“In the 19th century, well-defined borders, as they existed in Europe, were unknown and unnecessary in large swathes of the world. Some states do not appear in maps. They have a territory and people live there. They have their destiny and their dreams. We think we know what a state is. But even today, it is often unclear whether a state is a state.”
“An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist” by Nick Middleton
One of the biggest challenges for society in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is the dominant thinking that the military is the most important guarantor of security. In societies affected by violent conflicts in particular, there seems to be no alternative to a strong military to meet defense needs. As a result, such societies prepare for armed defense. This leads to an imposed conformity and to shrinking space for diverse, unconventional ways of thinking such as through art, which can be an effective tool of conflict transformation as it impacts societal attitudes and perceptions by producing a cathartic effect on both artists and audiences. As an Armenian citizen, peace activist and curator, I am interested in the role of art in orchestrating a holistic social experience that creates a deeply humanizing space in which individuals and communities affected by conflict use symbolic representations to come to terms with their identities, histories, and future possibilities.
At the outset of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1988, insecurity and the widespread availability of weapons transformed a dispute over status and territory into full-scale war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Even after decades of negotiations, a peace settlement is a distant prospect. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has lasted almost three decades, has resulted in a series of wars, the death of thousands, mass displacement, cultural erasure and a state of ongoing instability affecting the whole region.
Since the ceasefire of 1994, when the territory fell under Armenian control, huge economic and infrastructure investments in the region and the adjacent “buffer zone” were financed, mainly by the Armenian diaspora. But there was not enough interest in investing in healing war trauma or in community building through socially-engaged art projects in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since Armenia’s art world is concentrated in the capital city of Yerevan, not many art practitioners ventured to Nagorno-Karabakh, avoiding, despite some initial attempts in the 1990s, this unpopular and controversial topic in their work due to the increase of nationalist rhetoric and self-censorship, which dampened the feeling of urgency around the conflict over the years. Thus, the way contemporary art was curated and presented within mainstream Armenian discourse was often based on nationalist politics, boundaries, and militarized state-making.
This reality, coupled with a lack of democratic governance, and contemporary art schools or cultural initiatives, meant that there were only a handful of socially-engaged art interventions in Nagorno-Karabakh. The voice of the people directly affected by the conflict remained muted throughout this time.
Wanting to see Artsakh on the world’s cultural, rather than military, map, this article contemplates past artistic interventions on Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory and their impact on the local community from the 1994 ceasefire until the war in 2020. These interventions include my own experiences with locals as a curator through the use of different artistic means in my community-based, peace-building work within this society from 2017 to 2019.
NK Arts (1999-2002)
The first contemporary art initiative in Nagorno-Karabakh that I came across during my research was NK Arts initiative, established in 1999 by New York-based art consultant and curator Neery Melkonian, who was a descendant of genocide survivors. She believed that collective trauma stifled the progress and growth of Armenians in their individual, collective, and cultural consciousness. Melkonian wanted to get involved in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, and chose to begin her project out of a feeling of social responsibility. Armen Sargsian, the then Minister of Culture of Nagorno-Karabakh had been a guest of Melkonian in New York, and invited her to Artsakh. She planned to develop an annual cultural festival in the city of Shushi. As project developer and director, Melkonian traveled extensively throughout the region as an advisor to the Culture Minister.
The NK Arts project aimed at helping Karabakh evolve into a thriving international cultural center. The region’s natural beauty and historical monuments made this unrecognized republic an ideal site for developing cultural tourism. The mission was to generate dialogue, promote solidarity and advocate for understanding among cultures by inviting the world to Artsakh for an unprecedented international cultural festival. Ultimately, the project would have helped rebuild essential infrastructures and establish processes that would advance economic viability within the region –– all while contributing to world culture.
After an extensive feasibility study conducted by the project’s production team, the town of Shushi was selected as the official NK Arts Festival site. A multi-phased three-year plan to implement the festival in its full scope and scale was developed with each preceding year, serving as an important roadmap in delivering the larger project.
