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Hrant Gadarigian

Director of “Blind Dates” Curatorial Project in Armenia: Redefining Armenian-Turkish Relations via Contemporary Art

Neery Melkonian, a New York-based curator, arts adviser and writer, has been in Armenia for the past four months laying the groundwork for two distinct projects. I caught up with her to discuss her ongoing work here in Yerevan.

One is called Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, an interdisciplinary and cross cultural curatorial undertaking that tackles the traces of the peoples, places and cultures that once constituted the diverse geography of the Ottoman Empire; while taking the subsequent formation of nation-states throughout the region as a point of departure, and focusing on contemporary lived experiences. It premiered at New York’s Pratt Manhattan Gallery last November.

The other project, still in the research stage, is tentatively called Accented Feminism: Armenian Women and Art from Representation to Self-Representation. It attempts to locate the contributions of modern and contemporary Armenian women artists in regional or transnational contexts, including the Soviet and Cold War eras, while also making references to historical moments or figures, covering the pre-Christian through the Ottoman periods.

In her description of the latter project, Melkonian said the title “Accented Feminism” is intentionally left ambiguous since it is still debatable whether feminism has actually arrived in Armenia. It also indicates that something is different or unusual when compared with dominant normative tendencies of feminism.

Feminist movements not new to Armenia

She did note that feminist movements were nothing new to Armenians, pointing to the 1870s in Tbilisi, in Istanbul in the early 20th century. She said one of the aims of the project was to find out how and why they disappeared and what can be learned from them.

“Feminism as we know it today began to be articulated among Armenian women artists largely within the last 15-20 years. We will be focusing on these while also dotting the lines across time and geography  to explore links, despite  apparent discontinuities or disparate histories,” Melkonian said, adding that the approach will be multi-disciplinary to  include the fine arts as well as folk art and crafts, protest art, fashion, etc.

It’s a long-term undertaking that will take several years. Luckily, Melkonian has found support for the project here in Armenia and points to Nina Hovnanian. Through her contacts, venues in the States have been contacted to organize and plan its projected tour to Europe, the Middle East, Russia and ultimately, Armenia.

A private reception was recently held in Yerevan to garner support for the project and Melkonian says the Ministry of Culture expressed their full backing as well.

Right now, Melkonian is putting together a curatorial team in Armenia and others will be brought in to assist, for instance specialists on the late Ottoman period and the other Americas.

“The project will commission original research on the parallel art histories that have gone neglected for so long,” she notes.

Matching artists with a connection to an Ottoman past

As to Blind Dates, it is unique in that the project paired artists, and sometimes non artists, with a connection to the Ottoman past in a collaborative effort. The name refers to the fact that the participants really didn’t know one another beforehand. Yet many were interested in dealing with the contradictory and/or fragmented narratives that they had inherited. In short, exploring and repositioning the ongoing residues of the violence and displacement associated with a historical rupture or the collapse of an empire. Neither did Melkonian know her Turkish co-curator Define Ayas who she met through the French-Armenian artist Melik Ohanian on Governor’s Island in New York, where the two agreed to work together.

At first, the project was to only include Armenian and Turkish artists, but after a number of false starts and revisions, Melkonian decided to open it up to the broader post Ottoman cultural geography.

“The participation of other former subjects of the empire such as Greeks, Arabs, Kurds, and Bosnians help to learn from each other’s experiences and see particularities through universal perspectives.”

One of the challenges of the project, says Melkonian, was to overcome the perception in the Armenian-American diaspora and certain Turkish circles that it was promoting Armenian-Turkish “dialogue”.

“It takes time to engage in genuine dialogue. Blind Dates  extends a conducive space for necessary conversations to take place, to begin articulating a language and frameworks by an emerging community of like minded individuals and  before rushing into  ‘dialogue’ which tends to  become an instrument of politics.” Melkonian says.

There had to be a research component to the collaborations, in addition to their contemporary experiential dimension, so as to not get stuck in the past, was how Melkonian described the guidelines given to the curatorially ‘match-made’ artistic couples.

“Defne and I caringly devised a list of artists we both wanted to work with, then we began to introduce them to one another, mostly over the internet, but gradually we also facilitated actual encounters.” These usually took place in parks, cafes or homes and in different cities. As each artistic couple began to address their own practical and philosophical issues, revising and re-strategizing along the way, the process also served as a means for critical reflection to mediate, or get unstuck from related societal issues. “In a way,” Melkonian reflected, “The whole project became one big exercise in practicing patience and flexibility, without having to resort to undue compromises. At the end it all came together like magic, which is more than we could say about football diplomacy or historical commissions!”

