Creating New Cultural Scripts

Armenian International Magazine (AIM), Vol. 12, Issue 3, April 2001, pp. pp. 31, 32, 35

Creating New Cultural Scripts
Ancient Techniques for Modern Expression in a New Bulgaria

By Hratch Tchilingirian

In 1997, a collection of more than 150 works of Bulgarian-Armenian artists was exhibited for the first time under one roof. The 50 artists featured (13 women) in the exhibit included those who had come to Bulgaria as refugees, such as Tbilisi-born Grigori Agaronian (1896-1978), Trabizon-born Kamer Medzadurian (1908-1987), and Swiss-born Carl Shahveledian (1898-1953), and Bulgaria-born artists, among them Araksi Karagiosian (b. 1896), Diran Sarkisian (1894-1970), Ovagim Ovagimian (b. 1908), Hilda Haritinova (1908-1990) and a host of contemporary painters and sculptors.

“Armenian creative work in Bulgaria is connected with Armenian emigration,” writes curator Adelina Fileva in the forward of “Armenian Artists in Bulgaria 1987-1997,” published on the occasion of the exhibit. “Far away from Armenia and Armenian reality, they live with faithful memories, with the story about their past, with the experienced legend and a subconscious nostalgia,” continues Fileva. This yearning of the artists “is expressed in emblematic, symbolic images, themes, and plots about the unattainable Ararat, the emerald lake Sevan, the majestic and sacred shines of Ejmiadsin, with the traceries of the stone crosses, with the alphabet of Mesrob Mashtots, with the images of the wars for freedom of General Andranik and General Garekin Njdeh.”

Three of the artists whose work appeared in this first-ever ambitious exhibition (organized by the AGBU Sofia Chapter and sponsored jointly by the Sofia City Art Gallery, the Soros Foundation and shown in Sofia, Rousse, Varna and Plovdiv) continue to explore new "artistic discourses" that create connections with universal social and cultural questions.

Multicultural art

“Through my paintings I try to give some sense of the East,” says Varna-born artist Krikor Sarkissian, 38. “The motifs in my paintings are both from the Far and the Middle East. Living in the West, in Europe, I look to the East and try to bridge the two. In the West, we’ve lost much of our philosophy of life and there’s much we can learn from the East and be enriched by it,” explains Sarkissian, who has studied Eastern cultures and philosophies extensively.

The only son of a Bulgarian mother and an Armenian father, he grew up speaking Bulgarian at home, but spoke Armenian with his grandparents, who came to Varna from Gemlik, Turkey after the Genocide.

“When I was growing up my grandmother used to weave carpets with different motifs, for home use and to give them as gifts. I grew up with these images. My early memory of these images and colors are reflected in my paintings as well. Later on I studied Armenian kilims and carpets from Cappadocia and Anatolia,” says Sarkissian, in reference to the Armenian roots of his paintings.

“I want to express the passing of time, and that, ultimately, culture is universal not particularistic," explains Sarkissian, adding that he experiments with different materials and loves using various media which give a sense of time.

“I do commercial art as well,” he adds, “to make a living. The income helps me do what I really want to do.” Sarkissian did the paintings for Hollywood's adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Varieties of Madness.” His cartoons and drawings are regularly featured in Metrapolis magazine, a Bulgarian glossy, lifestyle monthly.

But Sarkissian’s artistic passion remains his attempt to create "a new script for a new discourse on culture, universal culture.”

Commercial and Artistic success

“Silk is my monopoly,” say a confident Garo Mouradian, 44. On his 40th birthday his silk paintings were exhibited in Brussels and Vienna.

You need special paint for silk and you cannot make mistakes” he explains. “Oil-based paints have ‘mechanical’ connection with the canvas, but silk has chemical link, and that is why it could last for thousands of years and preserve the vibrancy of the colors. This is a very interesting technology that has been used for thousands of years.” He explains that working with silk also affects the composition of a painting, “because light reflects differently on silk than on canvas and has a different texture and look.”

While quite successful with silk paintings, he adds that generally oil paintings “are more popular.”

The influence of Martiros Saryan is apparent in Mouradian's paintings.

“The color temperament in my works is Armenian,” he affirms.

Mouradian, also teacher at the Sofia Art College, sees the affects of a free market on artists. "Today, you have to appreciate art. If you're not educated and literate, you don't pay even $5 to something they cannot eat."

A master craftsman

Ecological and environmental themes and concerns are predominant in the work of Onnik Karanfilian, 37. Faith is another dominant subject in Karanfilian’s art, who also donates his work for charitable causes. Religious symbols and images of Christ are common in his series on faith.

“I want to express how I feel in my heart and with my eyes,” he explains.
“I present metaphors that make the onlooker think, ask questions. He adds that graphic art is one of “the most intelligent forms of art because you can express and present so many themes at the same time. Oil is emotional, graphic art is intellectual. Graphic art allows you to contemplate. And unlike ‘traditional art’, you can mass-produce it."

Karanfilian’s who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia in 1994, has seen his works displayed at such prestigious venues as the Osaka Triennale and the Sapporo International Print Biennale Exhibition, both in Japan.

Unlike many of his generation in Bulgaria, he speaks fluent Armenian. And Armenian letters appear here and there in his creations. Indeed, Karanfilian's creations present a modern version of “manuscript making” where memory, thought and message are presented and preserved for posterity. Like ancient scribes, Karanfilian says, “You need to know about printing techniques and art techniques,” to create in this medium.

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