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.


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