Thursday, April 29, 2010

Introducing: Artists in Residence in Yerevan and Diplomacy at Work

On April 24, instead of making the annual trek to Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan as Armenians (especially Diasporan Armenians living in or visiting Yerevan on this day) are expected to do, I went to the opening of an art exhibit at my friend’s apartment. The artist, Linda K. Anderson, an older American woman who’d come to Yerevan by way of Sweden and then the Netherlands, was here for two months as an artist-in-residence through the Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory (ACSL).

However, due to unforeseen circumstances that involved a falling out with the ACSL Artistic Director, she ended up completing her work and arranging other accommodation outside of the residency program. I really admired her courage and initiative in taking what turned out to be a bad situation and making it work for her. She ended up completing the work she came here to do, but on her own terms.

Her work, called “Armenian Cave Paintings,” was exhibited in what she called “Gallery Shushan” (named after the woman, my friend, whose apartment she was staying and working in). The huge canvases (as well as a few small ones) were spread out throughout the apartment. Linda had made a blackberry crumble and prepared other hors d’oeuvres for the occasion and her son, David, had composed music for the event which was played throughout the evening. We had a chance to meet Linda’s family via Skype. All in all, it was a cozy atmosphere.

One friend, an art critic and contemporary art professor in Yerevan, recalled how the exhibit-in-an-apartment reminded him of Soviet times when institutions didn’t exist for art that wasn’t the socialist realism that was the main stay of the period and “nonconformist” artists would organize exhibits in their apartments. And though I have never lived in a Soviet country, I had a chance to experience what that might’ve been like, if only just for a moment.

The unforeseen events which resulted in this exhibit in a residential apartment and the feeling of being part of amazing moments that happen on the fringes are the same wheels in motion which resulted in meeting Asheer Akram, another artist from the US who — wait — is also here as an ACSL artist-in-residence.

Asheer was given my number from a mutual friend of ours who had called me to say that an artist from the US (Asheer) who was in Yerevan had his Macbook power adapter stolen from his luggage and could I please lend him my power cable so he could at least recharge his laptop till a new one arrived from the US? Of course I agreed.

But wait — stolen from his luggage? Yes. Apparently, Asheer, coming from another artist-in-residency program in Pakistan to Yerevan (by way of Dubai) had his plastic-wrapped luggage opened and checked by Armenian customs and the result: a missing Macbook power adapter and a carton of Pakistani cigarettes. Can you believe it? It’s quite possible that Armenian customs officers kept those items for “security” purposes with plans to sell the power adapter and most likely smoke the cigarettes themselves. I mean, really. Ouf!

Luckily, Asheer wasn’t missing anything else but buying a charger from the “Apple” store in Yerevan was out of the question: $200?! Yes, apparently what costs maybe $70-80 USD in the States costs $200 in Yerevan. I told Asheer: economies of scale (and perhaps the ability to get away with charging atrocious prices that no average Yerevan citizen could afford.)

Making Connections

My personal goal of “Making Connections” last year seems to have carried over into this year. With that in mind, I decided to introduce Asheer to Linda. I believe that artists should meet other artists. And you should always hear all sides of the story ;)

Informal, impromptu gatherings in Yerevan are part of what I love about being here. Not just among artists, but among diverse groups of individuals. And this, I find, happens on a regular basis.

Meetings between Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or any other number of local conflicts are nothing compared to the many informal trilateral and multilateral meetings that take place among locals, repats, expats and visitors.

The conversations and topics that are covered are truly diplomacy at work. We complain about local and regional issues [whether that be the art scene(s) or politics or a host of other issues], but respectfully. We understand that we’re all in this together. We understand the importance of community. Of living in this small, globalized world. Of respecting differences and history. And sometimes amazing things happen. Collaborations, connections, cooperation. 

And though this blog post is about visiting artists, it very well could be about repats or expats or locals discussing issues they may not agree on or expressing their frustration at the state of affairs.

