Transformative art festival is held again in breakaway Karabakh Republic

Light installation “383 Souls” (2018) by Vahram Galstyan in an abandoned theater (all images courtesy of Anna Kamay)

In October 2018, the very first contemporary art festival – Artsakh Fest – took place at the Vahram Papazian Theater in Stepanakert, the capital of the internationally unrecognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region in what many countries still recognize as part of Azerbaijan, and known to Armenians as Artsakh. The region was plagued by a war of independence for decades and as a result the theater building was abandoned for more than eight years. In 2018, Yerevan-based curator Anna Kamay decided to transform the building by inviting international artists into the space, offering installations, performances and workshops in a region mainly associated with war. On the eve of the second edition of the festival, Hyperallergic spoke to Kamay about the challenges of starting such a project and what to expect from this year’s program.

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Hyperallergic: Why did you create Artsakh Fest and how did you go about it?

Anna kamay: I lived in Martuni with my daughter, where I met a friend in Yerevan who runs the Tufenkian charity. I told them that I was going to do something related to the arts, and I asked them if they would support me, and they said yes. In Martuni, there was this building of the house of culture: it looked like an exact copy of the Yerevan Opera, and it seemed like the perfect space for an art project. But this building has been totally privatized, and apart from the stage and the auditorium, there is no space available to do any intervention.

[Then] a friend of mine from Stepanakert in Karabakh invited me. This is the regional center and the capital of Artsakh, where I found the theater building, and suddenly everything made sense. The audience was already there, and nothing else was happening.

An apprentice of Yeznig Mozian Vocational Scool installing the bulbs for the light installation “383 Souls” (2018) by Vahram Galstyan

I know that there had only been two art festivals before in Artsakh, both in Shushi: one organized by Neery Melkonian in 2001, and the second in 2012 organized by Harry Vorperian and Lilit Sargsyan called Land and Technologies. It only occurred to me recently that these two festivals only included Armenian and Diaspora artists. It was only after the festival that I realized that what we did was the first international festival in Artsakh. So, with this in mind, knowing that I have the network, I applied to local elected officials to organize the festival at the theater.

At first it was a no; the building was deemed unsafe and unstable. Finally, with a lot of perseverance, they said that we can only have the first room, but then I negotiated more, and later Artsakh Ministry of Culture even offered us $ 2,000, so we knew we had this base to pay for artists’ travel and accommodation.

A room in the abandoned theater building in Stepanakert with a hole for the wood-burning stove that the theater troupe used to warm up in winter

Artists from Armenia and abroad came to participate. We had a musical program, facilities, open workshops and masterclasses. Over 2,000 local people came, and we had a large number of local volunteers who wanted to help us, mostly young people. It was such an amazing experience for them, welcoming all these foreigners and showing them their hometown and rediscovering it with the artists. For a year now, they’ve been sending me messages asking when the festival will be held again.

Group photo with the participants of Artsakh Fest 2018

H: What do you think are the biggest challenges of having an arts festival in a place without infrastructure?

AK: There are advantages and disadvantages. The good things are that there is no competition, so whatever you do there will be accepted. Of course, there is a chance that it will be hated, but most likely people will be curious and accept it because they are not spoiled by the multitude of cultural events like they are in Yerevan.

The downside is that it is very difficult to find like-minded people to form a team, especially with the locals, as contemporary art practices are not seen as necessary or important. Local authorities and agencies operating in Artsakh consider economic and social development more important than cultural development. They don’t realize how art could become one of the reasons people want to visit Artsakh. They don’t realize how much it has to do with the festival and everything that isn’t modern because all they have are modern paintings and sculptures in the galleries. If we manage to produce high quality contemporary art, we will be able to present [this as a] destination abroad.

A view of the participatory project and the installation “Learning How to Fly” by Laura Arena

Currently, with the exception of diasporas, the majority of foreign tourists visit Artsakh as a dark tourist destination, an exotic war-torn region like Chernobyl or Transnistria. If the festival is established, people will come to see high quality contemporary art, not only during the festival, but before and after. I always [use] the example of the Kassel Documenta, created just after the Second World War. They managed to rebuild the city because of the festival. Now people go all year round just to see the artwork there. This is my local vision: to create an art space and to talk about conflict, war and trauma through art. I think this is the only way to cure the local people. It is the transformation of conflicts through contemporary art, and also healing, because three generations living in war have never had the opportunity to reflect.

The other obstacle is funding, mission impossible. You cannot get international funding for political reasons and not all diaspora organizations operating in Artsakh prioritize cultural issues. I am currently hosting an online fundraiser for this year’s edition and we are counting [on being able] raise sufficient funds to cover production costs, travel and accommodation for guest artists. Hope[fully] next time I can offer a fee [sic] to artists, at least local.

Festival attendants socializing in the makeshift bar during Artsakh Fest 2018

H: What is the theme of the festival this year?

AK: It’s a very beautiful traditional song called “Nakhshun Baji”. The title is in both Armenian and Azerbaijani. It means beautiful sister. She is an emancipated, independent, strong woman. It is this woman from Karabakh, who was the main character throughout the war. They supported the whole population while the men were at war. Now that the war is over, the women are still [have] the main role, but they are also secondary; they are neither visible nor appreciated.

The name of the song is also an allegory of the name of the theater, which is called “The Beauty of Stepanakert”. It’s that idea of ​​a woman that’s been overlooked [while] feed his people and his children. These will mainly be women and theater; it’s about this changing place.

H: And what does the program look like?

There will be a musical program, mainly musicians and sound artists. There will be a lot of documentaries, some on Artsakh, others on conflicts, borders and women. We are really excited to exhibit Anush Ghukasyan’s ceramic sculptures depicting rabbits or phallic symbols depending on the angle they are viewed from. There will be a film program hosted by Tereze Davtyan.

We’re going to partner with Golden Apricot and a few directors here. There will also be open workshops led by Sereg Navasardyan of Erevantropics and other street artists, as well as art installations and a rich musical program. It won’t be as expensive as last time; I don’t want to get into restoration work. We electrified the building last year and some light bulbs are broken so we still have to do some prep work.

H: In terms of international artists, where do they come from?

We already have over 15 artists who have applied to participate in this year’s edition of the festival. Last year we had over 40 international artists from over 10 countries, as well as local artists. We were the first to bring Turkish artists to Artsakh: Duygu Bostanci and Funda Cilga. Bringing in Turkish artists is politically difficult, but in the future we would also like to bring in artists of Azerbaijani origin, who can speak on behalf of their people, [which] is very important for developing critical discourse.

Press conference ahead of the pilot edition of Artsakh Fest on October 5, 2018 (from left to right: curator of the research-based exhibition Emma Harutyunyan, art critic Nazareth Karoyan, founder of Artsakh Fest, curator Anna Kamay, musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan)

Telling stories through art [humanizes] the other side in times of hate [when] [rhetoric can] portray the other as a bloodthirsty and cruel enemy.

Artsakh Fest 2019 will take place at the Vahram Papazian Theater (59 Tumanyan Street, Stepanakert, Azerbaijan), October 4-6. It was founded and is managed by Anna Kamay.

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Reggie S. Williams

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