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Artist Nikas Safronov about his life and attitude to Belarus

Today we are having artist Nikas Safronov in Simple Questions.

Good evening, Nikas. Thank you for coming. I found out you were going to read aloud some drafts from a book about you written by one of your fans, probably. What do you think, what kind of literature is it going to be?

Natasha Ivanova wrote it. She met me in Vilnius, Lithuania. She graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations. There is also a journalist who is writing a book about me for my publishing house; she has been doing it for three years already. Natasha said she could do it better and faster. I am going to pay her, of course.

So, what is the genre?

It is my life. It is different: interesting, unusual, fascinating. No stories were made up there, all are real. My whole life is an adventure.

In South America, I was almost eaten by a cannibal tribe. Thank God, painting saved the ambassador and me, as I painted the tribal leader’s portrait.

I thought your novel was going to be about your love life.

This is going to be there, too. I used to work in Hollywood and had some interesting contacts there. I used to draw them. You know, there is a problem – I do not speak English. But I do not really care about it. Probably, if I spoke English we would not even be having this interaction.
I would live in my house somewhere in Monaco with an actress. But I do not really have time for that.

Allow me to read a quote aloud. I was shocked! “My first wife was French; we had problems in our sexual relationship, even though she was a top fashion model from a multimillionaire family. We divorced in 20 days. If we matched energetically, 20 years ago I would have been standing alongside Warhol, Dalí, Picasso.”

I would not put Warhol there. As for me, he is more of an adventurer. He did it, got popular. They say a commercial helps if it does not irritate anymore. Warhol is not an installer, he is more of a shock artist.

Hold on. What I meant was whether you really had such a story.

I guess so, yes.

You were married for 20 days?

According to Henry Miller, every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him. Good thing I was dumped – it made me stronger. Good thing I used to move from town to town – I found out something new. Maybe if we did not divorce, I would lose my independency and become lazy.

Do you understand what a genius is? It is a talented person as stubborn as a person with no talent.

Sometimes you just stop doing things. When you achieve something yourself it feels like a push and it makes you feel like a flying swan. Life used to beat you but also teach you. Confucius used to say that every stranger is a teacher. Maybe if I did not divorce I would not have it all. Maybe I would be famous but for cutting and freezing corpses. But I create symbolic art.

In your interviews you often say that your life could be different; fate could twist any way. Do you ask yourself what could happen if you were born in other country or timeline? I always think you do not belong this period of time.   

Nobody belongs this period of time. When I was five I found a gypsum stone and carved a castle. Then I read The Canterbury Tales. I used to read thousands of books as a child. My favourites were The Canterbury Tales and Droll Stories by Honoré de Balzac.

When I saw some of Gustave Doré’s works I covered all desks and journals with lines. These sketches helped me enroll into college.

After I bought a half-destroyed castle in Scotland I remembered I had seen it in one of my dreams.

Later I built a gothic apartment in Moscow. I had been collecting furniture from different countries and then repaired it. And I found out my ancestors were Canterbury monks who left for Moscow in the 16th century; they converted into Orthodoxy. My ancestors were religious people, including my grandfather, a priest.

I got a job recently: mural painting in Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Pope took his name after Saint Francis who was born there. They say one time Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle. He said that one day all people would meet in this red circle.

Our fate is leading us to a certain place… This place, your table, our conversation.

Nikas, your perception of human faces is like no other. You paint self-portraits and old-fashioned clothing suits you way better than modern clothes. However, you paint other people. Do you have a feeling there are people who belong this or other timeline?

Here is an unusual, touching story. I was in South Korea, in a pagoda. It was a convent. And Mother Superior of the pagoda started crying when she saw me. I was puzzled and then melted.

I asked why she was crying. They told me she used to see Buddha with your face in her dreams a lot of times.

I was touched so much that I donated over $1,000 and my gold Cartier watch. I would give them my baptismal cross. We were leaving, she was crying. I meet people a lot and usually forget them but I remembered her.

Some time later I went to Japan and was going back home to celebrate my Birthday – 8th of April. I noticed the Japanese were preparing for an important holiday. They told me it was Buddha’s Birthday, too. Amazing things happen. I came back to Moscow and went to a chiromancer. I was wondering when and where I was born. He said: “19:15, 8th of April.” And that I lived somewhere in Tibet.

Do you believe in antecedents?

I do. Do you understand why I had a thing with gothic art? I found a portrait in our attic, repaired it and there was a monk – he turned out to be one of my ancestors, a Canterbury monk.

Amazing things keep happening all around us.

Let’s get back to my question. You see hundreds of faces, study them. You see that someone has a peculiar, special life. Maybe a camisole would suit them? And there are young souls.

Sure thing. There are simple faces, casual faces, faces with no energy. You know, there are people with Down syndrome – they are called Children of the Sun. They look so sweet when they smile. They have their own world – space world, alien world.

And there are spoiled, capricious faces. They are empty, cynical, do not express a thing. There are also exalted faces – countrymen or monks.

I was asked to paint a priest. He was very unusual, quite crafty. He posed for his portrait once but had to do it at least twice. He said: “You know, I will not pose for you. You got it. You have my blessing!” I was surprised and did not think it would work. I came back to Moscow and remembered his face, painted two portraits. He saw them and said he wanted both. Amazing things – you get to know people differently.

Allow me to ask: every artist faced this question, I guess. A special customer…

Excuse me, may I interrupt?

Sure.

I like Alexander Lukashenko a lot. He is charismatic, charming, a vivid person, an individual. As an artist I am interested in him. I painted him twice.

In 2014.

We interacted two or three times and he takes me well. I painted him as Francysk Skaryna. Here is a medieval person.

Our mass media discussed this painting quite a lot. What happened to it?

I presented it to him. I wanted him to enjoy it.

Nikas, every artist in history faced this question. Clerical order had been the main customers for a long time. How can you draw God? Some religions do not accept paintings of God.

It was earlier in time. I have a lot of orders in the United Arab Emirates. Sheikhs want their portraits and so do Islamic clergymen.

No, I mean the face of God. Is it not crafty they worship a canvas or a wood plank with God’s face on it, when a common man painted it?

I got you. First, there is no perspective in Orthodox icons. Orthodoxy does not accept Catholic icons.

There has to be propaganda. It is supposed to praise something. Saint Seraphim of Sarov with a bear, Saint Francis of Assisi with a wolf. Artists illustrate things. They say you cannot sign icons. God sees everything. Theophanes the Greek, Daniel Chorny, Andrey Rublev created a new direction of icon-painting. Their works could be recognized.

Basically, orders were done. It was artist’s job.

You were answering so figuratively that I did not even ask a third of my questions. I hope you will not mind meeting one day again.

I hope it is just the beginning. It was nice to meet you again. Moreover, we should live happily and professionally no matter what timeline it is or how old we are. We have to be spiritual. And everything will happen.

Artist Nikas Safronov about his life and attitude to Belarus