A Cultural Capital of the Diaspora in Berlin


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — When you walk into the spacious locale of Archi Galentz’s atelier in the Wedding district of Berlin, and move from one room to the next, you see paintings, drawings and objets d’art displayed, perhaps all created by one person in a solo exhibition, or perhaps the work of a large number of artists, as is currently the case in a show centered on the theme of “The Nude as a Guest.” Though the themes and the exhibitors change, one feature remains constant: a generously scripted phrase in German painted in elegant cursive letters on the wall just above the entrance door. Translated, it reads: “Tradition is not to worship the ashes but to pass on the flame, keep the fire burning.” A quotation from the famous composer Gustav Mahler, it stands as the motto of Galentz’s place.

“Armenians always want to export their past,” he quipped. “We want to communicate art now. Culture is something that comes into being.” Thus the quote from Mahler. InteriorDAsein is the name of the gallery, itself a play on words in German between “design” and “Dasein,” the latter term used by the philosopher Heidegger, meaning existence, being, consciousness.

Clearly, this is no ordinary art gallery. Rather, as Galentz explained to me during my recent visit there, it is an artist-run space, and an independent civil society platform, a workshop and exhibition room, a place for artists to meet, discuss and work together. It houses his collection of works by 30 artists from various cultural circles, with focus on Armenian contemporary art, but it also collaborates with other non-Armenian initiatives, among them Kolonie Wedding, and numerous nearby art galleries.

“We cooperate with the Art and Culture Studies Laboratory (ACSL), and the Naregatsi Art Institute in the US, Armenia and Karabagh,” he said, adding that InteriorDAsein also works with a group called Underconstruction, co-founded by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, a Buenos Aires-born artist in Berlin. What unites these various groups is a commitment to forge an identity for diaspora artists, mainly but not only Armenians, and not through ethnicity but through aesthetics, as he put it.

 

From Moscow to America, Yerevan to Berlin

Why this is the case becomes clear from his own personal biography. Archi Galentz was born in 1971 in Moscow and grew up there, living with his parents, a younger sister and his maternal grandparents, a family of artists. At the “No. 20 Special School” he attended in Moscow, pupils enjoyed instruction in small classes and English was featured. The school’s theatre work was well known, as were its music classes that offered instruction in many instruments. Galentz was not the only Armenian pupil, but the only one who knew Armenian. In an audition for a program, he recited nursery rhymes in Armenian and expressed such pathos in his delivery that the grown-ups in the jury were overwhelmed. His proficiency in English helped him in his first experiences abroad, but it was his knowledge of Armenian that was more important. At that time in Moscow pupils could study many foreign languages, like English, Spanish, French, Hindu or Chinese, but not “national languages” of peoples in the Soviet Union.

In 1986, he was selected to participate in the Peace Child International program, a unique initiative founded in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War to empower youth in society. Inspired by the “Peace Book” by Bernard Benson, a work about Papua New Guinea tribes who had a tradition of peacemaking through exchange of children, the Peace Child International composed a musical incorporating this theme, and performed it in New York and Boston (later also Moscow, Yerevan and dozens of other cities). The channels of communication thus created made it possible even in times of strained Washington-Moscow relations to launch a cultural exchange between the two. Galentz was part of this landmark initiative and his group met at Emerson College. The play they presented in there, in New York and Washington, was about an American girl who goes to Moscow and falls in love with a Russian boy. Galentz played an Armenian painter who does a portrait of the girl. When the Russian boy comes by, he makes a joke in a thick Armenian accent. Given the situation in the USSR, people found this unexpected and enjoyed it. While in the US, he did a painting which would later be on exhibit in Cologne. At that point, he did not know yet whether he wanted to become a comedian or an artist.

The exchange program gave him not only his first international experience but also his name. Since the Americans in the play had difficulty pronouncing his name, Harutyun, they called him Archi — and that stuck.