Invited to Shushi by Melkonian, New York-based artist Kardash Onnig spent five intense months in war-torn Shushi in 2001, as the young republic’s first artist-in-residence. While training young apprentices in the remote and impoverished town of Shushi, what Kardash found in the local human and natural landscape both enraged and riveted him. His impressions, recorded in a journal, form the foundation for his book “Savage Chic: Chronicles of a Fool in the Caucasus”. Kardash’s words are part philosophical reflection, part sociological critique and part artistic commentary. This book takes a sharp U-turn from previous travelogs about Armenia and Artsakh. Brimming with unusual insight, Savage Chic is a powerful, often outrageous, and ultimately beautiful work on what it takes to transcend a glorified legacy of hatred and xenophobia, written by a sensitive observer who remains nobody’s fool.
Among other artists, Melkonian also invited Jeff Ryan to renovate the Nngi village ceramics workshop and kiln. After making the facilities fully operational, Ryan trained and collaborated with half a dozen apprentices to produce souvenirs and functional ware, intending to market these products locally and internationally down the line. In addition to founding the Festival of Shushi, which included the construction of the amphitheater complex and forming the festival programming, the following project components were established:
1) Revival of Artisan Cottage Industries (ceramic production and printmaking)
2) Upgrade of Stepanakert’s State History Museum (reconstruction–cataloging and appraising)
4) Establishment of NK Arts Institute Complex in Shushi
5) Project Management and Oversight (developing a system and establishing a working body to manage and oversee each component).
NK Arts held its first annual arts festival in 2001, which was attended by more than 1,200 people. The second year of the Shushi Festival, held in 2002, was devoted to cinema. The third year of the Festival was supposed to be devoted to theater and dance and was scheduled to be held in September 2003, but Melkonian’s ambitious vision was shattered primarily by lack of financing from the Diaspora.
“Nationality: Human” Documentary Film Festival (2009)
The South Caucasus Documentary Film Festival of Peace and Human Rights Nationality – Human was an initiative by Open Society Georgia Foundation and the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It was a film festival on wheels, with a mobile cinema team traveling with a cinemabus. It brought all the technical equipment needed for screening documentary films about reconciliation, human rights and peaceful resolution of conflicts throughout the entire South Caucasus and opened up the floor for the audience to discuss the themes of the films. Annually the festival offered 10-12 documentary films from around the world.
The traveling film festival’s objective was to connect the countries of the South Caucasus by screening documentary films concerning reconciliation, conflict resolution, and human rights, encouraging audience discussion on issues the films broached. Since its piloting in 2007, the festival has traveled to 51 towns and villages. Seeking to promote the idea of peaceful conflict resolution, the initiative aimed to broaden the discourse around reconciliation, human rights, and conflict resolution beyond the intellectual circles of the capitals of the South Caucasus.
In the fall of 2009, between September and November, the third edition of the festival reached 26 villages, towns and cities across the South Caucasus, including Stepanakert. On September 28-30, 2009, the third and last South Caucasus Documentary Film Festival of Peace and Human Rights – Nationality: Human took place in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert.
“Land and Technology” Art Festival (2012)
In October 2012, a contemporary art project dubbed “Land and Technology”, curated by Lilit Sargsyan and Harry Vorperian took place in Shushi. The Armenian community in LA fundraised around 40,000 USD for the festival, which was planned to be held regularly. The project goal was to raise awareness about social issues, and to break down barriers for cross-cultural understanding and global dialogue through various art installations, video projections, land art, as well as open air performances. One open air performance featured a scandalous nude performance by Samvel Saghatelian, which resulted in the intervention of the Karabakh National Security services, who asked the artist to leave Artsakh. The project brought together 20 conceptual artists of Armenian origin, such as Sahak Poghosyan, Ara Oshagan, Mary Moon and Charlie Khachatourian. This initiative did not have any further iterations.
