Today on the Gallery Girl podcast my guest is Cassandra Tavukciyan founder of Armenian Women Artists, an Instagram account documenting and presenting Armenian women artists, both in Armenia and in diaspora communities. 

Arpenik Nalbandyan (1916-1964) in front of her self-portrait,  Andranik Kochar, 1946. Courtesy of www.arpeniknalbandyan.com

Cassandra grew up in a creative household. Her father is a graphic designer, as well as a collector of Armenian antiques, while her mother is a pianist. “I grew up exposed to Armenian art history and culture”, she says, “Then I studied photography before transitioning into the archival research realm, which led me to doing a Masters that involved writing a thesis on Ottoman Armenian photography traditions.” While looking at catalogue records of Ottoman photographers, she noticed a lack of recognition of the Armenian ethnicity. “A lot of these photographers were catalogued as being Ottoman, and advocated for the inclusion of the photographers’ ethnicities in the catalogue record in order to begin to identify the distinct characteristics or aesthetic qualities that are inherent in Armenian photography”, explains Cassandra, “I’ve always been trying to advocate for the inclusion of the Armenian contribution in art history. And from that thesis, I wanted to look at the Armenian women’s contributions.” And for those wondering, her thesis was looking at the work of Gabriel Lekegian and Pascal Sebah.

Self-Portrait: Three Ages, Eranuhi Aslamazyan (1910-1998), 1974. Courtesy of The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters

But onto women artists, the first female artist that Cassandra came across was Mariam Aslamazyan. “She was the first to open my eyes to the breadth of art that was being created at the time”, says Cassandra, “She was probably the most famous Soviet woman artist in general. She was a very eccentric character. She was known for her self-portraits, still lives and she painted Armenia a lot too. Although she was very Soviet, she never forgot her Armenian roots.” 

Armine Galentz (1920-2007) in Haroutiun Galentz’s studio in Beirut, 1942. Courtesy of the Galentz Museum

As for sourcing information, Cassandra says all of her research is done online, relying on online databases, translation tools. “You’ll find totally different results if you look in Russian or Armenian or Turkish than you do in English”, she says, “English is totally limiting.” Cassandra also cites the National Gallery of Armenia’s database, as well as international versions of Wikipedia. “Because I’m trained as an archivist and researcher, it’s always in my nature to go find the original source”, she explains. Within her research, Cassandra admits that Armenians need to give credit to the Soviet period, while also talking about her surprise at realising how many women artists were also mothers, citing Armine Galentz and Lavinia Bazhbeuk-Melikyan as two such examples. 

Self-Portrait, Ida Kar, (1908-1974), 1955. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

And, in addition to visual artists, Cassandra highlights all kinds of artists, including dance, writers and singers. “I always try to give a variety of mediums and fields”, she says, “Even though I started thinking I’ll stick to fine art, it evolved and I’m really glad it did.” However, she explains that she is always excited by female photographers, citing Ida Kar as a personal favourite. “She was born in 1908 in Russia and was part of the avant-garde photography movement”, she says, “She was very instrumental in encouraging the acceptance of photography as an art form, being the first photographer to be awarded a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.”

Self-Portrait, Lavinia Bazhbeuk-Melikyan (1922-2005), 1965. Courtesy of National Gallery of Armenia.

Cassandra is also a fan of many contemporary Armenian women artists. She mentions that she’s been following the work of Laureen Topalian Bensaid, who specialises in Indo-Persian miniatures, as well as Lusine Tumanian, a painter and art restorer working in a classical tradition . “I do hope to eventually start showcasing their work as well”, she adds. 

Selma Minasian Gochigian demonstrates the art of rug making, New York City, 1921. Courtesy of Project Save Archives

Cassandra describes her work as a labour of love, and hopes to continue sharing these women. Both speaking as Armenian women, we noted that growing up we never knew of any female Armenian artists. “A lot of the time if we don’t hear about them we assume they’re not there”, says Cassandra, “But really that’s not the case at all. There’s so many women out there who have contributed to society and culture, it’s incredible.” And, in the future, she would love to go beyond the walls of Instagram, perhaps making a database or website that puts all the artists in one place. 

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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