Rural Artistic Residency in Armenia

Lilit Stepanyan pioneered the creation of a rural artistic residence in two small towns, which contrast with the neon lighting and bubbling excitement of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia: Talin (with about 8.000 inhabitants), with a cathedral built in the 7th century; and Byurakan (about 300), where the Observatory was founded by Victor Ambartsumian in 1946.

As one of the international artists in this residence, I was able to develop a documentary on these locations and a performance-installation in Byurakan on 29 September. A Forest Playground, intersected in one of the common spaces of a public school.

All the artists also developed their projects. Among them, a photographic exhibition by Yannick Wende (German), a sound installation by Jeans Masimov (Swedish, resident in Glasgow) and an installation in public space from a pixelated mosaic created by Siranush Aghajanyan (Armenian).

In parallel, workshops were developed with children and adolescents, with old and new media: Dramatic Expression, Plastic Expression, Photography and Sound Capture – various forms of artistic expression that solved communication issues, taking into account the constraints created by different “languages”. The design of the Armenian alphabet is also quite peculiar.

In Talin, Khachatryan Gayane (Armenian-English translator) presented us with a music school that, at that moment, had an association that wanted to help and raise funds for its requalification. The commitment of all the teachers, parents and the motivation of each student was fascinating. At this school, they learned to play various instruments, among them the quintessential Armenian Santur.

A country that is in a process of opening its mind and valuing its inhabitants – from its artistic traditions to organic farming projects –, Armenia still has traces of a former Soviet regime. In every town, even the smallest ones, there’s a cultural centre. It’s important to stress that it was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

Umbigo Magazine spoke to Lilit Stepanyan (Coordinator of the Today Art Initiative – a Yerevan-based organisation). Lilith, who works in contemporary art with local and international projects, emphasizes the importance of these cultural exchanges through residencies that, until then, were practically limited to Yerevan. She highlights the differences in the post-revolution that occurred last year.

“I feel that there are many differences: the country has finally begun to breathe, we feel the way the population begins to have more power and civil society is now making the decisions. At the same time, I feel that corruption and monopoly are slowly disappearing. Something that is still visible in the cultural and artistic spectrum”.

Jens Masimov, of Armenian descent, stresses that “the opportunities for exposure to art and culture should not depend on the place of birth or the level of wealth. If we inspire someone to find the way to and from art… it’s great!”. Jeans Masimov is an artist who combines various types of media, working with ritualistic distortion.

Yannicke Wende sees these residences as places where he can expand his mentality. He believes “that rural areas benefit greatly from these programs, because many well-connected people in rural areas, especially from the younger generation, can contact me to discuss, reflect values and participate in workshops and common creative processes”.

Towards the end of this residency, Umbigo Magazine also spoke with Susanna Gyulamiryan, this year the curator of the Armenian Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale – an activist and feminist who established an international artist residency in Yerevan (since 2007/2008). She questions and attempts to understand the problems that contemporary art has in market relations and is interested in feminist and gender issues in the artistic production of Armenian women. She is a specialist in Russian philology and graduated from Yerevan Public University.

Susanna Gyulamiryan tells us that “the notion of “rural area” refers to topographies that are generally described as non-places, praising their less developed, less advanced or delayed status quo. When we talk about Armenian cultural policies, there are clear hierarchies and a huge gap between the capital and other large or small cities and towns in the country. Therefore, any attempts to deconstruct and dismantle the capital’s dominance in “peripheral” areas are part of the innovative work in the country’s cultural policies. The zeal to undermine this hierarchical order, the work of decentralization and the creation of a horizontal network of artistic infrastructure in the regions of the country, even if its scale is still not wide-ranging, are very important procedures for improving cultural areas. Especially when the country is in a situation of marginalisation in relation to non-traditional experimental artistic practices. I can only positively assess the work and recent initiative of young curator Lilit Stepanyan, eager to develop the artist residency programme in Yerevan, which continues to be the site of large conglomerates of artistic events”.


By Pedro Sousa Loureiro

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