Karabakh’s Frontline Artists
“For us, creating means living. We even avoid buying some things so that we have the money for our artistic work,” says Satenik Hayiryan.
Satenik is a fashion designer and lives with her husband Serob Mamunts, a ceramist. These 28 year olds have set themselves an ambitious task: to help artistic life blossom in the unrecognised state of Nagorno-Karabakh. But for many locals in this mountainous territory, which is technically still at war with neighboring Azerbaijan, the priorities are national security and defense.
Serob and Satenik met at university, and got married in the final year of their studies at the age of 23. The couple have relocated for work several times over six years of marriage; Serob comes from Martakert in the far north of Karabakh, just 4-5 kilometers from the frontline.
Both their lives have been touched by conflict, or rather the threat of conflict, which is strongly felt in Karabakh. Serob lost his father during the vicious war which raged here in the 1990s, which he also credits for profoundly changing his outlook on life and his life’s passion: art.
Serob’s wife Satenik comes from the village of Sghnakh in southern Karabakh. After her marriage, she moved to Serob’s hometown for two years, where she found work teaching art at the local college. But in April 2016, conflict erupted again and this frontline town came under heavy shelling. Satenik, then pregnant with her younger son, was evacuated from Martakert on April 2.
“That changed my worldview, although I still haven’t created anything with a military theme,” recalls Satenik. “War is a very sensitive topic and one must approach it with care.” After this experience, Satenik vowed to stay put in Karabakh, her home.
After a brief stint in the territory’s capital of Stepanakert, the couple recently moved to the historic city of Shushi. They had to start everything from scratch.
“Since 2012 we’ve worked at the Lady Cox Rehabilitation Center (named after Baroness Caroline Cox, the member of the British House of Lords and who provided support to the Karabakh Armenians during the war years of the 1990s – ed.) I did ceramic art therapy both for children and adults with physical and psychological disabilities. Satenik taught them to make dolls. We also took private orders”, says Mamunts, who had to find a second job after his first child.
Artists like Serob and Satenik usually have to find other work to make ends meet. As such, artists in Karabakh must often choose between their vocation or their country: many end up moving to the Armenian capital of Yerevan, where they see better opportunities to develop their skills and a larger artistic community.
For those who remain in Karabakh, the tourism industry is an important lifeline. While few locals here have the disposable income to spend on art, visitors do. This allows local craftsmen to earn some extra money in the summer months, and is a particularly important market for traditional handicrafts and the richly decorated carpets and kilimsfor which Karabakh is famous. Accordingly, graduates of the territory’s few arts institutes, such as the faculty of fine arts at Artsakh State University in the capital of Stepanakert and Hagop Gyurjyan Institute of Applied Art in Shushi, often end up putting their skills to use in producing handicrafts to sell to tourists rather than works of fine art.
But art is more than the sale and conservation of traditional handicrafts. Some artists in Karabakh complain that the territory’s unrecognised status largely isolates them from the latest international artistic trends. With a few exceptions, such as Karabakh’s international modern art festival, most foreign artists who exhibit their works in Karabakh are from the Armenian diaspora, which provides economic and political support to the territory. The reason is simple; those who set foot here and publicise their presence (a must for any aspiring artist) risk being placed on a blacklist and refused entry to Azerbaijan.
Sarine Hayiryan (no relation to Satenik) is a former cultural journalist who now works as event manager at the Roots Life Center, a cultural institution in Stepanakert. She does not believe that Karabakh’s unrecognized status negatively effects its artistic life, and points out that for the third year running her own institution has helped put on a touring exhibition of artworks from Nagorno-Karabakh in various cities across France.
She adds that some international artists have nevertheless braved the blacklist and exhibited or performed in Karabakh, and believes that “better diplomatic work” can overcome whatever political problems might exist. Instead, Sarine believes that part of the problem is due to low levels of state financial support for the arts.
“I think that the Ministry of Culture shouldn’t just help artists by buying them materials or tools for their work, but by creating the appropriate atmosphere and environment for them,” said Sarine. “Previously they were at least providing workshops for artists, but now they don’t even do that. Our young artists lack contact with their colleagues from abroad, which impacts their creative thinking,” she adds, while stressing that Karabakh has held some international events, including festivals of sculpture and classical music.
“There are a lot of talented artists in Karabakh, and many international professionals admire their artwork. These people create what they can, but unfortunately it can’t last long. One day they will burn out,” concludes Sarine.
From its 2019 annual budget of 113 billion Armenian drams, the Nagorno-Karabakh government allocates just 2.1 billion to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Youth Affairs. In turn, the ministry spends around 224 million of that sum on cultural events.
