Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

Hooked on Trivia? Compulsive when it comes to crosswords? Proud of your performance at the pub quiz? Don’t risk being caught out by a question on the arts in Armenia–it could come up at any time. I am as fond of a general knowledge test as the next nerd, but I will confess that, up until very recently, my mental file on all things arty in Armenia was very slim indeed. I could still easily be stumped but, in a spirit of information-sharing, I pass on such knowledge as I now have. At the very least, it may help you set fiendishly difficult questions for your foes. Ch’argi. Ձարժե It’s nothing. Khantrem. խնդեմ You’re welcome.

Artist: Martiros Saryan  is founder of the modern school of Armenian art and a painter whose pictures of the Armenian landscape you may well have seen–not least on the dress I had specially made for my swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My favorite thing about the 1923 painting is not the depiction of Ararat (although I DO love that mountain), but the women dancing at my hem (there is a detail below). Women and music, plus mountains were a bit of a theme for Saryan. He lived from 1880 to 1972 and was awarded the order of Lenin 3 times. If you are unable to see me and my dress, you can always visit the M. Sarian House-Museum in Yerevan where many of his paintings are displayed.

 

Fashion Designer: I love the work of Edgar Artis  who designs dresses using every day objects. Will my next special occasion dress be made from salad–or pencil sharpenings? Follow Edgar on Instagram to see all his fabulous creations.

 

saroyanLiterature: The big daddy of the Armenian writers is William Saroyan who, like those pub quiz staples Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is famous for saying lots of wise and memorable things, many of them contradictory. If you need a quote about writing, madness or being Armenian, he is your man. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1940–his is a handy name to know if you are asked to list five such winners.  He is quoted at the end of the Armenian film “The Promise”.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

You can check out some of his other quotes here

FullSizeRender (13)Poetry: I want to give a shout out to Goris’ local boy made good: Axsel Bakunts, a poet and short story writer born in Goris in 1899 and killed on Stalin’s orders in 1937. His crime: alienation from socialist society. As a schoolboy in Goris, Bakunts was first arrested at the age of 15, for satirising the town’s mayor. Not much of Bakunts work is published in English–or if it is, it is not available online, or here in Goris. Wondering how Bakunts’ writing compared to that of Jonathan Swift or Flann O’Brien, two great Irish satirists, I asked my Hayeren tutor, a native of Goris, if she knew what Bakunts had said that so enraged the town. “Probably no-one read it” she said “It was just talked about, and that was enough”. Interesting to discover that sort of thing happened even in an age before Twitter…

Here in Goris there is a rather lovely small museum commemorating Bakunts, in the house where he was born. In addition to displays of many artefacts, paintings of his mum, and so on, there is also a beautiful garden where would -satirists can sit and think creative thoughts.

 

Film: The Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place in Yerevan in July and so presumably my knowledge of Armenian cinema will be broadened beyond The Promise, this spring’s Hollywood take on the Armenian genocide. The film, though hamfisted and with a couple of story twists of dubious morality (tut), is worth seeing. I didn’t need a hanky though, except to stifle giggles.

Music: The Armenian duduk is to Armenian music what the uillean pipes are to Ireland and the banjo is to Bluegrass. This wind instrument made from apricot wood could be useful to know if your Jeopardy category is music for 500. A contemporary of  all the chaps above is Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, (Armenian: Կոմիտաս; 26 September 1869 – 22 October 1935) an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music. The wailing noise of the duduk is the soundtrack for Komitas’ tragic life. Captured and deported by the Ottoman government during the genocide, he did escape with his life, only to suffer post traumatic stress disorder. He lived the rest of his days in terrible torment, in and out of pyschiatric hospitals. You will need your hanky for this music.

Martin Mkrtchyan, a sort of cross between Tom Jones, Daniel O’Donnell and Donny Osmond, manages to be much more cheerful. Recently, Elsa and I watched a recording of a big concert he gave in Yerevan’s Republic Square at New Year. Good stuff.

Much as in Ireland where I grew up, most of the songs in this ancient country but new and vulnerable republic are nationalistic–about the beauty of the land, the value of birthright, and courage in the face of enemies. It’s like living with the Wolfe Tones. The song below was sung to me by Arsen, aged six. He pumped his fist and cocked his imaginary gun as he sang. Boys here must go to be soldiers when they graduate high school and Arsen is already ready for the fight. I hope that here, as in Ireland, they will reach a level of security and prosperity that will allow their young singers to write of something other than threat and loss and war. More Snow Patrol than Stiff Little Fingers, if you like…

There is one well-known song that has an unexpected link to Armenia–Rosemary Clooney’s Come ona My House. This, it turns out, was written by the aforementioned William Saroyan and his cousin in 1939 as they motored across America.  Once you know this, the plums, apricots and pomegranate in the lyrics make complete sense. The cousin later went on to have great success as one of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Saroyan wrote no other popular songs. Now if that isn’t the stuff of great trivia quizzes I don’t know what is. Listen to Rosemary and enjoy.

