This article was produced by The Calvert Journal in partnership with British Council
Despite the city’s ups-and-downs, the creative scene in Yerevan is thriving. Over the past five years, countless new spaces have opened their doors, from clubs to startups. The Calvert Journal spoke to the people behind five of the city’s revolutionary venues on fighting stereotypes, putting Armenia on the global map, and the challenges of transforming the capital’s identity.
Yerevan’s clubbing scene is booming, and Poligraf, the result of a ten-year-long passion project is in the eye of the storm — although it had to fight to get the local music scene to catch up with its pace. “Now, it’s not about electronic music anymore, just whatever is original content, and fits the standing up and dancing atmosphere in Poligraf,” co-founder of the venue Davit Sukiasyan tells The Calvert Journal. Two years ago, they swapped hidden location raves for a much more visible venue in the heart of downtown Yerevan.
“The first year was extremely difficult, both financially and emotionally. We had invested our personal savings into the project, and we were losing. No one wanted to come if local DJs were playing. No one wanted to pay for a ticket to support local talent. That was the scene’s biggest problem, but now it’s changing”.
Today, Poligraf is much more than a club and live music venue. At the heart of its mission is nurturing local talent. Last year, Poligraf opened Dprots (“school” in Armenian), an electronic music evening school with more than 60 graduates — some of whom are already trying out their sets at the club’s weekly nights. They are also planning to launch an events company, two record labels, and continue organising festivals. “A couple of years ago, the industry was dying. Everyone in Armenia was going into IT, because that is where the money is. Now, it is slowly changing; people feel more confident to pursue their passion, and there are more bands than ever on the scene,” explains Sukiasyan. “But we still need more. More venues have to open. Poligraf still doesn’t cater to all audiences, and there’s lots of space if you have a vision.” Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Poligraf has continued to grow. “In a way, this was great for Yerevan, because people have fewer plans, so now we have so many new regulars, and it’s so easy to plan nice and fun local line-ups,” says Sukiasyan.
Housed in an early 20th-century building in the heart of Yerevan, TUMO Studios does not hold on to the past — rather, it is set on reinventing the world of Armenian craftsmanship. One of the centre’s flagship projects, TUMO Studios, opened its doors in 2017 as a non-profit, educational program for young professionals interested in becoming artisans. “Armenia has a very strong tradition of craftsmanship, but it is not being passed down to the next generation because you can’t make a living from it. Everyone wants to learn how to code, but we need to encourage new generations to become craftspeople as well,” argues Maral Mikidirtsian, the Head of TUMO Studios.
The bright, loft-like atelier of TUMO Studios currently offers classes in jewellery, ceramics, fashion, and printmaking. First, students learn the technical ins and outs of the craft, and then unleash their creativity in design classes. “We want to foster a design culture rooted in the local context, but with contemporary aesthetics and functionality,” explains Mikidirtsian. “If you go to Vernissage [Yerevan’s flea market], you will find a hundred Ararat Mountain motifs, but they all look the same, and the symbol is reduced to an ethnic cliché. That’s because of the lack of design education. We want to elevate Armenian craftsmanship beyond souvenirs, make them useful and relevant for an international audience as well.” The ateliers’ students create their own products, and sell them through TUMO Studios’ international e-commerce platform, which destins all proceedings to expand their courses. The online shop features crafts ranging from Ararat-shaped rings and traditional print scarves with a twist, to colourful socks with pagan deities — all screaming Armenian heritage while still being functional and trendy.
While many have used the app PicsArt for its fun photo and video editing features and fantasy filters, few know that it has Armenian roots and is one of the companies driving the fast growth of the country’s IT sector. It’s been almost ten years since the company launched, with office hubs in both Yerevan and San Francisco. “The office was tiny back then, with fewer than ten people working on the project,” Madlene Minassian, Head of Corporate Affairs at PicsArt in Yerevan, tells The Calvert Journal. Besides those cities, PicsArt has since opened more branches around the world, but the Yerevan office remains the biggest. Today, out of their 700 employees worldwide, most of them are in Yerevan. “This city is such an important part of PicsArt’s story. Our founders are Armenian, and they met here. A large part of our Research & Development Team is in Yerevan and we are proud to host our global team here frequently, showing them the wonderful sights, sharing delicious meals, and enjoying the neverending pulse of Yerevan,” explains Minassian.
Armenia is emerging as a new technological hub. The IT sector has a consistent annual growth of over 27 per cent, and a turnover equal to seven per cent of the country’s GDP. Many hope that startups will turn the tide of Armenia’s post-war economic downturn. “We have really stayed true to our original mission: that everyone is born creative, and if we have the right tools, the inspiration, and a supportive community, then we can express and share the stories that bind us — and this is what we tried to do in Armenia, and what drove our success,” says Minassian. “I believe companies like PicsArt show the opportunity and talent that exists in Armenia, and we see more and more companies flocking here to meet and tap into this. We also are working to help lift the country’s IT sector along with us as we soar.”
