1238) Notes from an Armenian artist on his first time visit of Turkey

Thought this letter from an Armenian artist who went to Turkey for the first time might interest you. Feel free to circulate or respond to him directly. best,

Neery Melkonian
550 Grand St. # J-5 -D New York,
NY 10002 212,
842-4868 Ph

Dear friends, patrons, sponsors, and supporters:

I thank you wholeheartedly for helping me take my recent journey to Turkey, and I am grateful to all my new friends in Turkey for welcoming me with open arms.

I am back in Stanfordville for the winter, after a five-week sojourn in Istanbul, Capadocia, Anatolia, Kars, and Ani. The trip was a profound revelation, as it helped me see things in a fresh light, along a broad horizon of possibilities for mutual understanding and collaboration. . . . . The trip also resulted in four concrete projects: an art exhibition in Istanbul this coming January, a joint exhibition with a Turkish sculptor from Istanbul, a monument of friendship planned to be built in Ani, and taking on apprentices in Kars.

My arrival in Kars coincided with an extraordinary international festival. Now in its third year, it brought together people from Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgian, the United States, and elsewhere, to discuss ways of fostering cross-border collaboration. The festival was attended by government officials as well as intellectuals, artists, ecologists, agriculturalists, archeologists, and tourism advisors. The event included a flurry of conferences and exhibitions, all of which brought to the fore a wealth of ideas and visions.

In one of the night concerts, Arto Tunçboyaciyan and his Armenian Navy Band played nonstop for two hours for an audience of some 10,000. As the music kicked in, youngsters were waving their supple hands. By the tenth minute, everybody was up and dancing. Ten thousand Turkish citizens from the ages of one to 90, dancing. I had never imagined that an Armenian artist singing Armenian songs could elicit a response of such brotherly humanity. I was in a sea of Turks dancing to Armenian tunes. What joy! My eyes were full of tears. Bravo Arto, Bravo mayor Naif.

Here’s a recommendation to Diasporans like myself, who sometimes in the United States feel so alienated by an environment that has no awareness of the “other”’s past: in the future, when that feeling arises and you are indignant at the ignorance you are surrounded with, go to Istanbul, get yourself a guide, and let them take you to all the structures, including bridges, palaces, mosques, hamams, hospitals, and schools, that were built by Armenian architects. You will be told their names and family lineage. The Balians, for many generations, were the official Ottoman architects. You will be told about Sinan the Magnificent, who built over 350 structures, among them a bridge, a mosque, and a public bath. I visited many of Sinan’s buildings. Getting a bath and a massage in his hamam was an out-of-this-world experience. I found myself getting the royal treatment in a beautiful, white-marbled sanctuary, with acoustics reminiscent of Armenia’s Geghard Monastery. Incidentally, I did not have to hire a guide. Just about everywhere in Turkey, when you tell someone you’re an Armenian, they will be only too happy to point out structures built by Armenians. It felt good to meet Turks from all walks of life. Whenever I introduced myself as an American artist of Armenian descent, there was a sudden respect, because I was perceived as someone from a creative culture that has helped in the evolution of Turkish culture.

Whatever discipline I discussed with Turks, I was reminded of Armenians who had contributed to that field in Turkey. I learned, for instance, that Turkish theater was founded by a director and writer called Hagop, in the 18th century. He translated European classics, including Shakespeare, into Turkish, and had a troupe that played all over the Ottoman Empire. Hagop actually had a decree from the sultan to the effect that no one else could have a theater group in the whole of the empire.

The gift shops of most of the museums I visited (Islamic, Arabic, Calligraphic, Ethnographic) stocked a two-volume book on Armenian painters of the Ottoman era.

At one of these museums, I saw a large, strikingly beautiful, framed page of calligraphy, full of gold leafing. It was a decree from a sultan, granting a land and a certain amount of money for the construction of an Armenian church. The text concluded with the sultan’s insignia and Allah’s blessings. Istanbul is brimming with Armenian life. There is a whole Island, called Knali Ada, some half hour by boat, full of Armenians. Everyone I spoke to has an Armenian neighbor and/or friend, from school, from work, and they all speak well of them.

I had planned to go to Van and drive up to Kars, going around Mt. Ararat. But I was told the road from Van to Kars had become too dangerous because of PKK bomb attacks. One day, 20 minutes after Helen (my life companion who supported and helped in the realization of getting us to Turkey) and I left a beach in Antalya, a bomb had gone off, hurting many English tourists. The day before I was to leave for Kars, another bomb had killed 11 in Dyarbekir, which isn’t far from Van. So I decided to fly directly to Kars.