After returning home and graduating from school, he studied in Yerevan to improve his Armenian before entering the State University of Arts and Theatre there in 1989, where he studied design, painting and calligraphy. While at Yerevan University, he took part in a student exchange with West Berlin for six days. This was his first contact with Germany, and in Berlin what fascinated him were the museums. This was 1991, just after reunification, and one could visit the magnificent museums of both the former East and West sectors. Theologian Prof. Erdmann who had invited him to Berlin was vice president of the Academy of Arts. After a stint as a guest student, Galentz competed to become a normal student. He knew no German and the professor he had knew no English but they managed. He completed studies in 1997 and the following year got his Master’s degree under Prof. Fussmann (whose wife Barbara was an opera singer from America).

Already at this stage of his development, the identity issue for him, an Armenian artist from Moscow living in Berlin, was central. The first work that he had taken to Berlin was an oil painting of a stealth bomber in foreground against a backdrop fabric of Tao characters: this depicted Armenia, stranded between East and West. He had also produced posters of a political nature, one of which, showed Armenia and Karabagh, with a quote from Mikhail Gorbachev in Russian. This and another were purchased by the Ethnographic Institute of Sardarabad.

The independent Republic of Armenia needed appropriate symbols for its new status, a coat of arms and a national flag. For the latter, the old 1918 flag was revived. His proposal for a coat of arms featured an eagle and cross. In conceptualizing these national symbols, Galentz reflected on the fact that the name Hayastan actually had Turkish elements in the “stan,” and developed the idea of HAYK, made up of four letters. This meant Armenia not as a geographical entity but as a culture, Hayk as the Ur-father, Hayk as the people. He continued developing this idea in Berlin for the following year.

The work he prepared for his master’s degree involved a series of lithographs, with imaginary maps, representing lands in wartime, for example, treating themes of the 30 Years War and Byzantium. Here he used color as a means of division and difference, distinguishing between foreground, middle ground and background, for example.

Again, he was addressing the theme of conflict and identity, using maps of land areas and cultural spaces, thus raising the question of the relationship of national identity to territory. He treated the historical map from the time of the Berlin Congress from the standpoint of the later genocide.

In 2000, the Armenian Ambassador to Germany Dr. Voskanyan proposed that, for the upcoming Hannover World Fair, a series of maps be exhibited in form of a big cross, in commemoration of the anniversary (in 2001) of Christianity in Armenia. Later the delegation from Armenia travelled to Hannover for the event, bringing with them exhibits of Noah’s ark, lavash, cognac and other national symbols. Galentz’s contribution was a video he produced, with his own maps of Karabagh during the war — not the maps as a cross — the only political theme at the show.

He had gone to Berlin with a task from the family, to learn restoration and museum management, and to take these skills back to Yerevan and Moscow. He always had a Russian passport and always returned when he felt he was needed. Since 2003 in Berlin he has built up a network of diaspora artists who have had shows in Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tallin and France. At the same time he has been active in Bonn and Berlin with the Institute for Foreign Relations (IFA), supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The IFA organizes travelling exhibits every year for Germans abroad and for foreign artists in Germany, as many as 20 exhibits in 10 cities for example.

In 2003 the IFA hosted the first Armenian Diaspora exhibit, titled, “Getting Closer. For Armenians Looking for a Way Out.” In 2004, when he was invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje to exhibit, he decided to present not his own works but those of a group of Armenian artists. That same year he and Silvina Der-Meguerditchian set up the website www.underconstructionhome.net and in 2007 for the first time they held a parallel exhibit at the Venice Biennale as Armenian Diaspora artists. In 2008 he opened InteriorDAsein, with the contacts he had been putting together since 2003.

So his focus has been on collaborating with diaspora artists in a cultural exchange process oriented to defining a new identity. As he wrote in 2008, “We developed as artists in a belief that contemporary art is a universal language. And the early hope of our Underconstruction group was to integrate disperse artists of Armenian descent and, importantly, to activate Armenian communities, making them interested in us as artists performing modern concepts of identity.”

Not Victims, but Experts in Survival…

Galentz and his colleagues developed these “modern concepts of identity” in an extended discussion process over years, and in connection with exhibits. In 2008, for example, while meeting with a group of Armenian and Estonian artists to discuss a show planned for Tallinn, the first idea the organizers came up with for a working title was “displaced persons.” As he recalled in an article for the show’s catalogue, the organizers meant it “in a positive sense, referring to two small nations with many historical and current parallel issues, including those of diaspora, minorities, immigration, being a ‘toy ball’ of larger geopolitical interests, and so on.”

