Chant Avedissian’s return to a gallery marks the time for the artist to talk about our present and changes in our society.
The Egyptian-Armenian artist’s solo show “Transfer, Transport, Transit” runs through 27 May 2017 at Madrid’s Sabrina Amrani Gallery. Art Radar talks to the gallery owner and artist Chant Avedissian about his solo exhibition and the context from which the show has originated.
Between the 1980s and 1990s, Polish-Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman theorised the idea of “liquid modernity”, feeling the need to brand his contemporariness with a more updated label than the ‘post-modern’ one. The new idea defined radical changes in the dematerialisation of traditional forms of culture and relationships, alongside the failure of rationalisation to define the global population as a liquid mass characterised by nomadism, unable to strictly fit into a closed grid.
Chant Avedissian’s notions of transfer, transit and transport recall such concepts of movement and temporariness, which become ever more significant in light of the present occurrences. The increasingly monumental migratory flows, the new political shifts and alliances, and the digitally evolved forms of social relations push our globalised society to re-sketch the notions of identity, borders and relationship. In this regard, gallerist Sabrina Amrani revealed to Art Radar that
Chant Avedissian and I have not met personally yet. We have been correponding by email during many months, and these virtual encounters strangely gave us the opportunity to really listen to each other, to take the time to think and reply. This configuration paradoxically has to do with the reality of permeability of the borders one can cross or not, which is the essence of Avedissian’s work.
According to Antonio García Jiménez, Pilar Beltrán Orenes and Sonia Núñez Puente, Professors in the Department of Communication Sciences I at Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, today’s understanding of borders, and consequently, that of identity and relationship, are constantly and dramatically changing (PDF download):
Today, borders are more elastic than previously. Thanks to different networks, they reflect changes and become more flexible, with a localization that is no longer specific. They are situated in a process of continual movement across societies, forming part of a process of “re-bordering” more similar to social interactions, to forms of ethnic or religious identification or to economic processes. However, these new reconfigurations do not always lead to the border’s dissolution, but rather to its strengthening, resulting in forms of conflict. In any event, we are dealing with borders that are constantly crossed, that are in movement, and that are witnesses to thousands of migrations. Physical borders that can disappear to give way to cultural borders, in the form, for example, of “ghettos” for immigrants. Borders that will also create “borderlands”, with their own geographic, social, and political idiosyncrasy. Areas of periphery and transition that configure themselves depending on the degree of openness or closure on both sides.
Explaining to Art Radar the purpose of the exhibition in our current socio-political and cultural context, gallerist Sabrina Amrani states:
“Transfer, Transport, Transit” is about how each culture is unique, how they can influence one to another being singular at the time. And it comes in a moment where the world tends to be global but its individuals struggle with revindicating singular identity. So it fits in our gallery program as an ongoing conversation about the past, the present and the future.
In the exhibition “Transfer, Transport, Transit”, “transfer” comments on the act of passing from one to another, from one discipline to another, from an era to another, thus expressing the artist’s way of working across his multicultural identity, connecting past to present and breaking the borders between languages. “Transport implies movement across the borders of lands, kingdoms and countries”, as written in the press release, and reflects on the artist’s position straddling Western and Eastern culture, with his Middle Eastern origins resisting his Western-based education in France. Whereas “transit” immediately relates to transportation, thus confirming the idea of movement across time and space. The root ‘trans-‘ calls for a transitory passage from a state to another, mirroring the temporariness of our lives on earth.
The artist’s fascination with the idea of nomadism stems from his cross-cultural background rooted in North Africa and in the region of Armenia, which is, per se, between Asia and Europe. He reflects on movable and unmovable elements in one’s life, trespassing the boundaries of the known to push himself towards the dimension of reversal. As in Shadia Shirazi’s interview from 2008, when the artist was asked about the trompe l’oeil effect of his stencils, he answered:
It was not supposed to be like that. It ended up like a painting but what saved the situation is the scrolls that were supposed to remind you of the textile. The scrolls were done initially for a birthday party; you put it on the walls and afterwards take it off. You don’t live with the scrolls. Like people here when they have a wedding, they have this textile, which is printed now, but used to be textile, you put it up and then you take it off. This moving of the object is very important, like Chinese scrolls, or moveable screens. The Arab Bedouin culture, it’s magic because the whole thing ends up in a box. Your house can become a box. This is top architecture. So this concept of movement, it’s very important to show, because we are dying in our tombs, which are these unmovable houses we live in. We can’t move the walls, but imagine you’re in a house and you can move the walls, it’s beyond… So, where are the real questions?
Deeply influenced by the prominent Egyptian urbanist, mostly known as the “Architect of the Poor”, Hassan Fathy, are Avedissian’s gouaches and stencils with indigenous traditional patterns, tones and images representing culturally specific languages. They are not fragments, but “one piece”, as the artist tells Art Radar, “Or one message, in multiple pieces. It’s a harmonious work, the pieces make sense together.” Amrani expands saying that
The exhibition is a journey through the career of the artist, through his inspirations and motivations, the motives, patterns and designs that recurrently appear along his more than 30 years of practice. The show aims to draw the paths that led Chant Avedissian’s practice, his fascination with the ‘Artisanat’, his respect of the ‘materia’, or his inspiration to architecture. Chant built this body of work as an architect, he thinks about the whole and how each piece, each element connects and interacts with each other.
