Interview with Eva Khachatryan on her research in Armenia
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
I will begin by saying that gender issues are something really new in Armenia: only recently have they become the focus of certain projects, researchers, and discussions. Consequently it’s no easy task to provide clear-cut answers regarding an overall view of gender issues or how such issues have been manifested throughout art history. However, I will attempt to explain this history using the following examples.
In the 1960s in Armenia with a new political regime, and during the “Khrushchev thaw”, certain changes became evident also in art. Abstract art-considered the main “enemy art” at the time-wasn’t exhibited and certain artists were even criticized as being formalists. Color played a bigger role than content in their paintings of portraits (self-portraits, family portraits), still-lifes, and landscapes. And many of these were executed in a style free of academism and were resistant to socialist realism in their shift from socio-historic themes. From this point of view it is important to mention one exhibition, the Exhibition of Five, that was initiated and organized by five artists in 1962 at the Union of Artists in Yerevan. At that time (and later in the 1970s), a latent presence of gender issues became noticeable with respect to the role of an “emotional” nationalism, which, by the way, was supported by Stalinists.
During perestroika the first representative contemporary art exhibitions were presented at the Union of Artists. The new political situation played a big role in allowing young artists to organize a series of exhibitions on the third floor of the building where conferences were typically held. Known, therefore, as the “3rd Floor” movement, it focused on presentations of so-called “Western” art that had been forbidden during Soviet times. 3rd Floor exhibited primarily local abstract and pop art. From the point of view of gender, 3rd Floor exhibitions were quite male-dominated with an overly aggressive stance in the strongly expressive work, with painting as the primary medium featured. The main representatives of the 3rd Floor movement were male like the artist Arman Grigoryan, or the art critic Nazareth Karoyan, the only exception being the female artist Kariné Matsakyan who actively took part in 3rd Floor exhibitions.
By the end of the 1980s, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nationalist Nagorno-Karabakh Movement was the main organizational body that stood for freedom and independence. After the demise of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of Armenia as an independent republic, nationalism, religion, and all else that had been forbidden during the Soviet era was welcomed and gained momentum. Some artists accepted these changes as new reforms and an opportunity to rediscover a lost national identity.
After independence was established in 1991 these trends lost their function as a fight against a totalitarian regime, and, accordingly in the 1990s, the younger generation, in contradiction to the 3rd Floor movement, began to explore newer tendencies in art, especially Conceptual art. (Vahram Aghasyan, David Kareyan, Mher Azatian, Diana Hakobian, Haroutioun Simonian, Sona Abgarian, Tigran Khachatrian). All artworks considered contemporary were against state-sanctioned political and cultural statements. At times, art was obviously political in nature with a direct message, while, in other cases it underlined individualism as a reaction to the Soviet collective consciousness. This explains the popularity of performance art in the 1990s not only as an expression of individualism but also as an exploration of the body. Some artists took this as an opportunity to express gender issues (Haroutioun Simonian, Sona Abgarian, Arman Grigoryan). By the way, it is important to mention that contemporary art does not occupy a legitimate place in our country even today. It doesn’t play an official role in the representation of Armenian culture and contemporary artists continue be marginalized.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects in local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
To begin with I discovered several artists who had escaped my notice before. As a curator I’m focused especially on women’s issues and, as a result of this research, I have a greater knowledge about Armenian art history in relation to questions of gender. I never thought, for instance, that the 1970s might have been relevant for my work but after completing this research I’ve changed my mind. I also view differently certain male artists who previously never would have been considered relevant in this context.
It seems that women artists in Armenia had a hard time gaining recognition in the traditional art genres of painting and sculpture. They were either forgotten in art history (Knarik Vartanian), remained in the shadow of their partners (Armine Galents), or had to master their skills in competition with their male colleagues (Heriknaz Galstian, Kariné Matsakyan). Articulation of gender identity in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with a conceptual approach and the use of photography (Kariné Matsakyan, Diana Hakobian, Haroutioun Simonian) and video. Could you interpret this shift from modernist to contemporary art practices from a gender perspective?
Among other things, Conceptual art in Armenia brought with it the new possibility of the dematerialization of the object and a pluralism of styles. With new media, especially video, artists got the opportunity to talk about more personal things as well as gender issues (Kariné Matsakyan, Haroutioun Simonian). I think that new media created new possibilities both for men and women artists, but especially for women (Diana Hakobian, Sona Abgarian). Of course, today even in new media more male artists are centrally featured in exhibitions and museum collections. However, in terms of contemporary art in Armenia, it is obvious that women became more active in the 1990s, a period during which the first exhibitions to be organized by women (as for example by artist Arevik Arevshatian) also took place.
Eva Khachatryan, Research Armenia
Eva Khachatryan, lives and works in Yerevan, Armenia. She is a freelance curator and member of AICA Armenia (International Association of Art Critics). Between 2003 and 2008 she was working as a curator at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (ACCEA) and between 2006 and 2008 she was holding the position of co-director in the Department of Fine Arts at the ACCEA. At the moment she is realizing different projects (exhibitions, presentations) in Suburb Cultural Center. She is the founder of www.artsnews.am that is part of AICA’s activities in Armenia and dedicated to the exploration of the situation of contemporary art in Armenia.
Her recent curatorial work has been mostly on women’s issues and new media in contemporary art. Since 2005 she has been organizing projects such as the Women’s Dialogue festival ( ACCEA, Yerevan), and the international media festival Art in the Age of New Technologies (ACCEA, Yerevan), as well as the exhibitions Alternative Vision (Art Point Gallery, Vienna), All and Now (Suburb Media Center, Yerevan), and Memory and Identity in the framework of the “Culturescapes” festival in Basel, Switzerland),