In this episode of the Gallery Girl Podcast we speak to Anna Kamay, a Yerevan-based curator and writer. She is also the founder of Artsakh Fest and arts initiative Juggling Dinosaurs. We discuss how she created the first ever international contemporary art festival in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), navigating the art world as a mother, and the post-corona art space.
Anna’s curatorial work has included working on exhibitions with Syrian refugees in Armenia, as well as work with female photography collective 4Plus, with much of her work looking at resilience and resettling in an Armenian context. “[I’m interested in] issues of borders and conflicts and militarization of our society in Armenia”, she explains, “This is a landlocked country. We have two closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan and only two open borders with Georgia and Iran. This situation with the closed borders and the 30 year conflict [with Azerbaijan] interested me a lot.”
In 2018, she launched the arts festival Artsakh Fest in Artsakh – the historical Armenian name for Nagorno Karabakh – a region that has been afflicted by war over independence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis for decades. “Dealing with trauma or war. Earthquakes…the collapse of the Soviet Union…I wanted to deal with it somehow”, explains Anna, “Being in Yerevan, it did not feel real. So I decided to move to Karabakh and do some research in 2017.” Living there, Anna was confronted with the lack of communal life. “My daughter would invite all the kids to play in our backyard”, says Anna, “The neighbours would ask why they were outside playing…I realised that this was coming from times of war when it wasn’t safe to stay outside.” She goes on to explain that the only place she could go to talk to people was at the beauty parlour. “There was this intense moment where we were talking about the April War…We were talking about our childhoods, and how she got stranded on summer camp when the war started”, says Anna, “She couldn’t go back for six months…other kids grew up in underground shelters…we both ended up crying…we both felt this pain, we were both processing it.”
Film of Artsakh Fest 2018 by Willi Andrick
While living in Nagorno Karabakh, a friend showed Anna the abandoned Vahram Papazian Armenian theatre in Stepanakert. “It turned out this theatre was this place where the community united”, explains Anna, “[it was also] the place where Armenians came to discuss the independence of Nagorno Karabakh.” When the Armenian theatre in Baku closed in the 1940s, the whole troupe came to Stepanakert to perform. Between the 1940s and the collapse of the USSR, the theater was at its best, and even during the war they staged performances to cheer the locals. Confronted with its state of abandonment, Anna had the idea to revive the building. The first edition saw Anna bring the community together through an open call for help. Together they rebuilt some of the stage, and fixed the tiles and electricity. “It was a beautiful unification of these young people”, says Anna, “They even organised a city tour for all of the artists involved and participated in workshops. Throughout the year they were contacting me about the next edition.”
The festival’s 2019 edition was called Nakhshun Baji, which means beautiful sister and is an amalgamation of an Armenian and an Azerbaijani word. “It was a collision of two cultures, two languages, two realities that co-existed at one time in Nagorno Karabakh”, Anna explains, “It was very symbolic, but it was also a feminist perspective of the conflict. I wanted to explore the role of females in all of that…there are all these male heroes…the women were totally overshadowed.” The program included sculptures of rabbits that looked like phallic symbols made by Anush Ghukasyan, as well as the performance of a song by singer Melineh called Lav Aghjik, which means “good girl” in Armenian, where the lyrics touch on how a “good girl” is supposed to act. After this second festival, the locals formed an initiative to rebuild the theatre, and Anna seems happy that she has activated the local community when it comes to interaction with the theatre building.
And, in addition to her work with Artsakh Fest, Anna has also been working on another initiative – Juggling Dinosaurs – that works to better the prospects for mothers in the art world. “All my friends who have kids and have to deal with the art world, if they don’t have someone to look after their children, they opt out of the event”, says Anna, “Because they know their children are going to be subjected to people who would ignore or openly scoff at them.” In fact, Anna goes as far as to say that motherhood is the biggest taboo in the art world. “Until the twentieth century the only images of motherhood in art were of Mary and Jesus, this blissful motherhood is the only image that we knew”, says Anna, adding, “Artists like Marina Abramovic and Tracey Emin clearly state that they would never be able to be women and artists.” She goes on to cite a video of artist Hannah Cooke who reenacts performances by both Emin and Abramovic while breastfeeding her child. So, through Juggling Dinosaurs, Anna is trying to collaborate on international residencies that would be suitable for women with young children, though she admits that it has been a trying task.
And what about post-corona virus? “There are two major scenarios for the world: either we change or we won’t”, says Anna, “It’s definitely going to change, but for better or for worse? I don’t know.” That said, she does acknowledge that it gives us an opportunity to reflect.