Yerevan’s just like that. To me, it’s still full of surprises, “coincidences,” random meetings, and making connections.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Correspondence Between Two Lebanese-Armenian Lesbians on the Armenian Genocide: Bekhsoos

Queer Arab magazine Bekhsoos by the amazing folks at Meem, a group of lesbian, bisexual, queer and questioning women and transgender persons in Lebanon, published a correspondence between two queer Lebanese-Armenian women who talk about their identity and the Armenian Genocide.

Here it is, respectfully republished, below (thanks to Unzipped: Gay Armenia where I first found out about this correspondence).

P.S. I know Shant personally, albeit virtually, and apart from being a feminist and a warm, genuine person, she's also a great filmmaker and artist ;)

Dear Sarag,

When I first realized I was queer, it wasn’t anything shocking for me as I was always the minority of some other minority.

My first cause ever was the Armenian genocide and I held on to it like someone holds on to their dear life. The idea that another group wanted to erase something very essential in my being and eradicate it was enough for me to want to resist.

It’s not easy to know that someone wants you to no longer exist.

So when I look around now and I think of the homophobia and the people who want to eradicate us because for them we are a disease, it’s not something new. When I think of all the gendercide and how a lot of our societies break women and burry their existence in petty beliefs, it’s not something new.

I am a queer Armenian Lebanese woman; a half-breed to add to that and this is the essence of my survival. For 95 years our people have been screaming for justice and we will keep on shouting and screaming even when the dearest feminists shout back but who cars about this now? How is it relevant to our cause?

I want to tell you how relevant it is. It is relevant because it is my cause and I am a feminist and it’s a human cause.

It is relevant because its Darfur and Gaza, it is relevant because when we got here we were thrown in camps and orphanages and built our lives from rubbles, it is relevant because women were raped and killed and children sold, it is relevant because justice has not been restored. And you know, when justice is not restored the whole order of your world crumbles. You ask me why I still want them to utter words or recognition? Because I want to be in peace, I want to believe in the good order of the universe, I want to know that the good prevails that there is hope. This is why I fight as a feminist, this is why I fight as a queer, it is why I choose these battles where small victories fuel me with hope

and I think of bigger ones.

Imagine you had 5 more years, only five years to prove that you’ve been raped and beaten, your land stolen. You had five years and you show humanity proof and ask for justice to be made and you know that once those five years go by, humanity’s corrupt system will erase your trauma from its history and move on. You are silenced and mute and your rapist still wandering out there. What would you do? We have 5 more years and then it’s the centenary and after that according to international laws our cause is a lost one. Wonderful example to give to states like Israel, practicing apartheid.



Dear Shant,

You already know, I relate to everything said in your e-mail.

I have always been a part of a minority, ever since I was born.

As I discovered more and more about myself, I became a minority of a minority and it has always been a struggle.

A struggle mainly for my rights. For my rights as an Armenian living in Lebanon, as a Woman, and as a Queer.

A struggle for belonging.. I was born in Lebanon but let’s face it, do I really belong here? It doesn’t really feel like it since I have always been pointed out as The Armenian among the Lebanese. It doesn’t really feel like it since el 3arabeh taba3 el arman mkassar, since we have a different culture and different traditions.

The next question would be. Do I belong in Armenia? Here… This breaks my heart. I don’t even belong in Armenia, because I am only a tourist there. A tourist that doesn’t even speak the same language as the Armenians there.

I have heard so much about Armenians since I was in school by my teachers, my parents, and my grandmothers. I have heard so many stories about my own family, about my own grandfather and my great grandfather and grandmother.

What do I do with all that? Get over it? Let it go?

It’s impossible…

It has become a part of me. A part of my core being.

It is in the blood.

What I find messed up is how countries like The United States or the European union use the Genocide as some joker card against Turkey. They don’t care about the recognition, they hold on to that card so that they can have political stances and gains. The U.S. gets to have army bases and fly into Iraq from over Turkey and the E.U. uses it to stop Turkey from getting in its sphere. And our history relies on their twisted politics.