However Lernik Hovhannisyan, Nagorno Karabakh’s Minister of Culture, Youth, and Tourism, is adamant that the state is doing its best to support artistic life. “We provide different types of help. Sometimes the ministry invites [artists] to get involved in some events, and there are cases when artists themselves ask the ministry to help organize an event or symposium,” begins the minister. “In 2019 we are planning to hold more than 10 cultural events with our total budget of 104.5 million dram [$214,108]. This budget also includes foreign and domestic trips, contests, exhibitions, and other cultural events for our artists. We also provide 120 million dram [$245,866] to the preservation and renovation of historical monuments,” adds Hovhannisyan.
In this context, organizations like Sarine Hayiryan’s have come to play a crucial role in keeping Karabakh’s cultural life afloat. It’s no coincidence that Stepanakert’s only Vernissage, where local artists sell their wares, is located directly next to the Roots Life Center, which frequently organizes exhibitions of local artists’ work.
No less important is the National Armenian Cultural Center, also based in Stepanakert. “We mostly focus on helping young artists from rural areas, especially in borderline villages,” explains its director Hermine Avagyan. “We try to find new talent and make cultural life more active, using our networking and financial means to exhibit young artists’ works in Karabakh, Armenia, and also abroad. We show Karabakh to the world through the works of its artists,” she continues, adding that the center is soon holding an exhibition in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
But whatever the efforts of the state or resourceful citizens, it’s hard to make a living as an artist here. Today, Satenik and Serob’s total annual income is just 190,000 Armenian dram (less than $400.) Meanwhile, the two-room apartment the couple have rented for six months in Shushi, for which they pay 40,000 dram (around $82) does not have even a corner for creative work.
Instead, their art is spread everywhere around their modest home. Next to Satenik’s sketches on the dining room wall hang the first artistic efforts of their five year old son Hayk. Beneath them crawls their youngest son Mihran, who is two and a half.
Hayiryan says that she is a fashion designer first and foremost, and then a painter.
“Everything started with a small collection of clothes called ‘Paradise Garden’. I decorated them with bird-like figures common in Armenian manuscripts,” says Satenik.
Over the years Satenik has managed to build up a handful of loyal clients who periodically order designer clothes from her.
Satenik’s horizons need not end at Karabakh’s unrecognised borders. However, while Satenik could theoretically sell her designs abroad over the internet, she says that financial problems and technical issues force her to turn down international orders, including those from the Armenian diaspora.
“I would love to have a small team and be able to supply a certain volume of designer clothing, especially as I see the demand is increasing,” says Satenik.
“Very few people understand my style, and of course one can’t earn a living on [design] alone. I also teach pottery and art at the Arsen Khachatryan State Humanitarian college and Shushi art school,” says Satenik.
At first glance this college in the city of Shushi isn’t much to look at. Only one three-storey building is in use now. Only the walls remain from the other two buildings, both overgrown by weeds. Much of Shushi has met the same fate; during the war years from 1991 to 1994, many of the city’s houses were either bombed or burnt out.
Serob has been teaching pottery classes here for five years.
He started to experiment with pottery in 2012, while he was still a student at the art department of Artsakh State University. There were very few professional ceramists in Karabakh back then and the situation has hardly changed despite Serob’s best efforts.
“Unfortunately not many people are interested in pottery. Most of my students would prefer to earn a living as laborers rather than potters,” he sighs.
The walls of this classroom are decorated with the creations of Serob’s students from years past. Its windows offer a wonderful view of the 19th century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, one of the few buildings in Shushi which emerged from the war unscathed.
Serob doesn’t make anything here himself. “I don’t have my separate workshop. I mostly work at the Naregatsi Art Institute in Shushi. I’ve taught children pottery there for two years,” he explains.
“Last summer the head of Shushi’s Naregatsi Art Institute of Shushi Hayk Papyan and I initiated the first ‘Potter Art’ annual symposium in which over ten artists from Karabakh and different cities in Armenia participated,” said Serob. “This is our way of developing pottery in Nagorno-Karabakh and making Karabakh known across the world. This year the symposium will be international.”
Satenik’s art is also going places, and with it, she hopes, a small slice of Karabakh. At the end of this month, one of the largest galleries in Beirut will host the Artsakh In My Hand exhibition, organized by the National Armenian Cultural Center. The event features the work of 14 female artists from Karabakh, including Satenik’s fashion collection.
“The new collection will include elements of Armenian ornaments and miniature painting. This time I will do my best to match it to the taste of diaspora Armenians,” explains Satenik. “I already have a general idea; I’m currently working on the details and choosing clothing samples. It’s a good opportunity to present my art outside Karabakh and outside Armenia,” Satenik adds.
The spectre of the Four Day War, as the armed clashes in April 2016 are now known, still lingers over Karabakh. It was one of the rare times when Serob left his works unfinished and did not touch clay for days. But even in those days, Serob did not feel that art was useless.
“There are difficulties and limitations in everything, from opportunities to exhibit to availability of materials. But that doesn’t mean that an artist should ever stop creating,” adds Serob.
Millennials, February/March 2019