Kooyrigs — or “sisters” in Armenian — is a non-profit success story showing how an online feminist space can evolve into an impactful offline movement. What started as a fundraiser for survivors of domestic violence in 2018 quickly evolved into a digital platform for spreading educational resources to women, supporting humanitarian causes in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.“Since day one, the creation of Armenian feminst content both sparked a fire and struck a nerve. As a result of our bold content, a digital community of like-minded Armenians naturally developed,” explains Karine Eurdekian, an Armenian-American and founder of Kooyrigs. “In Armenian, we have a word for shame: ‘amot’. In creating Kooyrigs, my goal was to demolish the shame for those who were ostracised for speaking their mind on human rights, sexual assault, domestic violence — judged for what they believed, and scrutinised for the way they choose to live their truth. Over the past few months, Kooyrigs has yielded an impact that was deemed impossible by our sexist critics.”
Today, Kooyrigs — who have just opened a physical office in Yerevan, and now has a solid in-country team — runs projects that range from online campaigns to amplify black, female, and other minority Armenian voices, to fundraising and delivering humanitarian aid. “After the Beirut blast last year, our team sprung into action to provide critical resources for people in Lebanon. When the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war began, we had already built a phenomenal network of suppliers for medication, food, and other aid items,” explains Eurdekian. “Our growth was the result of a few key elements: passion, pain, teamwork, and determination. As a feminist organisation that consistently received backlash from the community, Armenian government officials and diaspora groups never assumed that Kooyrigs would be the ones stocking the hospitals with life-saving medications for soldiers throughout the war. In the midst of all the devastation, I believe that this war truly heralded a new generation of leaders in our community. Nobody asked us to do such large-scale humanitarian work. But instead of waiting around or pointing fingers, we sprung into action — and, as a result, we have saved thousands of lives. When you know there are critical needs that are not being met, you either step up, or step out of the way. The latter was never considered an option for the Kooyrigs team.”
While famous for its traditional patterns, Armenian design is also modern and forward-thinking — and slowly making its way onto the international fashion market, with Armenian designers participating at the London Fashion Week for the first time in late 2020. One of the local fashion hubs behind the jump onto the global stage is 5Concept Store, a space for emerging fashion creatives to showcase their work. In 2016, 5Concept was opened by five young designers moved by the need to promote cooperation in a difficult industry.
“Armenia is a small country, so we have many problems in the fashion industry: production resources, the availability of raw materials, the accessibility of international markets, and others,” explains Irina Vanyan, the store’s creative director. “But despite this tricky situation, local designers managed to keep going, compensating with creativity.” Five years after its inauguration, 5Concept has expanded into a professional community that brings together photographers, models, and stylists. “The future for the Armenian fashion industry lies in the correct balance between arts, culture, and commerce. Shopping has transformed into a cultural event, and that will slowly make creativity financially sustainable.” Today, 5Concept sells the work of more than 70 designers — living up to their mission of giving local creatives a platform, while also helping them get their foot in the doors of the fashion business.
Yerevan’s literal stairway to heaven, the Cascade Complex, is where the city’s neon lights meet the starry sky against the faint silhouette of the mythical Mount Ararat. Anyone who has been to Yerevan knows that its steps and nearby outdoor cafes are a favourite hangout spot for local lovers and young people, especially in the summer. The interior of this dreamy, unusual building houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, a gallery dedicated to showcasing the best of Armenian contemporary art. Named after its principal benefactor, art collector Gerard L. Cafesjian, and rising above the skyline in Tamanyan Park, the Cafesjian Center for the Arts opened its doors and an outdoor sculpture garden in 2009, after seven years of construction works. Since its inauguration, it has hosted more than 60 exhibitions, featuring Cafesjian’s private collection, independent Armenian artists, and in collaboration with art institutions across the world.
“Armenian art has often been neglected on the international arts scene because of its inability to keep up with [global] pace, but that means that, just like the country’s identity, Armenian art has had the advantage of staying honest and genuine,” says Vahagn Marabyan, Cafesjian’s executive director. The centre’s mission also extends beyond art, hosting classical music concerts, a jazz, pop, rock, and folk music series called Music Cascade, and a myriad of educational and public programmes to bring art closer to their audience: the general Armenian public. While the war brought Cafesjian’s activities to a halt, Marabyan is hopeful that cultural life will thrive again soon. “Before the pandemic and the recent war, it was a pleasure to observe the variety of cultural events taking place in Yerevan and Armenia,” he explains. But hope is not enough, and the local scene needs to receive attention and funding from policymakers to make a name of itself internationally. “When will Armenian art reach a broader audience and have international recognition? It will all depend on the appropriate funding and support.”