The Fool English

My infirmities have forced me to spend a lot of time in front of Armenian TV in the last few days and so I can report in detail on the schedule of the network channels.  There are prime time Hayastan versions of The Doctors ( the Phil McGraw format), Full House, and the Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer show. These are no more edifying here than in your homeland, but are of course cheap to produce in bulk and easy to repeat. This being Hayastan,  problems on the talk show are perhaps less scandalous than they would be in the US or the UK: “My wife doesn’t always provide a full, hot dinner at 5:30pm. How can I get through another 50 years of marriage?”  “Everyone else’s husband spends most of the year working in Russia. Why does my husband lie around at home?” “My daughter wants to go to college. I would prefer her to live at home and marry the boy next door. Which of us is right?”  “Am I wrong to wax my six year old?”  

Then there are dubbed versions of Indian soap operas. The sets and costumes are high-colored and so are the plots. It doesn’t take a lot of acting talent for the voiceover artists to match the skills of the original actors, but the whole spectacle is hugely compelling.  We are on the edge of our seats as marriages break up, beautiful women cry, evil children concoct villainous plots, and good looking men pine for lost loves from miserable prison cells. Everything but the fabrics are terrible. We are all completely hooked. 

And then there are the Hollywood movies dubbed into Hayeren. I watched something in which Brad Pitt romped about in hopsack and a ridiculous hat. Whatever the failings of the movie, best I could tell, the voice stand-in was rather good. Then I saw Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs. Again, the vocal understudy was entirely convincing. The following day I watched some of a children’s film–really high quality but not familiar to me. It must have been Disney or Pixar though. The voiceover work was great– characterful and nuanced: great acting in Armenian. 
So who is providing these voices, and where?  This is a small country with 3 million people at most. How many of these are top quality actors able to stand in for all the Hollywood greats?  Who directs their performance behind the mic? 

Ah, you say, the work is done in Hollywood where the studios dub versions of their movies for distribution all around the world. Well, maybe. But even if these movies first had theatrical distribution here in Armenia, I fear that the budget for the Hay entertainment industry doesn’t stretch to Hollywood rates; plus I believe that most of the Armenian diaspora in Glendale CA speak West Armenian, not East Armenian as we do here. (The people who fled 100 years ago from land now claimed by Turkey spoke a language that moved with them to the States. We speak differently here and now). 

Curiosity drove me to the Disney website where they proudly record all the languages into which their films are dubbed. Armenian was not listed. The film I glimpsed may not have been Disney (it seemed to be a meld of Toy Story and Cars), and even if it was, perhaps the work was done without the express permission and involvement of the originating studio? If so, it was a marvel of mixing: there was both dubbed dialogue and background music/ effects.– difficult to do without a do-it-yourself voiceover track made available on the original film.   

Watching Armenian media has made me appreciate my luck in being accidentally born in a country that speaks one of the world’s most common languages: English. Those of us lucky enough to speak English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Russian or other key world languages have almost unlimited access to great storytelling: the stuff we generate, and the translations from other cultures keen to access our pounds, euros, dollars, rupees, rubles, and whatever they spend in China.  Armenians are not so lucky. No wonder so many of them work at learning three or four languages. It is not uncommon to find young people from small villages like mine who speak Hayeren, Russian, English, Spanish and perhaps also some French or German. Literacy in this country is at 96% and families and schools expect a great deal from their children. In a country where jobs are few and far between, language skills are both a passport and an employment guarantee. Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher are big deals in America but they wouldn’t be all that here in Armenia. Not unless they could do their own voiceover in half a dozen major markets. 

One of our program managers in Peace Corps is an Armenian with a PhD in English Literature. His dissertation discusses the role of the fools in the plays of William Shakespeare. Not only does he speak perfect English, he reads and analyzes Shakespeare in a language not his own. Stepan has not visited England and has yet to see a Fool on stage at the Globe or in Stratford on Avon. He spends his working life teaching (mainly) monolingual Americans like me how to fit in here in his homeland. Good job he knows what fools are for…

Belfast: Our happy new year. 