We fight every day for our rights as queers. We want justice, we want acknowledgement.

We get frustrated and irritated. We go insane when we hear about all the queers and transgendered people that have been murdered.

All this blood spilled… Who could really get over it? Who could really accept it in the first place?

Hate, denial of our existence and their desire to annihilate us…

It’s something none of us should shut up about.

The Armenian cause is so close to all the other causes we believe in and fight for.

You don’t have to necessarily be an Armenian to feel this… You just have to be human.

And there is a big difference between human and “human”.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Social Innovation Camp Caucasus

This 10-minute film on Social Innovation Camp Caucasus, which took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, from April 8 to 10, says it all: What an experience!

And for a more thorough article on Global Voices by Onnik Krikorian, click here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coincidences aren’t really coincidences.... or, Not really random encounters in Yerevan

Since I’ve quit my job, I’ve found that I’m busier now than I was when I was working full-time, believe it or not. And that’s a good thing! I’ve had a chance to meet amazing, creative people doing amazing, creative things — and with such a passion for life! People I might not have crossed paths with if I was still working at my former job.

It all started with my trip to Tbilisi for an intense couple of days at Social Innovation Camp Caucasus (and I know I promised to write more on that; it’s just that there’s been so much else going on... I"ll try to get back on that topic later).

Oh, and the fun didn’t stop there.

Only a few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of, and Drew Curtis, founder of, at a bar in Yerevan (and drinks were on them!).

Drew’s in town only for a few days (a little over a week, if I’m not mistaken), while Alexis has been in Yerevan for about 3 months now. He’s here as a Kiva Fellow; in fact, he left in October of last year, but, like me, it seems, leaving his job hasn’t made him idle; in fact, he seems to have his hands full with a host of other projects.

Apart from his first ever trip to Armenia (he’s half-Armenian, half-German, by the way) and working with Kiva, Alexis has also been working on an uncorporation (I love that term) he founded called, which creates and sells geeky products, donating all profits to charity (according to Alexis’ bio on the Kiva Fellows page).

Not only that, he’s the guy behind TEDx Yerevan, an independently organized TED event to be held in Armenia on September 25, 2010. How cool is that? (and for the TED connection, you should check out his TED talk on “How to make a splash in social media,” where, with a touch of humour and a well-chosen example, he demonstrates the power of social media in just four minutes).

The day after meeting Alexis and Drew, who do I run into randomly on the street but Tony Bowden of Tony’s originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, but he currently lives in Tallinn, Estonia (Margit, you have to connect with him: he’s on CouchSurfing and he organizes CS events in Tallinn. And one of these days, I’ll come visit you both! :)

I had the chance to meet Tony, the world-traveller, in Tbilisi where he was presenting at the Social Media for Social Change conference (happening in the same venue and at the same time as SI Camp Caucasus). I knew he was coming to Yerevan, but though we had connected online, we hadn’t yet arranged a Yerevan rendez-vous, and yet here he was! I’m sure he was just as surprised to see me (with bike and all) as I was to see him. We agreed to meet for drinks the following day.

It crossed my mind that maybe Alexis and Drew would like to meet Tony and maybe Tony would like to meet Alexis and Drew, so I tried to coordinate a get-together for Friday night. Alas, I didn’t have a number for Alexis (nor Drew) and Facebook and email were, for once, failing me. I sent a Facebook message to Tony to meet for drinks for his last night in Yerevan anyway.

I was to meet Tony at his hotel lobby on Friday night, but I was running a little late, and when I got there, he was nowhere in sight :( Luckily, my friend Anoush had connected with him and told me that we were to meet at Baobab (oddly enough, same venue where I first met Alexis and Drew only days before... coincidence? I think not).

