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Babak Ganjei, “I’m in the bush outside...”
Babak Ganjei, “I’m in the bush outside...”Courtesy of the artist

Babak Ganjei’s confessional artworks reveal his hilarious inner monologue

After gaining a following on Instagram, the artist’s new exhibition, Honey Wagon, displays his ‘greatest hits’ IRL

You may have encountered Babak Ganjei’s highly confessional, idiosyncratic artworks on Instagram. Mostly composed of text, his paintings read like fragments of a diary or notebook while often exposing the mechanisms of their own production (“This art takes about 15-20 min”) or revealing snippets of dialogue from his interior monologue (“I’m in the bush outside and I really love you”). 

Born out of a Nirvana, punk, DIY-influenced aesthetic and ethos, there’s an immediacy and humour about Ganjei’s work that has connected with a growing audience online over recent years. “Basically, ever since graduating about 20 years ago I’ve been living in a real-life sitcom,” he tells Dazed. “The work is sort of a by-product of the show.” 

His paintings are beguiling for the sheer unflinching honesty and self-depreciation. “It’s like I don't want to disappoint you further down the line, so let me list off all my fears and insecurities. The texts literally are an inner monologue,” he explains. “To be perfectly honest, my back is super hairy and I feel like I’m hiding something just by wearing a t-shirt.”

Now, as his exhibition Honey Wagon (his “greatest hits”) go on display at Browns East in Shoreditch, we talk to the London-based artist and illustrator about his sitcom of a life, becoming “an Instagram avatar”, and breaking the fourth wall in McDonald's.

Could you tell us a bit more about your work and how you arrived at your distinct style?

Babak Ganjei: Basically, ever since graduating about 20 years ago I’ve been living in a real-life sitcom. The work is sort of a by-product of the show. The style has often been dictated by location, finances, and circumstances in life, but it’s important that I am making things every day. 

Your artworks draw on a massive range of references, from incredibly topical events to pillars of pop culture. Please could you take us on a journey through your cultural influences? 

Babak Ganjei: I think my influences are made up one part from Nirvana and punk/DIY. I was 13 and totally signed up to the ethos. So many of my favourite artists I was introduced to through Sonic Youth album artwork and the visual styles of Raymond Pettibon were such an influence along with the sheer abundance of his work. Before all that, I was also a kid of the ’80s and, as I get older, I accept more and more that I was made up of pop music, plastic, and romcoms. 

I used to collect all the giant video shop posters. I used to pick them up once the videos were no longer new. I had this giant Michelle Pfieffer Married to the Mob poster in my room, I was madly in love with Michelle Pfieffer in around 1989. Does that count as a cultural influence? A lot of the motivation for work is to try and get Michelle Pfieffer circa 1989 – 2021 also fine – to fall in love with me. 

The work itself is very immediate and live and a reaction to things going on on a daily basis, so the influences can be vast. I don’t really keep notebooks, the artwork itself is like a diary or a notebook.

“I don’t really know why I have this disgusting need to tell everyone the truth” – Babak Ganjei

Your paintings have a confessional aspect to them. To what extent does the text in your work resemble your own inner monologue?

Babak Ganjei: In my life, I feel like anytime I’m pretending to be something I’m not it consumes all my energy and I can’t get anything done. It’s like you are trying to keep a secret, which means I guess potentially someone could have something on you. There’s nothing more liberating than being totally transparent, then you are totally free. 

But then I’ve always had this terrible need to seek connections with people. It’s like I don't want to disappoint you further down the line so let me list off all my fears and insecurities. The texts literally are an inner monologue. It does mean that if I look back over twenty years of work the styles may have changed a little bit. Be it in comics, song lyrics, films, paintings, or whatever I have done, the work is consistent and follows a sort of narrative. 

It’s a nice feeling when you see the body of work and it all adds up and becomes part of a bigger thing. You never know which bits will become the important pieces. Sometimes it’s a real surprise. I don’t really know why I have this disgusting need to tell everyone the truth. To be perfectly honest, my back is super hairy and I feel like I’m hiding something by wearing a t-shirt. It’s nice to be able to get it off my chest. Well, it’s on my chest too, but you know what I mean. 

I love the self-referential element of your work. The paintings often refer to themselves and you explicitly discuss the mechanisms of art in the actual work – cinema tropes, artistic techniques, and the art market. Is this like a sort of breaking the fourth wall? 

