In this context, organizations like Sarine Hayiryan’s have come to play a crucial role in keeping Karabakh’s cultural life afloat. It’s no coincidence that Stepanakert’s only Vernissage, where local artists sell their wares, is located directly next to the Roots Life Center, which frequently organizes exhibitions of local artists’ work.
No less important is the National Armenian Cultural Center, also based in Stepanakert. “We mostly focus on helping young artists from rural areas, especially in borderline villages,” explains its director Hermine Avagyan. “We try to find new talent and make cultural life more active, using our networking and financial means to exhibit young artists’ works in Karabakh, Armenia, and also abroad. We show Karabakh to the world through the works of its artists,” she continues, adding that the center is soon holding an exhibition in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
But whatever the efforts of the state or resourceful citizens, it’s hard to make a living as an artist here. Today, Satenik and Serob’s total annual income is just 190,000 Armenian dram (less than $400.) Meanwhile, the two-room apartment the couple have rented for six months in Shushi, for which they pay 40,000 dram (around $82) does not have even a corner for creative work.
Instead, their art is spread everywhere around their modest home. Next to Satenik’s sketches on the dining room wall hang the first artistic efforts of their five year old son Hayk. Beneath them crawls their youngest son Mihran, who is two and a half.
Hayiryan says that she is a fashion designer first and foremost, and then a painter.
“Everything started with a small collection of clothes called ‘Paradise Garden’. I decorated them with bird-like figures common in Armenian manuscripts,” says Satenik.
Over the years Satenik has managed to build up a handful of loyal clients who periodically order designer clothes from her.
Satenik’s horizons need not end at Karabakh’s unrecognised borders. However, while Satenik could theoretically sell her designs abroad over the internet, she says that financial problems and technical issues force her to turn down international orders, including those from the Armenian diaspora.
“I would love to have a small team and be able to supply a certain volume of designer clothing, especially as I see the demand is increasing,” says Satenik.
“Very few people understand my style, and of course one can’t earn a living on [design] alone. I also teach pottery and art at the Arsen Khachatryan State Humanitarian college and Shushi art school,” says Satenik.
At first glance this college in the city of Shushi isn’t much to look at. Only one three-storey building is in use now. Only the walls remain from the other two buildings, both overgrown by weeds. Much of Shushi has met the same fate; during the war years from 1991 to 1994, many of the city’s houses were either bombed or burnt out.
Serob has been teaching pottery classes here for five years.
He started to experiment with pottery in 2012, while he was still a student at the art department of Artsakh State University. There were very few professional ceramists in Karabakh back then and the situation has hardly changed despite Serob’s best efforts.
“Unfortunately not many people are interested in pottery. Most of my students would prefer to earn a living as laborers rather than potters,” he sighs.
The walls of this classroom are decorated with the creations of Serob’s students from years past. Its windows offer a wonderful view of the 19th century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, one of the few buildings in Shushi which emerged from the war unscathed.
Serob doesn’t make anything here himself. “I don’t have my separate workshop. I mostly work at the Naregatsi Art Institute in Shushi. I’ve taught children pottery there for two years,” he explains.
“Last summer the head of Shushi’s Naregatsi Art Institute of Shushi Hayk Papyan and I initiated the first ‘Potter Art’ annual symposium in which over ten artists from Karabakh and different cities in Armenia participated,” said Serob. “This is our way of developing pottery in Nagorno-Karabakh and making Karabakh known across the world. This year the symposium will be international.”
Satenik’s art is also going places, and with it, she hopes, a small slice of Karabakh. At the end of this month, one of the largest galleries in Beirut will host the Artsakh In My Hand exhibition, organized by the National Armenian Cultural Center. The event features the work of 14 female artists from Karabakh, including Satenik’s fashion collection.
“The new collection will include elements of Armenian ornaments and miniature painting. This time I will do my best to match it to the taste of diaspora Armenians,” explains Satenik. “I already have a general idea; I’m currently working on the details and choosing clothing samples. It’s a good opportunity to present my art outside Karabakh and outside Armenia,” Satenik adds.
The spectre of the Four Day War, as the armed clashes in April 2016 are now known, still lingers over Karabakh. It was one of the rare times when Serob left his works unfinished and did not touch clay for days. But even in those days, Serob did not feel that art was useless.
“There are difficulties and limitations in everything, from opportunities to exhibit to availability of materials. But that doesn’t mean that an artist should ever stop creating,” adds Serob.
Millennials, February/March 2019