Assisting Fathy with photography, Avedissian developed a great interest in the notion of archive – a place for memory, for both recording and preserving all work produced. The artist’s multi-coloured hand-painted gouaches on paper and stencils made directly on the surface of walls, embellishing the white gallery space, function as the artist’s modes to give the ephemeral dimension of time a concrete and tangible form.
The ancient silk route, as mentioned in the show, becomes relevant here not just for its geographical and commercial history, indeed it is the symbol of the artist’ life-long research and relationship with diverse cultures, which are sometimes difficult to connect. Avedissian’s journey along this trail transforms each landmark in a composition of stencils on corrugated paper, sharing a vibrant palette of sienna, dark turquoise, magenta, gold yellow and blue. They unfold in decorative patterns, which remind of finest examples of Ottoman textile art from the 16th century one may see in the Turkish Topkapi Palace, such as the B4 – Tashkent caftan spiral pattern in blue, 6 orange circles (2016). Some resemble round geometries and whirling flowers and leaves adorning the volta of Bukhara’s Abdul Aziz madrassah, or the traditional hand-embroidered textiles from Uzbekistan as in B5 – 3 red circles on blue background, 4 Bukhara floral patterns (2016).
As the press release explains, “as a meticulous scientist, or paleontologist, the artist has condensed history with his filter, in the form of stencils: the best artistic tool he finds to continue replicating DNA series.” Avedissian’s exhibited works are not about painting, as one may wrongly perceive them at a first glance. While the manual gesture is kept alive, the stencil-making drags the artist into the handcrafting dimension, giving him the control to reiterate the hand movement and create from it infinite copies. Similarly to architecture that documents, preserves and archives projects, Avedissian works with a methodical collection of images and patterns. His own compositions keep track of life experiences, memories, travels and encounters, thus recounting life through the artist’ eyes.
The artist’ attitude for replica revolves around the recovery of the past, his own as an Egyptian-Armenian man. His compositions come from an infinite process of copying, in the attempt to back up what existed and rescue it from oblivion.
Avedissian depicts the past by taking decorations from traditional ancient Egyptian figures of sacred animals and people showing a profile view in red, blue, green and gold. Modern effigies of deities such as Anubis (the sacred Egyptian canine associated with afterlife), Sobek (the Nile crocodile connected with military bravery) and the bees believed to come from God Ra, precious in both medicine and cuisine, populate the gallery space, along with images of hunting – symbol of war and military power – and lotus flowers standing for creation and life. Avedissian draws these subjects from the glorious art of ancient Egypt to compose a sharp narrative about our present, by highlighting topics which are still relevant nowadays, thus emphasising the way our future is still profoundly connected with history and necessarily builds upon our past.
Besides identity, the relationship between West and East, and between tradition and modernity are at stake in the exhibition. Investigating the field of cultural production from the Arab world, Syrian architect Wael Samhouri in Professor Dr Josep Luis Mateo’s Middle East. Landscape, City, Architecture (2013), argues that
It is unfortunate that the European perspective of Middle East architecture and culture, in general, is formed by either common, “popular” books and movies; the exotic Arabian Nights and early Hollywood depictions of Scheherazade and Ali Baba, or more “serious”, albeit prejudiced, writing of the Orientalists, both if which contain rather gross generalizations that are not only subjective but misleading of the reader or viewer.
With a privileged position of a man and an artist having lived outside of and within the Western and Eastern world, when questioned about the best way to understand culture in the Middle East, Avedissian replied thus:
This is a complex question, and I have no answer. It is obvious that military power and culture are symbiotic. And money is the third side of the triangle, as powerful as history and politics. The “east” needs to put in practice a liberal visionary politics that allows individual creativity to bloom. Yet hundreds of countries still have ministries of cultures functioning on the Stalinist totalitarian model.
There is no formula to best understand culture in the Middle East. Western countries which sell armaments to all kinds of dictators and embark on never ending wars under different names also hold African music festivals, festivals of Arab painting, Mongolian horse festival weeks, weeks of Vietnamese dance… It goes on and on. The relation is not equal. Even with exceptionally rich Arab countries, with their great love for soccer, relations are not equal.
I guess first the “east” has to develop self respect, stop their Stalinist way of dealing with culture and by extension with their citizens, liberate writers and artists from jails and torture chambers and stop promoting intolerance. And western politicians could start learning some self respect too, and stop their empty talk about human rights.
According to the artist’s vision, there are countries producing culture and others that consume it. Belonging to the two categories varies upon the nation’s degree of freedom, respect for its own population and cultural development. As an example, Avedissian acknowledges Japan’s minimalism among those most conscious and sophisticated forms of expression. His thought on the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art reads thus:
[…] with age, I came to the point, where anything that is not traditional Japanese, or close to its spirit, is pure barbarism. The simplicity and minimalism of the ‘way’ suits my sense of beauty perfectly, […] through this I came to appreciate more the Arab values of desert life and the nonpermanent manners of the tent dwellers, whose custom and manners in furniture (or non furniture) are so close to the Japanese.
When Art Radar asked Avedissian to further expand on his statement, he replied:
This was exaggerated, an overstatement, possibly a reaction to the context – American – of the show. There was Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Second World War, reconstruction and Japan’s return to the international scene with a vengeance. What I wanted to emphasise is the aggressive cultural policy that the Japanese adopted, which is a product of their self respect and confidence in their history and architectural heritage.
The Middle East, today, despite spending billions, remains a consumer society, rather than a producer. These are national political issues, and as I said before Stalinist bureaucratic cultural institutions cannot help foster a future vision where there is no interrogation of creative freedom.
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