Anoush and I agreed to meet at a specific intersection than walk over to Baobab. As I was on my way to meet Anoush, who do I run into but a brother of a friend of mine who’s been living in Armenia for over 3 years, but who I had not met till now? He was the spitting image of his brother and for a moment I thought it was him (Berj) but it turned out to be his brother Hratch. He didn’t know me, so I introduced myself and we talked a bit, while I searched for Anoush (at the same intersection, mind you).

As Hratch and I were walking along (and I was playing phone tag with Anoush), a man suddenly asks, “Adrineh?” and I say “Goga? What are you doing here?!” A friend of mine and my sister and brother-in-law’s, Georgy (or Goga, as we call him affectionately), originally from Armenia, was studying in Toronto when we met him a number of years ago. He then moved to Moscow where he currently lives. So you can imagine my surprise at “randomly” running into him on a street in Yerevan. Turns out he’s in town for 9 days, so I gave him my number and we agreed to connect.

All this, while I’m still walking with Hratch and then I see Anoush across the street. She comes over, Hratch takes his leave, I introduce Anoush to Goga. It’s a brief moment of many things going on at once, different people coming together, but though I’m a bit disoriented, I’m relishing the moment and the coincidences that aren’t really coincidences when you live in Armenia.

But, alas, the story continues.

We get to Baobab where I see a number of other familiar faces, mostly from SI Camp Caucasus. A pleasant surprise! As we’re sitting and talking with Tony et al., who happens to come to our table? If you haven’t figured it out by now, it was Alexis and Drew.

For all the organizing and coordinating I attempted to do over the past couple of days, the meeting I was planning happened beyond my control.

I couldn’t help but smile.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I quit my day job and went to SI Camp...

... and both decisions were probably the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

And the great thing is I’m still here.

Over 70 ideas submitted, only 6 selected, and only 40 participants (out of 150 that applied), Social Innovation Camp Caucasus, taking place from April 8–10 in Tbilisi, Georgia, is not a conference, not a bar camp, and most definitely not for the faint of heart.

A group of mainly youth, from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (with a few expats, mostly American, and one repat, me ;) working on ideas that address issues we find in our countries using social media tools.

For more on Social Innovation Camp, go here. To see the six ideas selected, go here.

I’m working on “No Problem!” with Karine Mkrtchyan, Ali Resh (Reshad) and Aleksey Chalabyan, a great idea submitted by Karine that seeks to uncover and report on all those problems which government officials say don’t exist and mainstream media don’t report on.

We’re mainly journalists in our group, but we’re lucky to have Aleksey, a whiz at Drupal, the content management system we’ve decided to use to execute our idea. Like with most of the other groups at SI Camp Caucasus, we were lacking a web designer (though Reshad graciously filled that role in the interim, providing wonderful ideas on layout and design).

At 8 pm last night, just before we left Cultural Center Muza to head back to our hotel, Nodar Davituri appeared like magic (recruited by Anna Keshelashvili, I think — thank you!) and announced that he would design our site. We gave him our sketch for the layout and explained the various elements. He said he would begin working on it at 10 pm (poor guy, I think he was running around and probably had his plate full, doing more than what most of us do on a Friday night ;)

I’ll have more to report on SI Camp Caucasus after it wraps up tonight. But I will mention one thing: getting a group of Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian youth together in one room is no easy task. We tend to stick with our own, with the people we came with. But I’m so happy to see that our 6 groups are mixed: there are Azerbaijani guys working on an idea envisioned by an Armenian woman that, initially anyway, focuses on an issue in Armenia. There’s an Armenian guy and girl working on an idea created by an Azerbaijani woman about an issue that she’s found in Azerbaijan (and for a website — or I should say, “online platform” — that will be in Azerbaijani). There’s a couple of American expats working on an idea submitted by a Georgian journalist. It’s a good mix of people.

And with a good mix of people, you can’t go wrong. Something amazing is bound to happen ;) More to come on that later.