Azra, a friend of Deniz (more about her later), accompanied me. She was my translator, confidant, a soul searcher, and a soul sister.

Upon arrival at Kars Airport, a bit frazzled, not having any ideas as to where to go, given we still did not have a hotel reservation, Osman approached us. Assuming we were delegates, he asked us to follow him to a waiting bus. We did. I am still benefiting from his guidance.

Osman was a blessing. He turned out to be the main contact to the Mayor of Kars and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he will present my proposal for a “Crossing Borders” monument near Ani.

The Ani project took root during a dinner gathering in Kars, where I met the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy. He is working on a splendid monument depicting two figures, one of whom is extending a hand in friendship to the other. The work will be 30 meters high, towering over a cliff and large enough to be seen from Armenia. It was Mehmet who suggested I approach the mayor with a proposal. So was born the idea of a sculpture with the theme

“ Quaternary Tools: A Bridge for Crossing Borders.”
The man who has brought us all around the sculpture project is the Mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoglu. I was fascinated by his speeches, his smooth way of dealing with other officials, his honest smile of approval when answering to his associates, a respect to his life’s companion and daughter, plus his posture when he gave a calm, short speech about a problem that Azeris and Armenians had in their hotel. The mayor had solved the issue by moving the Azeris to another hotel. The indignant Azeris had taken the next plane out of the country. Wow! I imagine the mayor is going to hear it from Ankara. But he is strong. He has a good following and a vision that is powerful, because in its heart it has the good of humanity, and his medium is the arts. His vision of peace and prosperity in the Caucasus was welcomed by everyone.

I was introduced to Noyan, who calls himself Noyan Daban (a humorous turn on the Armenian phrase for Noah’s Arc). Noyan is involved with the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council. Established simultaneously in Istanbul and Yerevan in 1997, the council is the first and only official link between the public and private sectors of Armenia and Turkey. Noyan will be instrumental in securing Armenian and Turkish business support for the realization of the Ani project.

I also met Stefaan from the Global heritage Fund, which is dedicated to preserving humankind’s endangered global heritages in developing countries. The organization is involved in the rehabilitation of Kars and Ani. Stefaan, too, was excited about the prospect of building a sculpture outside Ani.

A Surprise! High above near Ani’s main gate, at some 100 feet, there is a quaternary symbol, carved in tuf stone of two different colors. The quaternary has been a symbol of creation in the Caucasus for some six millennia. It appears in the caves of Ughtasar and Sissian, in Armenia. It is still woven as a symbol of eternity into carpets made in Karabagh; and

in Ani, it has been the common symbol of the many cultures, including Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks, that have been reshaping Ani in the last 4,000 years.

For all those interested in real estate ventures, the word on the street, as told to us by our driver on our way from Kars to Ani, is that all the lands around Ani are being bought by local Jewish frontmen, with British and Jewish money, to turn the area into a tourist resort.

To me, however, a far more interesting fact about Ani was the sight of people scouring the ancient ruins, as though they were looking for artifacts. Actually, what they sought was an indigenous plant that is believed to bring good luck, just like the shamrock of the Irish. We also came across an old woman who had a bundle of the plant under her arms.

When we asked her why she needed the plant in such large quantities when just one would do the trick, she said she is a medicine woman who uses it to heal nervous disorders and headaches. She added that in addition to its powerful healing properties, the plant is good for burning as incense in homes, in order to cleanse one’s soul.

I found that most Turks have no respect for Armenia as a power to be contended with. As far as they’re concerned, Armenia is a Russian-run mafia state, hopelessly broken as its best minds and talents live abroad. The Turks don’t consider Armenia a threat. Rather, it is the Diaspora and its global scale that they respect. Almost every day, the local English-language paper has a story or two about the Armenians (Genocide, Dink, EU membership prospects, etc.)

In the evenings, the bustle at the lobby of our Kars hotel was like a caravansary of old, with groups of people huddled around tables and talking excitedly, and video machines recording nonstop. It was crossing-borders heaven. Suddenly, from across the room, I hear my name, “Kardash!” There I am in the midst of some 50 people, in Kars, being called “brother” in Turkish by Turkish people.

Arto must have felt good the night of his concert. I felt just as good, standing there and being called “brother” as we discussed issues like the Turkish government’s denial of Ani’s Armenian past (in the tourist information at the entrance of the city); human rights; 301; and freedom of speech, especially as it related to the upcoming trial of the novelist Elif Shafak on charges of “insulting the Turkish identity.”

