Gyumri is actually the second city of Armenia and was for many decades Armenian’s cultural center. The bus trip from Yerevan to Gyumri, which beautifully leads between small villages, a hilly and treeless landscape and snow on the mountains, shows us also traces of different periods of economical crisis and political change. Abandonned houses, closed shops and manufactories, and half constructed houses. It seems migration is still going on in Armenia, from the countryside to cities (Yerevan grew in some decades from a small city to a 1,5 million capital) or to other countries abroad; Russian inhabitants leaving Armenia for Russia after independancy or Armenien citizens moving to Russia or the west to find better futures.
Entering Gyumri felt like a shock because of it’s poor houses and quickly constructed apartment blocks and some people even living in caravans or even in containers. It all became clear when we arrived in the Berlin Art Hotel of Gyumri, a medical center which was build with gifts from government and inhabitants of Berlin after the earthquake in 1988, and later partly turned into an art hotel which actually finances the medical center and which occupies half of the prefab building. The hotel/medical center, with about 40 hotel rooms, has art works by artists from Gyumri in the rooms and corridors and can be purchased by guests. Berlin Art Hotel organizes artistic encounters and concerts in the small and cosy dining room. The Berlin Art Hotel invites also artists from Armenia and abroad by offering a room and has relations with residencies in other cities in Europe (The Hague), US and Asia (Taiwan, Japan,..) for the benefit of artists from Gyumri. Berlin Art Hotel has no financial support for it’s cultural activities nor for the residencies. It supports artists by offering space and connections.
The earthquake destroyed 70% of the houses and constructions: all recent buildings were demolished, about 80% of the early soviet buildings and 20 to 30% of the 19th century buildings. The city was slowly reconstructed with help of other countries but this process isn’t is finished today at all. Some attempts to build new suburbs with the help of Russia in1989 are left unfinished and others are reconstructed with poor materials (photos). Gyumri’s economy was heavily touched by the depression at the end of soviet times, the earthquake and the difficult situation after independence, although is was a very prosperous city during 19th century and during soviet times. It had high skilled technicians in manufactures, a flourishing textile industry (wool form Uzbekistan and workers from Moldova) and it was a centre for artistic expression in theatre, music, literature and fine arts.
The historical museum of Gyumri which is called Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life witnesses this rich period of skills and manufactures in the 18th, 19th and beginning of the 20th century and documents the many poets, composers, writers, painters and actors which were living in the city, and were performing in houses of wealthy families. The museum is situated in a former house of a wealthy family. This is very much in line with the high level of Armenian culture, knowledge and skills for centuries and centuries.
Another exemple of this rich past is the Aslamazyan Museum which is devoted to the lives and works of Mariam (1907-2006) and Yeranuhi (1910-1998) Aslamazyan, two sisters of a wealthy family which were both artists. On the 70th anniversary of Mariam Salamazyan, 620 their original works like paintings, graphic works and ceramics were offered to the city of Gyurmi and which opened a museum in a beautifull house with bright spaces and a courtyard on 7th of November 1987. Father Aslamazyan was a windmill engineer and devoted his career to the technical development which served humanity. The two daughters followed their education in Leningrad Institute of Arts and were traveling to different countries and continents like the Middle-East, Africa and America.
Their paintings are radically modern and singular in form and colors and a real investigation in intercultural dialogue between different cultural references and differences in the context of daily life. They were feminist at that time and attention to women in their paintings. We were all moved by the beauty of the works which are not recognized as master pieces in the western canon but can compete with their peers like Gauguin. We all bought postcards and couldn’t stop taking pictures. Some works took our special attention: the sisters were interested in the Soviet ideology which proclaimed brotherhood and equality between different ethnic races. The painting shows soldiers, men and women, with Soviet uniforms with the references to their ethnic background, and arms ready to protect these values; a troubling image! Another painting shows an oriental looking courtyard with women weaving a piece of textile with the image of Stalin.
Back to the contemporary!
The Gyumri Biennial of Contemporary Art, which was started one year after the earthquake in 1989 as a strong sign of moral and cultural resurrection (like Documenta after the destruction of second world war), showed during 6 editions the recent tendencies in contemporary art by inviting important contemporary artists from Armenia and abroad. It was supported by foreign cultural institutions and private foundations -often run by rich Armenians which migrated to Europe, Russia or Noth-America- and was the most important event for contenporary art in Caucasus region for during the 1990ies and the catalogues show the amazing diversity of artists showing work, making temporary interventions like performances or making work in public space, whivh are often still part of the public space of Gyumri. The latest editions were organised in a modest scale (‘zero budget’ in 2014) because lack of funding from the City and the Ministry, and the edition of 2016 couldn’t be organised anymore. Contemporary art is negative connotations for politicians (which is often not different in the west), although that seems to change at the moment. Artists keep hope in Gyumri. The biennale, as an important resource for international relations and inspiration from abroad, is missing now, since there are almost no institutions for contemporary art and ngo-like initiatives who can pick up that role. Artists in Gyumri keep the enthousiasm for creation and organise presentations themselves but in a fragmented way, like tiny islands in the city.
We met Cohar Martirosyan, one of the enthousiatic and talented artists from Gyumri. She finished the Art Academy of Gyumri three years ago, decided to stay in Gyumri because it’s her hometonw which inspiresher most. She calls her work abstract expressionism which invites the viewer in a journey of abstract form and light as road to deep feelings. She recently explored the limitations of the space and light of the canvas and explored working on plexi. She adds another layer of experimentation with light, time and space through video works which are based on camera work over the plexi, and a soundtrack of contemporary music which was composd for the video.
The Academy of Arts of Gyumri is the only institution for the living contemporary art in the city. It has about 120 students in drawing, graphic art, painting, sculpture and design (including fashion and applied design). The resources are poor, there is no budget to invite guest professors and guest lecturers from aborad and contemporary forms of expression like photography, media, and installation art are not (yet) part of the educational program. But the school is a hub; the only place in the region which brings together established artists/teachers and students on a daily basis. The Academy is an active partner in cultural life: it was a partner in the Gyumri biennale, encourages projets and presentations and keeps relations with the art scene in Yerevan as far as possible. The school has relations with Vienna and recieves resources like books and dvd’s in the ‘Vienna Room’ of the school. The library, which is in the directors office and a reading room next to it, has some books on shelves. We were wondering how by means of books and DVD’s students could have access to historical and contemporary art from other countries like Europe and US? The catalogues of Documenta, Venice and other biennales in the America’s, Europe, Asia and Africa? We were also wondering how are visit could be more interactive in future visits? The artists with us could give presentations of their work and discuss with students. Curators of the group could give short presentations in smaller groups on a recent project or exhibition they worked on and discuss with teachers and students?
By Dirk De Wit