By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
BERLIN, MAY 13, 2021— What does it mean to be Armenian? What is Armenia’s national identity? How do its citizens perceive it? And those in the diaspora?
Over the last 30 years, the country and its people have experienced political upheaval through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsequent economic crisis and years of war, decades of struggle to shape a new self-conception and define a meaningful role in the regional and international context. The most recent phase of transformation, ushered in by the “Velvet Revolution” three years ago and followed by the catastrophic 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, remains open, more questions raised than answered.
In this context, the German-Armenian Cultural Days opened in Berlin under the rubric, “Armenian Identity and its Roots.” Organized by the Association of the European and Armenian Experts e.V. (AEAE), the initiative enjoys the patronage of Michael Grunst, mayor of Berlin-Lichtenberg, and the support of the Lichtenberg District Office for Art and Culture, the Kulturhaus Karlshorst, the Paul Gerhardt Evangelical Parish in Berlin-Karlshorst, former Parliamentarian Prof. Martin Pätzold and the Galerie InteriorDAsein Berlin (www.InteriorDAsein.de).
The program opened on May 2 with a vernissage of an exhibition at the Kulturhaus Karlshorst, curated by artist and collector Archi Galentz. The exhibition, which is accessible (at least initially) only online, due to the continuing pandemic, constitutes the unifying feature of the cultural days, which will continue until June 6. As Mikayel Minasyan, chairman of the AEAE, put it, Armenia is passing through its deepest crisis since independence, and needs support to launch a new beginning. Why the focus on Armenian identity? Because identity is the characteristic providing stability, essential for starting anew.
“Six Facets of Self-Examination” is the name of the show and these facets are articulated in six areas: Landscapes, Language and Script, Church, State, Poetry of Ethnography and Hope. Through this thematic organization, certain fundamental questions are addressed, like Tradition, Limits of Communication as defined through language; Forced Innovation especially as dictated in the cultural realm by globalization; Injured Sense of Justice, as a distraction from self-consciousness; Appeal — to stress the socially shaping character of modern art terms — and, finally, Hope, as the motor force for vital changes.
The participating artists, from the Republic of Armenia as well as the diaspora, engage in a lively dialogue on these themes, with constellations of paintings, drawings, posters, prints and objects. Among the landscapes is “Bari Kentan” by Hakob Kodjoyan, 1946, gouache on paper, and a pencil “Portrait of Abo Parsemyan,” 1960, by the legendary Minas Avetisyan. One work treating Language and Script is “Alphabet” by Narine Khachaturyan, 2005, gouache on paper. “Arzni Church” and “Gandzasar Cloister” by Zaven Sargsyan, from 2000 and exposures on photo paper, appear on the wall space dedicated to the theme of the Church, and Narine Zolyan’s untitled photo under acryl and metal, 2010, expresses Hope. There are historically charged items illustrating the theme State, like a T-shirt with the slogan “I am Vahe Avetyan,” 2012, which refers to the violent death of a military doctor; an Armenian coat of arms in a studio frame, 2018, and an original baseball cap with “Duhkov” (“full of enthusiasm”) from the revolutionary year 2018.
Artist, Collector, Curator
Galentz, the curator of the exhibition is a Moscow-born Armenian who received his artistic education in Berlin. His InteriorDAsein hosted well over 20 projects, seminars and film showings from 2008 to 2015. An important international reference point for Armenian artists, it has served since then as an atelier and collection room with the works of dozens from the Republic of Armenia and the diaspora. It was here that the displays in the Berlin Cultural Days from 2015-2017 were also organized, and the current exhibition draws on that experience. (See http://interiordasein.de/curated-projects) In addition, the show provides the occasion for a retrospective view of Galentz’s own work as a collector; the circa 40 works displayed represent the best pieces from his vast collection. And he is present as the artist as well. In the first thematic space is a “Time Landscape,” 2004-2021, in water colors and colored pencil, which juxtaposes all the lands inhabited and governed by Armenians, from green-yellow territory in the time of Tigran the Great to red-brown regions in Nagorno-Karabakh. The area dedicated to language and writing contains his “Metz Hayk,” 2009, an etching on paper.
On a separate wall, one can view Galentz’s “The Black Garden,” 1997, nine Litho Monotypes on paper on canvas. This work too, part of a series of “Map Prints,” addresses the process of territorial loss, again expressed through color: as the artist has explained it, this series “represents a change from brown-black on one edge of a square object to the yellow-green of the opposite side and refers to the Karabakh war confrontation maps” that were current in mass media depictions during the 1990s. Next to the 9-piece composition is a small drawing from 2004 showing the borders drawn between Armenia and Artsakh. In addition, there is a Galentz sculpture resembling a globe, 2003, whose six sides show the possible phases or steps in the loss of the republic. These maps are painted in a technique used by architects, called “painting with tears,” whereby water colors are so diluted with water that they resemble tears. The paint is applied repeatedly in very thin layers.
These works, we read in the official invitation, “investigate the process of identity transformation that came into being through the collapse of the Soviet empire and the recovery of Armenia’s independence…. As seldom before, now for Armenians in the diaspora, the urgent question of their identity is on the agenda. The exhibition shows the potential for renewal which, though painful, releases constructive and healing powers.”
Identity through History, Theater and Music
Over the coming weeks, the Kulturhaus Karlshorst will host three more cultural events in this year’s program, which examine further facets of the identity issue. On May 12, Prof. Elke Hartmann will deliver a Zoom lecture followed by discussion on “Houshamadyan: Reconstruction of the Lost, Identity and Future.” Hartmann is a professor of Turkology, Ottoman History, Islamic Science and Armenian Studies who has taught at the Berlin Free University Berlin, PPKE Budapest, Bamberg and Hamburg and is currently doing research in Munich. She is founding director of Houshamadyan, a research project dedicated to reconstructing Armenian life and culture in the Ottoman Empire before the genocide.
On May 21, the children of the AEAE’s Armenian Sunday school will perform the play, “Battle between Hayk and Bel,” accompanied by music and dance. The story, told by Movses Chorenatzi (5th century A.D.), relates the mythological battle for Armenian freedom against the Babylonian conqueror Bel.
At the art exhibition vernissage, violinist David Khachatryan played solo violins pieces by Komitas, and the closing reception scheduled for June 6, will conclude with a concert featuring two renowned opera singers, Hrachuhi Bassenz, soprano at the Dresden Semperoper, and Gor Harutyunyan, baritone in the Nurnberg opera chorus. Music, from the folk songs of the highlands and medieval church music to instrumental works and modern operas, is an integral component of the Armenian identity, and thus a most important element in cultural renewal.