There were 13 projects completed for the Pratt Institute exhibition which was four years in the making. Melkonian confesses that it took a bit of work to prepare the New York art community to show an interest.

“Even though Ottoman Studies is a half a century old institutionalized field in the West, exploring the traces of the Ottoman rupture has not been high on the list of inquiry nor for the art world for that matter. But we made it one. Largely by involving  emergent voices or a new generation of thinkers who began to question the status quo specially as a result of Hrant Dink’s assassination.

Works include medieval Ani and Near East Relief

I asked Melkonian what the artistic couples came up with in terms of works.

One couple, Silva Ajemian and Aslihan Demirtas architects and designers by profession, focused on the medieval city of Ani.

“Rather than jump onto the topic of renovating or restoring the city, they thought to approach it philosophically, with the guidance of a renowned architectural theoretician Lebbius Woods who opened his home for two related workshops,” Melkonian says. “They proposed the use of a lenticular lens which extends an array of images so that when viewed from slightly different angles nuanced variations of the same image appear. They placed the lens over well known and at times manipulated images of Ani that helped to re-imagine the city from a multi-dimensional perspective. The latter took into account the movement of clouds, the flow of the Arpa River or the animals that graze and the balloons that fly freely over that still neglected and contested border-land.”

Another project used the photo archives of the Near East Relief organization. A visual artist, Jean Marie Casbarian, and a historian, Nazan Maksoudian, born in the US and Turkey respectively collaborated on this one. Four archival photographs were selected but they weren’t those of refugees or the camps that sprouted throughout the region and beyond with the fall of the Empire.

The images, almost faded, were those of the NER executive staff in their European attire taken at leisurely outings. When the four were blown up they became almost abstract impressionistic compositions. These were contrasted with a long strip of much smaller images of the orphans themselves or life in the orphanages. On the floor were three glass panels inscribed with, in three languages, the personal story of the historian’s grandmother who was a genocide survivor.

“So you have three registers of reading and the viewer has to make the connection or see what story is being told. It’s a story of those helping and those receiving help, of philanthropy’s relation to geopolitics, and so much more.”

 Even though the ‘genocide’ was dealt with, it was done in a non-illustrative and un-exploitative manner. Nor did it become the primary concern of the exhibit, which disappointed some,” notes Melkonian.

The coverage received in the Turkish and Armenian press was generally favourable and generous with an educational dent to them since most people do not know how to read/translate contemporary art, Melkonian said. And more scholarly pieces continue to appear http://www.seismopolite.com/.

A challenging task: Bringing “Blind Dates” to Yerevan

Blind Dates will ’migrate’ to Yerevan next fall then to Istanbul. In addition to the works exhibited in New York, four new collaborative projects will be produced by artistic couples match-made through a recent pairing of curators invited from both cities, in order to highlight regional concerns. This is what Melkonian is now trying to organize in Yerevan.

“It will be interesting to see how curators based in Istanbul and Armenia view the Ottoman rupture and its lingering effects on life today,” Melkonian says.

She says that it took a while for the art community in Yerevan to warm up to the project despite the fact  that the developments  of the Pratt exhibition was widely circulated and Ayas had come to speak about the project’s New York instalment, which included local advisors and participants.

“I planned to stay in Armenia for just two months but I’ve been here for four. There are cultural, practical and philosophical issues that need to be re-addressed and/or re-mediated in local/regional contexts,” Melkonian notes.

As to some of the challenges that Melkonian encountered, “To begin with there are language barriers, not everyone is comfortable with English here, Russian still predominates as a second language, and the differences between eastern/western Armenian pose more than just literal translation issues and are also cultural.” Somewhat related is the tendency to essentialize all things/ideas that come from the ‘Diaspora’ she continued “In other words, subjective identities are spoken for or are overshadowed by collective ones that precede or dominate.”

Confronting the Ottoman past in today’s Armenia

But the most puzzling for Melkonian were prevalent stances which she recounts with certain irony, “Oh you know that present Armenia has no relation with the post Ottoman geography or that it was never part of the Ottoman Empire; that the descendents of the Ottoman collapse in dispersion are not part of modern Armenia’s Diaspora; that the genocide is ‘your’ and not ‘our’ problem, so and so forth.”