“The Last Soldier” Performance (2018)
Riccardo Matlakas is a visual artist from Italy working internationally through the media of performance, painting, sculpture, and installation. While in residence in Yerevan in 2018, Matlakas traveled to Stepanakert, where he staged a three-hour walk on the streets of the city. The action, entitled “The Last Soldier”, began by searching for an original Armenian uniform, which he took from a retired military officer who had the same shoe size as the artist. Matlakas borrowed the uniform hat from a young Armenian conscript serving in Karabakh. During the performance, wearing the Armenian army uniform, he carried a large red tufa stone on his shoulder and held a white flower in the other hand while walking slowly through the city. This energy healing walk evoked the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Matlakas’ idea was to create the image of a soldier who walks in slow motion reflectively, showing his inner world –– a soldier who slowed down to think about the cyclic past of humankind, represented by the Armenian tufa, with its links to culture and history. The white flower is the symbol of a blossoming future. “The Last Soldier” carries love. There is a one-hour documentation of the walk filmed by the photographer Armine Vanyan.
“News From Nowhere” Installation (2018)
“News from Nowhere”, an interdisciplinary research project and multimedia artistic exploration by Ada Kobusiewicz and Radmila Stankowic, explored themes of isolation and identity in Shushi –– a “nowhere” place as an utopia in juxtaposition with “non-places” or “non-states”. The title of the project comes from William Morris’ novel of the same name written in 1890, which analyzes identities within utopian socialism in a science-fiction environment. These identities, transformed by revolution, experience an idealized vision of life in small, autonomous communities. Like Morris’ book, the project “News from Nowhere” argues in favor of radical change in social relations, considering the seclusion of humans as a global problem.
In autumn 2018, within the framework of Kobusiewicz’s and Stankowic’s residency at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Yerevan, we traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and made a camera obscura installation inside the walls of the Shushi fortress. The external landscape was reflected upside down inside the fort invoking the space as one where things work differently and where taken-for-granted concepts and phenomena are questioned.
“News from Nowhere” poses universal questions about identities in relation to places and spaces. Tracing and transmuting those identities is the cornerstone of the project. The artistic exploration of Ada Kobusiewicz and Radmila Stanković provokes reflections and questions on the topics of identity, non-identity and diversity, home and non-home, and it allows the mediation of new perspectives. The point is to find an answer to the questions: What are the nowhere places? What does it mean to live outside of the political map? Is there an identity without a state?
ARTsakh Fest International Contemporary Art Festival (2018)
I discovered the theater building in Stepanakert in the winter of 2017 during a shopping visit to Stepanakert while living in Martuni. I was stunned by the beauty of the building and was puzzled by the fact that it was abandoned and decided to do something about it. During my research, I learned that the theater played a significant role in the cultural development of the region and contributed to the education of people during the Soviet Union. The theater even functioned during the war in the 1990s and staged many plays rekindling the spirit of the locals during those challenging years. The building survived the war but due to lack of funding for renovation, the theater troupe moved to a temporary space in 2015. As a result of negligence and indifference, it is still vacant, awaiting renovation, although it continues to be a favorite meeting place for locals. From the outside, the Nakhshun Baji or “beauty of Stepanakert”, as it is commonly referred to by the locals, still looks great and has preserved its original charm with its sculpted doorways and magnificent arches.
I decided to organize the ARTsakh Fest contemporary art festival in the hope of strengthening cultural development at the local level, decentralizing arts and cultural events away from Yerevan, drawing the attention of the local and international public to the abandoned theater and helping the region evolve into a thriving international cultural center. Through collaboration with the local community, the theater troupe and invited art practitioners, the abandoned building was revitalized and ownership given back to the local community for three days.
Over 40 local and invited artists from the U.S., Iran, Israel, Switzerland, Poland, Germany and Turkey participated in the three-day event aimed at reviving the past glory of the theater. The pilot edition of the festival was an event of creative interactivity encompassing all aspects of contemporary arts, such as contemporary dance, audio-visual installations, interactive public art, performances and much more. Alongside public events there were also open workshops including for documentary photography, calligraphy and contemporary dance. The core of the festival was a research-based exhibition showcasing archival documents, posters and costumes, highlighting the distinguished history of the theater. Over 2,000 locals had the opportunity to participate in creating public art projects and masterclasses, and enjoy music by world-class musicians on the open-air stage, reconstructed by the students of Yeznig Mozian vocational school.
