Can contemporary art heal wartime trauma? Meet the curator fighting for culture in Nagorno-Karabakh

Yerevan-based art curator Anna Kamay always believed in the power of art to change the world. Now, she has launched the first international contemporary arts festival in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

3 December 2019

In 2015, the citizens of Yerevan took to the streets to protest a 17 per cent hike to their electricity bills. After weeks of round-the-clock demonstrations, mass rallies, and peaceful sit-ins, the government backed down on the planned price rise. For art curator Anna Kamay, this small victory heralded a new spark of change in Armenia. She left an empty seat in a return flight to Morocco, where she was living at the time, and stayed instead to take part in Armenia’s political, social, and cultural revolution.

“I’m like a Trojan horse,” Kamay tells me over lunch at Zaatar Pizza, a Syrian-Armenian restaurant in the centre of Yerevan. “I have curated multiple art projects: some big, some small, but always implicitly tackling social issues. This is what’s crucial to me as a curator. I feel a social responsibility towards whatever is happening in my surroundings.”

“I believe that politics and diplomacy haven’t changed anything in the past 30 years. The only way to bring about dialogue is through contemporary art”

Since then, Kamay has curated dozens of exhibitions both abroad and at home, where she collaborates with the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and manages the Nest Artist Residency. All have tackled some of Armenia’s greatest social questions. “What is Armenia?” she asks me. “Closed borders, conflicts, labour migration, sex-selective abortion… I have been working as a producer with directors and photographers to bring these stories out.”

But Artsakh Fest has marked a greater test. Nagorno-Karabakh — known to Armenians as Artsakh — is disputed territory. For more than two decades, the landlocked mountainous region has been the centre of a territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is one of the longest and little-known running conflicts in the former Soviet Union, killing 30,000 people and displacing millions more between its outbreak in 1988 and a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994. Violence has flared up as recently as 2016, with ongoing border clashes still causing casualties.

Kamay only began exploring the region for a project on collective memory and the Armenians and Azeris who lived together before the conflict. But it was there that she stumbled across the Vahram Papazian Drama Theatre, once known as the “Beauty of Stepanakert” — Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital city.

Image: The Vahram Papazian Drama Theatre, once known as the “Beauty of Stepanakert”

The theatre once welcomed crowds who perched on a sea of red velvet seats beneath the grandiose 20-bulb chandelier. Today, there is no stage, because the wood has been used to repair other buildings. Light fittings hang above the dusty stalls, surrounded by chipped pastel-green paint and peeling wallpaper.

It was the sight that spurred Kamay into action. In partnership with the ICA in Yerevan, she began to plan a new beginning for the theatre: as home to Artsakh Fest, Nagorno-Karabakh’s first contemporary international arts festival.

“People would attend the same performances over and over again, just to socialise. Even during war time, the local theatre company still staged comedies to cheer up the people,” Kamay tells me. “Today, there are still 100,000 people living in Stepanakert, but there is nothing happening there.”

Image: The Vahram Papazian Drama Theatre
Images: Kshots by Tina Chakarian

Kamay was set not only on bringing the theatre back to life, but filling it with art that would tackle the region’s wartime trauma. When the inaugural Artsakh Fest took place over three days in October 2018, as can be seen in Willi Andrick’s documentary, artists from across the world came to attend film screenings, workshops, and interactive performances based around the themes of peace. For Kamay, art is a weapon she believes can make real inroads where other forms of conflict resolution have failed.

“If you are in the area affected by the longest frozen conflict in the post-Soviet space, there is no way you can avoid it. All the art displayed in the festival, one way or another, dealt with conflict,” she tells me. “I believe that politics and diplomacy haven’t changed anything in the past 30 years. There is no progress; there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We can’t even see the tunnel. The only way to bring about dialogue is through contemporary art.”

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But not everyone was keen to embrace the festival’s ethos. Initially, the local authorities refused to give electricity supply to the theatre for the festival. Funding has also proven a major obstacle. The region has recently seen an increase in foreign investments, but only for economic and social projects. Diaspora donors, meanwhile, also struggle to see the arts as a priority. “When it comes to building churches, the diaspora is up for it,” Kamay says. “They invested in building four big crosses that light up at night on a hill near Stepanakert. They are so proud of it, even if it is uses up so many resources. The miracle of this festival is that it is completely grassroots.”

But even Kamay admits that some of the festival’s projects may have benefited from flying under the radar.

“I told the local authorities that the main aim of the festival was to preserve their heritage and overcome the isolation of the region through contemporary art, but I didn’t tell them what I was actually planning to do because they never would have allowed me,” she says.

Those plans included Anush Ghukasyan’s phallic sculptures and Davit Kochunts’ pornographic paintings. Other, less risqué additions included Robert Askarian’s theatre performance on the building’s non-existent stage, and Laura Arena’s Learning How to Fly, a installation of paper planes that invited participants to write a note to those who used to walk the halls of the theatre in a bid to reconnect and regenerate the community’s history.

Each of the artworks had their own take on this year’s festival’s theme, Women in Conflict. (“The intention was to shine a light on the militarised and patriarchal structures that govern the region today,” Anna explains. “In Armenian, there is a masculine and a feminine word for beauty. The one used for the theatre is the feminine version, the theatre is like a female for them. They consider it the ‘Beauty of Stepanakert’, but it is crumbling down. It is the same for women, who do not receive any credit.”

Image: Artwork by Anush Ghukasyan in the The Vahram Papazian Drama Theatre

Despite the difficulties, Kamay believes that the festival was worth the strain. Older generations, she says, were particularly touched, and often drawn to share stories of their own past, when Armenians and Azeris lived together peacefully before the war.

But it’s challenging modern mindsets that Kamay finds most rewarding. “We had artists from Poland and from Germany. They were two friends, Nina Scholz and Agnieszka Dragon. When the locals saw them laughing together, they asked me, ‘How are these people talking to each other? Aren’t they enemies, you know, from the Second World War?’. They think that once you are the enemy, you always stay the enemy.”

Kamay has now launched an open call for the organisation of the 2020 festival, aiming her efforts at the region’s young people, who she calls the area’s “only hope”. In the meantime, she hopes that people will begin to rethink how nations really can begin to rebuild after war.

“No matter how many houses you give to people or how many subsidies, they are still going to consider leaving unless they develop an emotional connection to the place,” she says. “They need a community where they belong.”

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