But then Galentz and his colleagues rejected the concept on grounds it communicated a stereotype of the “victim.” Instead, they adopted the title “thisPLACEd” — which Silvina Der-Meguerditchian suggested. With this approach, they deliberately avoided artistic clichés associated with the victim image. The basic concept behind the Berlin IFA gallery exhibition, “Getting Closer,” “was the decision not to show predictable images intended to arouse in viewers what one might call ‘social-pornographic’ feelings. For instance, there were no sentimental, black and white photos of the regions that suffered from the 1988 earthquake, no defenseless refugees, no ‘clochards’ and other victims of a failed ‘communist utopia.’ And still it was a very Armenian show, or maybe it is better to say ‘diasporic’ show in its best way — a collaboration based on trust, respect for and real interest in every artist and every piece.”

This last point about trust, self- and mutual recognition was to become an explicit aim of the Underconstruction initiative, which seeks to build “a personal and group conscience” an identity, and to do so “through a visual dialogue and the linking together of artists from different backgrounds and with diverse philosophies.”

Throughout their activities he and his colleagues have emphasized what is positive in diversity. As he put it in the same article, “Being as we are transnational, or multi-geographied, we have an opportunity to avoid falling into the role of the ‘victim’: in fact, we are survival experts. We have arrived at this position of stressing the positive aspects of being different, alone, geographically dispersed and un-integrated: we should take the next logical step and realize that we will probably always keep one foot out of the contemporary art system.”

 

A Family of Artists

Although he does not have any children yet (he married just last year), it is fair to assume that if he does, they will be artists. Art is a family tradition that goes back three generations. His paternal grandfather, Harutyun Galentz, was born in 1910 in Kyurin in modern-day Turkey, and escaped with his mother and three brothers to Aleppo, after Turkish soldiers had abducted his father. Following his mother’s death, the boys grew up in an orphanage where Harutyun first started painting. He studied art there and later in Lebanon, in Tripoli and at the Beirut Academy of Fine Arts. Soon he was receiving awards for his work, from New York and Lebanon. In 1943 he married Armine Paronyan, who had been his apprentice and went on to become a famous artist in her own right. In 1946 they moved from Lebanon to Yerevan, where they worked and exhibited, and earned further recognition. Archi Galentz recalled that grandmother Armine did not regret leaving for Yerevan, because in the USSR she was emancipated as a woman, an artist and an Armenian. She spoke many languages (Armenian, French, Italian, Russian and English) and held several exhibits, including in the US (in 1991-3, and again in 1994-5). She died in Yerevan in 2007.

After Harutyun’s death in 1967 the city council decided to build a museum out of his atelier, which was in the house where the family lived. But nothing came of the project and his works were hanging in the Museum for Contemporary Art, but in poor condition. His son, Saro, Archi’s father and a professor at the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts, then made it his life’s work to build the museum, and in the course of 20 years, he did so, erecting a building of three stories.

Harutyun was also honored by having a street named after him. It is the first private museum in Armenia, and receives some state support.

Archi’s maternal grandfather, Nikolai Nikogosyan, is also an artist, now 95 and active in his museum/home in Moscow. Born in Mets Shagrir (present day Nalbandyan) about 30 miles from Yerevan, he was the son of a farmer and clothier, later active in the construction sector in Yerevan. In 1934 Nikogosyan entered ballet school and danced for two years in the corps de ballet. Though his mother supported his artistic endeavors, his father did not. After seeing his son perform in one piece, he told him he should either stop his “monkey-dancing” or leave home — which the young Nikolai did. In Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) he entered Art School, and in 1940 attended the Sculpture Faculty of the Arts Academy. His artistic education continued in Moscow at the Surikov Art Institute and he worked there as a painter, graphic artist and sculptor, portraying many famous personalities, among them Aram Khachaturyan.

Though his travel was limited during the Cold War, he visited some European cities and later toured and exhibited extensively abroad. He has created hundreds of busts, portraits, paintings and drawings, and is still active, living in his four-story house which has ample space to display his sculptures. Since the 1970s he has received many, many prizes and awards including highest membership in the Russian Academy of Arts.

