Vahram Galstyan’s “383 Souls” (2018) light Installation in an abandoned theater (all images courtesy Anna Kamay)

In October 2018 the first ever contemporary arts festival — Artsakh Fest — took place inside the Vahram Papazian Theater in Stepanakert, the capital of the internationally unrecognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested region in what many nations still recognize as part of Azerbaijan, and known to Armenians as Artsakh. The region has been afflicted by a war over independence for decades, and as a result the theater building was abandoned for more than eight years. In 2018, Yerevan-based curator Anna Kamay took it upon herself to transform the building by inviting international artists into the space, bringing installations, performances, and workshops to a region mostly associated with war. On the eve of the festival’s second iteration, Hyperallergic spoke to Kamay about the challenges of starting such a project and what to expect from this year’s program.

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Hyperallergic: Why did you start Artsakh Fest, and how did you go about it?

Anna Kamay: I lived in Martuni with my daughter, where I met a friend in Yerevan who’s running the Tufenkian charity organization. I told them I’m going to do something arts related, and asked if they would support me, and they said yes. In Martuni, there was this culture house building: it looked like the exact copy of the Opera House in Yerevan, and it seemed like the perfect space for an arts project. But this building was totally privatized, and except the stage and the auditorium, there is no space available to do any intervention.

[Then] a friend of mine from Stepanakert in Karabakh invited me over. It’s the regional center and capital of Artsakh, where I found the theater building, and suddenly it all made sense. The public was already there, and there was nothing else happening.

An apprentice of Yeznig Mozian Vocational Scool installing the light bulbs for Vahram Galstyan’s “383 Souls” (2018) light installation

I know that there were only two art festivals that took place previously in Artsakh, both in Shushi: one curated by Neery Melkonian in 2001, and the second in 2012 curated by Harry Vorperian and Lilit Sargsyan called Land and Technologies. It occurred to me only recently that both of these festivals included only Armenian and diasporan artists. Only after the festival did I realize that what we’ve done is the first international festival in Artsakh. So, with this in mind, knowing that I have the network, I applied to the local officials to organize the festival in the theater.

At first it was a no; the building was deemed dangerous and not stable. Eventually, with a lot of persistence they said we could only have the first hall, but then I negotiated more, and later the Ministry of Culture of Artsakh even offered us $2,000, so we knew we had this base to pay the artists’ travel and accommodation.

A room in the abandoned theater building in Stepanakert with a hole for the wood stove the theater troupe used to warm up in winter

Artists from Armenia and abroad came to participate. We had a music program, installations, open workshops, and masterclasses. Over 2,000 local people came, and we had a large amount of local volunteers who wanted to help us — mostly young people. It was such an amazing experience for them, welcoming all these foreigners and showing them their native town and rediscovering it together with the artists. For a whole year they’ve been messaging me asking when the festival will take place again.

Group photo with the participants of Artsakh Fest 2018

H: What would you say are the biggest challenges of having an arts festival in a place without the infrastructure?

AK: There are upsides and downsides. The positive aspects are that there is no competition, so whatever you do there is going to be accepted. Of course, there is a chance it’s going to be hated, but most likely people are going to be curious and are going to accept it because they are not spoiled by the multitude of cultural events as they are in Yerevan.

The downside is that it’s very difficult to find like-minded people to form a team, especially with local people, because contemporary art practices are not considered necessary or important. The local authorities and agencies operating in Artsakh consider economic and social development more important that cultural development. They do not realize how art could become one of the reasons people want to visit Artsakh. They don’t realize how it’s related to the festival and anything that’s not modern, because all they’ve got is modern paintings and sculptures in the galleries. If we manage to produce high quality contemporary art we’re going to be able to present [this as a] destination abroad.

A view of Laura Arena’s “Learning How to Fly” participatory project and installation

Currently, except the diasporans, the majority of foreign tourists visit Artsakh as a dark tourism destination, an exotic war-torn region, like Chernobyl or Transnistria. If the festival is established people would come to see high quality contemporary art, not only during the festival, but before and after. I always [use] the example of Documenta in Kassel, which was established right after the Second World War. They managed to rebuild the city because of the festival. Now people go all year round just to see the artworks there. That’s my local vision: creating an art space and talking about the conflict, the war, and the trauma through art. I think that’s the only way to heal the local people. It’s conflict transformation through contemporary art, and also healing, because three generations living through war never had the opportunity to reflect.

The other obstacle is funding — which is mission impossible. You can’t get international funding because of political reasons and all the diasporan organizations operating in Artsakh don’t prioritize cultural issues. I’m currently running an online fundraiser for this year’s edition and we are counting [on being able] to fundraise enough to cover the production fees and travel and accommodation of the invited artists. Hope[fully] next time I will be able to offer honoraries [sic] to the artists, at least the local ones.

Festival attendants socializing in the makeshift bar during Artsakh Fest 2018

H: What’s the theme for this year’s festival?

AK: It’s a very beautiful traditional song called “Nakhshun Baji.” The title is in both Armenian and Azerbaijani. It means beautiful sister. It’s about an emancipated, independent, strong woman. It’s this woman of Karabakh, who was the main character throughout the war. They were sustaining the whole population while the men were at war. Now the war is over, the women still [have] the leading role, but they are also second; they are not visible or appreciated.

The name of the song is also an allegory of the name of the theater, which is called “The Beauty of Stepanakert.” It’s this idea of a woman who was neglected [while] giving nourishment to its people and children. It’s going to be mostly about women and the theatre; it’s about this place that is transforming.

H: And what does the program look like?

There’s going to be a music program, mostly female musicians and sound artists. There are going to be lots of documentaries, some about Artsakh, some about conflict, borders, and women.  We’re really excited to exhibit Anush Ghukasyan’s ceramic sculptures representing rabbits or phallic symbols depending on the angle from which they are being viewed. There will be a film program curated by Tereze Davtyan.

We’re going to partner with Golden Apricot and some directors here. There’s also going to be open workshops run by Sereg Navasardyan of Yerevantropics and other street artists, as well as art installations and a rich music program. It’s not going to be as expensive as last time; I don’t want to get into restoration work. We electrified the building last year and some of the bulbs are broken, so we still need to do preparation work.

H: In terms of international artists, where have they come from?

We already have over 15 artists who applied to participate in this year’s edition of the festival. Last year we had over 40 international artists from over 10 countries, as well as local artists. We were the first to bring Turkish artists to Artsakh ever: Duygu Bostanci and Funda Cilga. Bringing Turkish artists is difficult politically, but in the future we would also like to bring artists with Azerbaijani origins, who can talk on behalf of their people, [which] is very important for developing a critical discourse.

Press Conference ahead of the pilot edition of Artsakh Fest on October 5, 2018 (from left to right: research based exhibition curator Emma Harutyunyan, art critic Nazareth Karoyan, Artsakh Fest founder, curator Anna Kamay, musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan)

Telling stories through art [humanizes] the other side in times of hate [when] [rhetoric can] portray the other as a bloodthirsty and cruel enemy.

Artsakh Fest 2019 will take place at Vahram Papazian Theater (59 Tumanyan Street, Stepanakert, Azerbaijan), between 4 and 6 October. It was founded by and is directed by Anna Kamay. 

Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl website ( and has written for Canvas, the Guardian, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed, ReOrient,...