprise that he was always “the best draftsman in class” at school. Unraveling origin, identity and artistic influence by different political-cultural backgrounds can only lead to new insights, both for the artist and the viewer. Art is the most important school of learning; by looking closely one learns to understand ”.

Babenko is included in the Artist Database , the Belgian list of professional artists and art heritage.