Purple floor length coat with tartan trim. Avoca— made in Ireland.  Nine pounds. Just reduced. War on Want charity shop,  open today so people can donate what they didn’t want for Christmas. The tag says Small. It isn’t. Good.  The Royal Ulster Academy exhibition. The mummy who used to scare me with her coconut hair and kindling fingers is no longer the only attraction at the museum.  Irish artists now dare to use colours beyond the dull, wet, damp end of the palette.  The painting I want, crooked houses and an oncoming storm in vivid blues and orange, is not for sale. Sausage soda for breakfast, cornflake and golden syrup tray bake to fill a wee gap, eat an apple to show willing later. ritaCocktails at Rita’s–shantung lampshades, paper parasols and velvet armchairs. A bucket of Bathtub gin in a building dark and derelict for years, the dead space between the most bombed hotel in the world and the BBC, where I used to work, when young. Archana curry (sauces better than the US, but not as good as Yorkshire.) Home for Port and Christmas Cake and a bottle cap of cherry linctus for my poor bad chest. A walk at Mount Stewart and a tour of the house where Lady Rose still lives. We want her stuff. And her view of the Lough.  Castlereagh, (a foreign secretary  I learned about at school), lived here. Stubbs painted somebody’s horse. They have dessert dishes to die for. B and F my BFF make Chinese food– garlic,ginger and chili in perfect proportion. Double wok action. Awristing. I read John Sergeant’s autobiography and watch the history of Graham Norton. They play cards and bicker and kiss. On Dec 31 we go to bed before midnight.  Belfast. It is bliss.

Sweet Sorrow

16k7012-300x300The Curly Wurly, thin in its wrapper, looked pliant and chewy, just like a real one. The Turkish delight, made in felt, had the flaccid appearance of the actual chocolate bar. The Sherbet dip’s stem stood at exactly the right length, and the Bassett allsorts man did his multi-coloured skip across the licorice-black of a packet with lumps and bumps in all the right places. The work of art called Sweet Sendsations was, for me, the star of the Koestler Trust We Are All Human exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall. The prisoner who made the sweetie stand must have asked for family and friends to bring her bags and bags and bars and bars of chocolate, so she could model exact replicas in felt, sewing on the brand and product names, exactly as they are in the sweet shop. The end result was a piece of craft work I covet–colourful, comfortably familiar, playful and brilliantly creative. Sadly it was not for sale.   I have no idea whether she created woollen pouches to wrap the real items (unlikely–they looked life size, not thicker) , or whether she used loo roll (middles and sheets), bread, match sticks, soap and other prison materials to craft the shapes she then covered in play school squares. I couldn’t touch the candy bars, because they were behind glass, but gosh I wanted to: temptingly tactile, they melted my heart.

I also liked the multi-media egg and potato fighting (£110 unframed), and the shark  made of painted matchsticks floating in a polystyrene cage. I was blown away by the tapestry featuring embroidered characters and quotes from Shakespeare, each figure curiously alive and individual in coloured cotton silk.  The Closure of Holloway painting made me laugh out loud. There was a writhing pile of women pictured in a cattle cart being driven from the prison–arms and legs flailing through the cage bars; a cartoon representation of being shuttled from prison pillar to post. Across the roof of the old jail, some women tripped lightly towards a long ladder, carrying musical instruments. They looked light as angels.

I first began to think of my own son, who has already spent too much time on the wrong side of a prison peephole, when I saw the collage of Tupac in tiny squares of monochrome paper; the painting of Eazy-E, defiant and alone; and the joyful, colourful exuberance of a marvellous portrait of Rosa Parks. I know he would love all three. I got a catch in my throat when I got to the prison poetry, pasted on the art gallery wall. I had a flashback to Tony’s notebooks, filled with fragments of song lyrics, and attempts to capture  in written words his feelings on things he could never say out loud. Some of the poems were funny–an ode to a choccy biccie, an imagined conversation with the Queen. Others talked of rain and sunlight and grass and air. Of love and loneliness and craving and despair. They were really good–worth reading.

I was agitated when I arrived at the Royal Festival Hall. The lighting and the signage is not good on the South Bank. The cobbles jarred my creaky knees. When I got inside the building, I was confused and disoriented. I joined a queue for sandwiches before I realised it wasn’t the ticket counter where I was to meet my friend.  In the loo, there was a long line of women, jiggling. My handbag was heavy with books and a laptop and the cloakroom wasn’t open. By the time I finished at the Koestler exhibition, I felt lighter, happier, wiser, and closer to my boy than I have in a long time. The exhibition, which is free, runs at the Royal Festival Hall in London until 13th November, 2016. You’ll be glad if you go.