Armenia / Georgia
Armenia / Georgia


A city blinded by death looked for the light of life and Gyumri found it in culture, soon after December 7, 1988.

"Culture sustained us. When (Russian composer/violinist) Vladimir Spivakov's concert was scheduled to take place at the Vardan Achemian Drama Theater in Gyumri only five months after the earthquake, I feared that the hall would be empty," says Hasmik Kirakosian, a senior officer in the Shirak province's Department of Culture. "But to my surprise, I saw people dressed in black filing in to occupy the seats. The people had lost the most important parts of their souls but they wanted to listen to music. It is typical of Gyumri people."

Builder Samvel Tonoyan remembers that concert as a signal to the end of grieving.

"Spivakov raised the black curtain of the theater and said that from that day forward we would also have joyful music," Tonoyan remembers.

In May 1989, six months after the earthquake and with sons of Armenia fighting in Karabakh, the Gyumri ensemble of folk instruments performed a tour of concerts in 40 towns of the Soviet Union.

"We did not go to beg for help; we simply were saying that Gyumri (then called Leninakan) was in ruins, but it still had culture to export," Kirakosian says.

People of Gyumri themselves say that they did not believe in tomorrow. They thought life had ended when their city was leveled. However, culture itself came to their rescue.

Reconstruction of cultural centers began. The Lincy Fund (Kirk Kerkorian) rebuilt the only drama theater's building. Lincy also helped restore the museum/homes of writer Avetik Isahakian and the Aslamazian sisters (painters). The home of painter Minas Avetisian in the village of Jajur was restored from ruins.

The Symphonic Orchestra of Gyumri was established after the earthquake, as well as an art institute that included art therapy for young people dealing with loss.

"When a person sees death with his own eyes, he clings to life more, loves it more, and in the teeth of nature wants to live more," says chief of the governor's Department of Culture Armen Stamboltsian. "We also saw what death is. We had lost wonderful artists and now we have tried to fill the gap during these 20 years."

Kirakosian quotes art critic Henrik Igitian: "The land of Artsakh gives birth to marshals. Gyumri soil produces artists."

"There is art in this land. Whatever door you open, there is a Sheram (folk singer). Whatever door you open, there is a duduk and violin player. A parent who doesn't even have the means to live, still thinks about taking his child to a music, painting or dancing school. A Gyumri resident knows a person's soul should be nurtured with arts," Kirakosian says.

Gyumri's music schools largly remained intact after the quake, and a new music school was built in the Ani district due to the sponsorship of brothers Jean and Albert Poghosian of Switzerland. As many as 17 dance groups operate in the province of Shirak.

According to Kirakosian, the province has been careful to not centralize all cultural efforts in Gyumri, but rather encourages community development in places outside the city.

Given its historic role in the preservation of Armenian culture, Kirakosian says the Shirak province deserves special attention and adequate funding. Currently it gets just three million drams (about $10,000) annually from the state.

Art from destruction

Using the landscape of ruin as a backdrop for performance art, Gyumri became home to an international art biennial in 1998. At its sixth gathering this September, 30 countries were represented, along with 50 artists from throughout Armenia, under the theme "Historical Transformation or Parallel Histories."

Co-founder of the event Azat Sarkisian says the purpose of the Gyumri Biennial has been "decentralization of Armenia's culture (taking sole focus off the capital), art as therapy, turning Gyumri into a center of modern art and cooperation with all regional contemporary art structures." (Sarkisian is also head of the Gyumri Contemporary Art Center.) "We have been guided by one goal—to alleviate the heavy atmosphere of despair and psychological pressure in post-earthquake Gyumri with the vivid impact of art."

Since the founding of the Gyumri festival, artists from Armenia have been invited to participate in the biennials of several European countries.

The other co-founder of the biennial, Vazgen Pahlavuni, says that from the very beginning there were skeptics who did not believe that it was possible to organize such an event in Gyumri—especially at a time when there was more chaos than construction.

"But we were convinced that it was possible in those very ruins. Avant-garde art is dynamic, it is not set in stone, and it is not traditional. It can work in the ruins, quickly responding to the environment," Pahlavuni says.

The first biennial was entitled "Time, Space, Research" and coincided with the 10th anniversary of the earthquake. According to the organizers, the intent was to use the open space created by disaster as a stage for the affirmation of life through art.

"We had to bring a festival to Gyumri; that was our duty. A generation growing up in darkness that was everywhere needed to undergo a culturally rehabilitating art therapy," Pahlavuni says.

This year's biennial included modern-day performances of songs of Ashughs (folk artists), films and paintings condemning political violence, works on wars, changes of political regimes and catastrophes, as well as coverage of contemporary social problems.

The festival stretched over three weeks. "We do everything possible to ensure maximum involvement—from Gyumri, Yerevan, from modern centers of Armenia," Sarkisian says.

Pahlavuni says the biennial has become the "property of society" and its avant-garde approach has elicited mixed reactions in traditionalist Gyumri. It is still criticized by some who question the artistic value of organizing exhibitions in the streets. Others, though, see the presence of young and experimental artists in their streets as a sign of evolving times and an evolving city.

"It was not coincidental that this event became viable in Gyumri," Pahlavuni says. "Historically an artist, no matter what field he represented, would come to Gyumri for validation, in order to show his value here and then continue on his way. And Gyumri, which is known for its traditional ways, proved that it has something to do not only in terms of preserving its traditions, but also in appreciating modern art as well."

This year, for the first time, Armenia's Ministry of Culture was among the sponsors of the biennial.

The founders say that their goal is to look not only back to Armenia's masters, but forward to those who will be future masters, and to see Gyumri recognized as an incubator of significant art.

Originally published in the November 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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