She takes a breadth and continues, “Even if one accepts such positions, how can one remain ambivalent towards present border, human rights and labour or migration issues?”  Fortunately there were also those who remind Melkonian that the modern Soviet and Turkish regimes have had commonalities, and that the Turkification of the region began during the Russian Empire or was preferred over Iran’s influence in Transcaucasia. “Not to mention those citizens of Armenia today whose grandparents were refugees from the eastern provinces, whose memories have been repressed for decades and their trauma continues to be transferred to the next generation.  And how about the various waves of expats in the 40s and 70s who were branded as betrayers or destined to horrific fates, with many of them ending up in Siberia?” questions Melkonian.

While she understand that tackling the traces of the Soviet rupture is much more urgent and real in contemporary Armenia, Melkonian  is concerned that if the divisions and the gaps rising from issues mentioned above go unaddressed then the bankrupted nationalist rhetoric that dominates the current political discourse here and abroad will continue to have the upper hand. “What will prevent historical patterns from repeating?” she asks. Melkonian also implied that some artists are wary of touching such sensitive topics and fear being branded.

As one cultural critic, Hrach Bayadyan, noted during a heated public discussion hosted by a Blind Dates partner institution, the American University’s Law Department, “The closed border today is not just separating Armenia and Turkey but also the Diaspora and Armenia.”

Why isn’t more international art being exhibited in Armenia?

But it is exactly all these paradoxes and tensions, that convince Melkonian and her peers to materialize the Blind Dates Project in Yerevan. “It should be noted that the Open University in Yerevan has been facilitating workshops and exchanges among local curators/artists with those from Turkey for several years now. Same can be said about the Gyumri Biennial and the Summer School for Curators.” What Blind Dates is attempting is to mobilize these dispersed energies to work together in tackling the complexities at hand, instead of working in isolation.

On more practical fronts, Melkonian notes that the first wave of curators in post Soviet Armenia has now become more outward bound than they were five years ago when she was last here to teach a course in curatorial studies. “They are realizing their own international projects abroad and understandably their cultural references or the  traffic seems to be more toward  places like Moscow or  Transcaucasia; the former Eastern bloc.”

But cost is among the main reasons why more international exhibitions are not being organized in Armenia, also the lack of adequate institutional infrastructure. “Locating an exhibition space with up to date facilities and professionally trained staff, or   putting together a freelance production team, remain quite problematic,” says Melkonian. “Keep in mind that these mechanisms rarely get government support, though there are signs that this is changing,” says Melkonian referring to the recent appointment of Sona Haroutunyan, as the director of contemporary art - a relatively new division within the cultural ministry. “My peers here largely rely on outside sources or on local branches of international foundations to keep going. So given these conditions, it is rather remarkable how far they have come,” Melkonian confesses, adding that being a curator or arts administrator in Armenia, as elsewhere, isn’t a very lucrative profession and that it’s a sector that is just starting to gel in Yerevan, as a younger generation of art administrators and curators are being prepared.

“The Blind Dates Yerevan instalment might have to assume a mentoring role, where the older generation can guide the emerging ones, as well as introduce a training crash-course in art education to reach out and engage broader audiences.”

After several recommendations and deliberations three curatorial premises were solicited  in Armenia and in a follow up communication Melkonian noted that  one of the curators is in Istanbul to meet his “blind date” this week, who in turn are expected to propose a joint and revised curatorial narrative for Blind Dates Yerevan<>Istanbul instalments.

But all the submitted premises helped form  the concept  for a series of public discussions that are also being planned for Yerevan under the working title of “Strategies of (Un) Silencing: Mapping the Presence of Absences through Art, Literature and Law.” Melkonian settled for this theme after separate brainstorming sessions  she had with Yerevan Sate University’s Art Historian Vardan Azadyan and Literature Professor Siranush Dvoyan, also with  Human Rights Lawyer and AUA Professor Vahan Bournazian.

“Just as every region has its own master narratives that push or keep smaller ones into the margins, every major field of study in the humanities harbours such exclusions too. These are the ones we need to pull out and bring to the fore, notes Melkonian, confessing that it is a daunting task but is upbeat about it.

As the philosopher once said – “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Hopefully, the work being done in Armenia by Neery Melkonian and her colleagues here will launch such an exploration into unchartered territory, offering new insights and perspectives on the realities that have shaped us and how we define ourselves today.

For more on the Blind Dates Project.

(All Photos Courtesy of Pratt Manhattan Gallery and Blind Dates Project)

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