Archi’s mother, Nazelie, the daughter of Nikolai, is also an accomplished artist who was active until recent years. She is the daughter of Tamara Aslamazyan, Nikolai’s first wife, a construction engineer and architect. There is a museum in Gumri dedicated to the works of Tamara’s sisters, Maryam and Yeranouie, who were painters and ceramic artists.

With this family history, it is no wonder that Archi Galentz discovered his talent for art and the theatre very young. He noted that, contrary to ideas left over from the Cold War, it is not true that all art in Russia, even in the Soviet years, was merely propaganda, or that artists either worshipped Stalin or were sent to Siberia for doing anti-Stalinist caricatures. His father, for example, was a surrealist. Most important for his future development was the fact that art was part of everyday life for children of his generation. It was normal in the USSR for children to draw and paint, as artistic activity was seen as a means of development.

It is also a family tradition to collect art works, a tradition he has continued quite successfully. In 2004, he described his collection in an article: “The collection itself consists of my works, even more so of works of my friends acquired over the last 10 years, exchanged, presented to me as gifts or lent to me. These are works of art surrounding me in my private, everyday life…. Some of their authors I did not know personally, I became acquainted with them after having acquired their works. This coexistence of art and artists is not about personal competition…. These works represent little doors which permit us to enter the worlds of their authors, helping us experience those persons in their entirety and thus communicating directly with them…..”

At present, his collection housed in InteriorDAsein includes 50 small- to medium-sized pieces of art, by more than 30 artists, mainly from the post-Soviet period and Armenian artists from the avant-garde tradition developed in the 1990s. They are artists living in different parts of the world, from Los Angeles to Sweden, France, Russia, Berlin and Armenia, all different but belonging to the same landscape. Each piece, whether a painting or drawing, an object or a photo, has been individually framed by Galentz, who had researched historical framing in the context of his restoration studies. Periodically, as just recently, many of these artists come to Berlin to put their works on display at his atelier, which has become a kind of cultural center for the diaspora. Archi Galentz summed it up this way:

“Today, three-quarters of the Armenian nation lives outside their historic territories. In spite of [and because of] several very old and often contradictory cultural traditions, the question of preservation of national identity should be turned from having a maintaining-conserving character to a constituting-adapting one. It is vital to emphasize the role of art as a way of creating an identity as well as the fact that this creativity is very close to religiousness. By means of critical vigilance in the face of a transcultural ‘Zeitgeist’ aestheticism. By means of creating a counterproposal to the misuse of power in the global art business that offers the high ideals of a ‘free art creativity,’ strangely enough always presented alike. By means of a continuation of current cultural life as a dynamic exchange, those are the only reliable bearers of nationality….

“Armenians have been subjected to being in a ‘globalized’ condition for nearly 100 years, well over three generations. But even centuries before a diaspora-fatherland relationship came into existence, there were several cultural centers. A real interest in one another and active endeavors on various levels of communication should become civil duties to guarantee the nation’s survival in a ‘post-national’ era….. In the long run neither religion, language, nor a suffered genocide trauma can create and preserve an identity. This task belongs to culture and art.”

Among the 80 shows displaying his works, Galentz has held solo exhibits in Berlin, Yerevan and several German cities. He was invited in 2010 by the Hayastan Foundation to present a solo in Erlangen, and the proceeds went to the orphanage in Vanadzor. In a 2012 solo exhibit at the Society for the Protection of Human Dignity, he received the Arshile Gorky award from Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan.

He has participated in group shows at the Venice Bienniale, in Berlin, Gorni Milanovac (Serbia), Tallinn, Yerevan, Buenos Aires, Paris, Görlitz, Manila, Skopje (Macedonia), Belgrade, Helsinki, Medellin, Moscow, Leipzig, Hannover, Gumri, Falun (Sweden) and Sardarabad.

His works are on display in public collections, among others, in the Ethnological Museum in Sardarabad, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, the Tetovo Museum in Macedonia, the Museums for Contemporary Art in Belgrade and Medellin, the Rare Books Collection in the State Library in Berlin, the German National Library in Leipzig and the National Library of Armenia in Yerevan.