Karen, a photographer from Yerevan who is exhibiting his works at the festival, is hunched over his laptop, showing photographs from an upcoming exhibition in Yerevan. The exhibition will feature the works of ten photographers: five Armenians who had have spent a week documenting life in Turkey, and as many Turkish photographers who have done the same in Armenia. Except for a few specifics like a circumcision documented by an Armenian photographer, or an Armenian wedding shot by a Turkish photographer, one couldn’t tell the Armenian and Turkish subjects apart. Judging from the similar images, clothing, architecture, and lifestyles, where was the border that separated them?

At a corner table, Osman introduced me to an archeologist who had worked in Ani. When Osman told her about my proposal, she mentioned that there was a plan to build a guest house outside Ani, and that my sculpture could be a part of that project. She said the Cold War was a blessing for Ani, because as the area was a military zone and people were not allowed there, the city was saved from abuse and graffiti.

In conversation, someone mentioned that the government had resolved to have only Turkish artists design monuments in Turkey. To which I replied, “What constitutes Turkishness?” and I continued with a smile, “Shouldn’t I be considered a Turkish citizen since both my mother and father were born in Turkey?” They all laughed.

My proposed Ani sculpture will be some 20 feet high, to be erected near the entrance of the city. It will represent the four Tools: two forming a bridge for crossing (between cultures); one representing the Arax River, which flows between the two borders; and the fourth reaching out to the sky. In the background, there will be Ararat to the right, Arakadz to the left, and Ani in the middle. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would underwrite half the cost of the project, funding the construction and materials, and I’ll have to raise the other half, primarily from friends and supporters in the Diaspora.

While working on the sculpture (three months each year, for two years) I’ll be given a workshop and space in which to train some seven apprentices from nearby cities such as Dyarbekir, Ardahan, Igdir, and Van. Funds for this component of the project will be raised in Istanbul by friends through corporate support, as well as from the proceeds of my upcoming Istanbul exhibition in January. Entitled “Quaternary Poems from Istanbul,” the exhibition will feature drawings of quaternary Tools that were influenced by Arabic calligraphy.

Upon my return to Istanbul, I was introduced by Umit, my special connection to Turkey’s soul and a translator par excellence of languages and minds, to his sculptor friend Cemil. Both a sensualist and an empiricist, Cemil was as averse to two-dimensionality as I was. He said, “Do you know what I would do to Duchamp’s ‘Urinal?’ I would piss in it.” So would I. Cemil knew Kathryn, from the American Embassy’s Cultural Attaché office. After Umit and Cemil introduced me to her, we discussed the possibility of having a joint exhibition, American-Turkish, with the embassy sponsoring it. We are currently working on this project.

I have returned home full of enthusiasm and a clear sense of purpose, feeling that a beautiful vision has been realized.

In a great biography of Kemal Ataturk, I read that he used to visit schools and ask students to explain five words: reform, revolution, rebellion, revolt, insurrection. I wonder what words he would choose today: activism? Defiance? Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience? Deconstruction? Evolution?

I’ll take his word “reform,” or the modern “activism.” I think Turkey’s adoption of the Latin alphabet at the time was a necessity, just like many of the reforms introduced by Ataturk. I also believe that Turkey must continue to evolve and reform, in step with a society questing for universal excellence.

Within Turkey’s ongoing evolution, I think there would be room for a rediscovery of Arabic calligraphy, as a highly flexible medium for cultural transference. Arabic calligraphy, which predates Islam, was embraced by Islam and made the richer through astrology, algebra, and poetry. My upcoming exhibition in Istanbul will feature drawings of my Quaternary Tools with a novel twist, manifesting an evolution through Arabic calligraphy into a universal form.

I started making sketches for the exhibition while I was in Turkey, and since then I have made from them some 20 large drawings.

It was Deniz who stirred my renewed awareness of Arabic calligraphy. Deniz, a beautiful Turkess who lives in Istanbul, whom I have been friends with since 1991. It was she who directed and produced a film of my installation “Crossing Borders/Way of the Cross.” She took us to visit the Museum of Calligraphy, which was once the residence of six brothers whose father was an attal (street porter). Today they have become as rich as the Rockefellers, sharing some of their wealth in support of cultural endeavors. The museum is actually reminiscent of the Rockefeller estate on the Hudson, with sculptures gracing the property’s manicured grounds.

Finally, I met Tan, Deniz’s seven-year-old son, who calls me amjah – “uncle” in Turkish. Now I am called by two Turkish names: Kardash by grown-ups, and amjah by children.

How joyful for me. It must be that good-luck plant from Ani.

Good luck to you, too, from Ani and beyond


Forwarded to us by Ara Baliozian

See the Related article from the Economist


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