After the closing of the 2018 ARTsakh Fest, several documentaries and art projects were made in and about the abandoned theater building. But the issue of its preservation and renovation remained unresolved, and it continues to crumble after every heavy rain. We intend to continue raising awareness about this in order to generate public demand to save the “Beauty of Stepanakert”.
Artsakh Fest International Contemporary Art Festival (2019)
The theme of Artsakh Fest 2019, dubbed “Nakhshun Baji” (Armenian/Azerbaijani: beautiful sister), focused on women and conflict. Women showcased their abilities in the context of war thus challenging the established boundaries, roles and hierarchies of society. By examining prevailing gender dynamics in modern conflict and through demystifying patriarchal norms, the second edition of Artsakh Fest tried to bring to light the role of women in neo-conservative society in times of armed conflict. Constructed under the supervision of engineer Tamara Petrosyan, the Stepanakert State Drama Theater became the “Nakhshun Baji” of the city itself, and reflects a society whose temporal dimension has cracked and is undergoing transformations. The changing role of women is also so dramatic that you can track them in a generation’s lifespan. The second edition of the festival included film screenings and discussions, artistic interventions, a music program, as well as open workshops and master classes and an international potluck dinner.
For the second year in a row, the building was transformed by artists’ interventions into a contemporary art space in an attempt not only to revive the theater, but grapple with the region’s war trauma. The artworks presented included Anush Ghukasyan’s ceramic sculptures resembling phallic symbols and Davit Kochunts’ series of pornographic paintings depicting the phallocentrism of society.
Despite the challenges and lack of funding, I believe that the festival was worth the effort. Older generations were particularly touched, and often drawn to share stories of their own past, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived together peacefully before the war. But what I found most rewarding was challenging modern ways of thinking. Artists from Poland and from Germany –– two friends, Nina Scholz and Agnieszka Dragon –– participated. When locals saw them laughing together, they asked me, “How are these people talking to each other? Aren’t they enemies? You know, from the Second World War?” The fact that they thought that once you are the enemy, you always stay the enemy was shocking to the artists.
I planned to continue the initiative in a different location (the abandoned Realakan College building in Shushi was a strong contender) as Artsakh’s President Arayik Harutyunyan said he would make sure the theater building is restored in the coming years. However, due to the pandemic and the war, I postponed it, hoping to organize the next edition of Artsakh Fest in Shushi, where after the “peace agreement”, I hoped to unite Azerbaijani and Armenian artists for a residency, followed by the festival. I am still waiting for the right circumstances as tensions in the region, aggravated by the Azerbaijani president’s threats to take land in Armenia including Yerevan and Lake Sevan, continue to be as real as ever.
Dreaming of overcoming the culture of violence, promoting the culture of peace in both societies, bringing people together and opening the space for dialogue, I have a strong belief that art could be a forum for thawing tensions –– a platform for experience exchange, mutual support and joint learning that will make peacebuilding efforts stronger. Through art we can make our dreams of a better world tangible and relatable in our communities. Having many applications in conflict transformation, art can provide social space for gathering, become a pedagogic tool for peace education and an invitation and inspiration for dialogue, to describe the indescribable and act as storage of collective memory of historical experience, which could serve as a basis for activating our potential for building peace.
Artistic experience activates both cognitive and emotive capacities in the audience and appeals to the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Based on this combined effect, artistic approaches have the ability to restore a sense of common humanity overshadowed by political, economic, religious and ethnic differences. We and our neighbors have many common cultural traits and art is a very important medium to talk about problems, to share thoughts and worries that are universal. There is a huge potential for collaboration between Armenian and Azerbaijani creatives, if only we manage to find the will and courage to challenge the mainstream narratives imposed by state propaganda.
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