Babak Ganjei: I remember about 20 years ago, walking back from a screening of Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation and suddenly being hit by the meta nature of it. The last third of the film was almost deliberately bad to fit the purpose of the story. It kind of blew my mind. I think I’d seen some breaking of the fourth wall before – Woody Allen talks to the camera in Annie Hall, and Hulk Hogan in Gremlins 2. I remember on both occasions as a kid finding it really exciting. 

As a fan, it's like you’re privy to the inner workings of something. It was like the intention of the work becomes more important than the image. I don’t know why that appeals to me so much. Maybe because I never had the patience to become a master of painting. Oils take so long to dry. I like to feel like I’m sharing in that way. 

Like I mentioned before, it has to be honest. The key is communication, so there may be a deeper secondary meaning when the work is all put together, but individually the work just is what it is and sometimes that’s just me telling you what I’m trying to do. But also I'm living in this sitcom world so I’m breaking and building that fourth wall all the time.

While saying this I’ve just remembered.. in the late ‘80s at a friend’s McDonald’s birthday party, a friend and me got picked for a tour of the McDonald’s kitchen. That might have been the original mind-bending breaking of the fourth wall experience. They locked us in a giant fridge as a joke. It was pretty exciting. 

“There’s nothing more liberating than being totally transparent” – Babak Ganjei

Please could you tell us about Honey Wagon and your collaboration with Browns East? 

Babak Ganjei: It was so exciting to have Browns East ask me to exhibit in the store. It’s a selection of works on paper and neons made over the last few years. The last year and a bit I have been fortunate to be busy with work and, in a way, the fact that I was able to continue through all lockdowns was a weird validation of the 20 years working on no money. It makes you quite resourceful, I only needed a pot of ink, one brush, and a big pile of paper...oh, and an internet connection. 

I already felt a bit like I’d become an Instagram avatar. I just popped work on the radiator, took a picture, and that had become my gallery. It was working that way pre-lockdown. Some people came and picked up work from the house but, really, the art seemed to live in this little square on the phone. So, knowing I’d be out in the real world when things eased was very exciting. 

I’ve made lots of works and sold on eBay in the past. I’ve made projects that interact with the real world because, as effective as the internet is for getting you exposure, it can’t replicate seeing something in person. Even if it’s just text on paper. 

As much as I would love for people who know my work to head down to Browns East and look at the work – and I encourage you all to do so – I’m also excited for the people who do not know it and won’t be expecting it. 

How did you select the works for the exhibition? Was there a guiding theme or was it more instinctual? 

Babak Ganjei: In a sort of nod to my days playing in bands, I tried to structure it like it was a gig, but with a set full of greatest hits – which no band I played in really had. The first piece says, ‘This Art takes about 15-20 min’ and introduces what follows. The final piece says, ‘When I do it it’s good when you do it’s not good’... that can be regarded as a mic drop ending. The neons can be regarded the pyrotechnics. 

In terms of structure, it had that beginning and endpoint. The rest of it is essentially instinctual but it is all coming from an honest place so it can work in any number of combinations. I sometimes personally find it hard to see them all in one go because it can read like a therapy session. I was surprised how many times the word ‘chicken’ comes up. If somebody told me a couple of years ago I’d have written chicken on three different pieces on the walls of a boutique I would think you were mad and that was a really weird thing to predict. 

Which is your most popular print? And why do you think it’s captured people’s imaginations? 

Well it’s the ‘I’m In The Bush Outside And I Really Love You’ one. It comes from a very personal place. It’s not me in the bush but, based on messages I receive, there’s a lot of people who have been in them. 

Could you tell us about your NTS radio show, Hot Mess? And other notable projects, be they past, ongoing, or upcoming? 

Babak Ganjei: I’ve been sharing music once a month on NTS now for about seven or so years. It’s so nice to have that platform to effectively share a mixtape of what I’ve been listening to, new and old. 

Like all the other work, the show has changed over time. Initially, it was a show playing influences – punk stuff from the late ‘80s to early grunge. Then it felt like I should be at least trying to use my voice even though I had nothing to really say. It was weird to talk to a wall, I started bringing my son in to have someone to talk at. So, I ended up with a six-year-old co-host who was better than me at it. 

Since lockdown, I had to start editing the shows at home and I’ve finally mastered the art of talking to myself like there’s an audience listening, like a total psychopath. It’s fun though, it’s nice to still have a musical outlet. Saying that, I’m going to actually start recording some music at my brother’s studio soon. And I just finished writing a pamphlet of art essays for Rough Trade Books called Art Is The Thing Nobody Asked You To Do which will be out sometime soon. 

What would be your dream commission?

Babak Ganjei: To get this sitcom picked up

Babak Ganjei’s Honey Wagon is on display in Browns East until October 2 2021