This Sunday Edition was a difficult one to compile, as it comes at a critical time for the cultural heritage of Artsakh, which is threatened by the autocratic state of Azerbaijan. The country has a history of cultural genocide against the Armenian heritage within its borders, which we reported about two years ago. The event may be the largest cultural genocide of the 21st century. Much of the research included in this issue was undertaken due to a dearth of information and facts freely available online and in English. The contributing reporters and scholars are some of the leaders in their fields, and they were kind enough to respond to our requests to write quickly, recognizing the urgency of the topic at hand. The threat faced by the art discussed here is not only real, but may have already begun.
For those of you without context for the threat to Artsakh’s cultural heritage, I will summarize the events. Last September, while the world was obsessed with the US election, Azerbaijan, aided by Syrian Islamist rebels and Turkish forces, attacked the Republic of Artsakh. The territory, which declared independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, has never been governed by an independent Azerbaijan and was unrecognized by governments around the world. The roughly 44-day war led to over 10,000 deaths and the conquest of most of the Armenian-majority region, as well as the turn over of territories that contain hundreds of Armenian religious and secular monuments that date back millennia.
Growing up in an Armenian family, the term Artsakh — or Karabakh, which is the term used by the international community — wasn’t something we discussed. During the Cold War era, anything on the other side of the Iron Curtain felt inaccessible to those of us elsewhere, particularly since my family wasn’t from anywhere near the region. With the fall of the Soviet Union, all of that changed as the Armenian populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was situated in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan starting in the 1920s, launched a war of self determination after pogroms against Armenian inhabitants in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait and Baku droves hundreds of thousands from their homes. The resulting battle killed tens of thousands and allowed the indigenous Armenian populations of Artsakh to continue with their lives even if they (and the newly independent country of Armenia next door, which helped their compatriots in the war) were being strangled by a total blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, both Turkic allies that view themselves as “two states, one nation.” Both countries officially deny the Armenian genocide and annually fund multi-million dollar compaigns to oppress Armenians and deny the historical event and its long-term implications.
The realities of Artsakh felt distant from my life, even if I occasionally met Armenian refugees from Baku and Sumgait in New York and elsewhere, and began learning more about the realities they face. Starting in 2011, things changed when a queer Armenian group I was a part of marched in the annual Pride parade in New York. Knowing it was important to show positive images of LGBTQ Armenians to the world when so much of our community lives in countries with repressive homophobic laws, we took images and shared them online. While the initial feedback was all positive, we eventually discovered they were also being used by Azerbaijanis as a way to smear Armenians as “gay,” which is a popular insult in the region. Our image, meant to showcase our joy and pride, continues to pop up in YouTube videos and articles and other online venues (particularly Telegram channels), with the latest surge being during the recent war, and I have to admit it is sometimes jarring to encounter.
In 2012, a friend showed me that an Azerbaijani “news” website had published an article accusing Hyperallergic’s publisher (and my spouse) Veken Gueyikian of organizing a gay pride parade in Baku in an effort to overthrow the government. At the time, Veken was president of New York’s Armenian LGBTQ organization; other members of the board are also named in the feature. The article, of course, is ridiculous — though the thought of a gay pride parade overthrowing an autocratic government is quite delicious — but it alerted me that the hate being churned out by the state of Azerbaijan against Armenians was never focused on Artsakh alone and involved smearing all Armenians, without cause or justification. The article was syndicated in at least one other publication that is currently still available online. That hatred is so intense that all Armenians, regardless of passport or politics, are banned from Azerbaijan. Most recently, Arsenal soccer player Henrikh Mkhitaryan felt unsafe to travel to Azerbaijan for the Europa League final, even if the government assured him they would make an exception. The evidence of hatred of Armenians is extensive and continues to be overlooked by international observers. As you’ll see in the extensive research in this issue, many art world figures ignore the ban on their fellow artists, curators, critics, and others, to partake in the caviar diplomacy Azerbaijan is so famous for. Is there any other modern nation that bans a whole group of people for no other reason than their identity regardless of passport or politics? While Israel also bans Palestinians from visiting their homeland it has a more porous system even if it is often just as effective at excluding large numbers of Palestinians.
The consequences of Azerbaijan’s propaganda have impacted my work on a number of occasions. Most notably, I visited Dubai during the Sharjah Biennial, and many of the journalists I was with were traveling to Baku for an opening at Yarat, an art center created and supported by the niece of the Azerbaijani dictator. Of course, I was not invited, but Anna Kats, then an editor at Artinfo, told me, “well, you guys shouldn’t have invaded Azerbaijan.” I think she was trying to be funny, but it simply sounded callous, and I avoided her the rest of the trip.
Another time, I was interviewing artist Oscar Murillo at the Palestinian Museum in the West Bank, when he told me about visiting Baku and the weird flight path (that completely avoids Armenia and Artsakh, I politely mentioned). He didn’t seem to understand what he was saying and how oblivious it sounded in the context of another land fighting for independence. I don’t want to ascribe nefarious motivations to the two, as I think it is mostly done out of ignorance or social awkwardness, but it is important to point out that these issues are not always as remote as some may assume. This Sunday Edition is partly designed to fill that hole in people’s knowledge and provide some knowledge and context for further conversations.
Here’s a summary:
- Researcher Simon Maghakyan writes about a 14th-century mausoleum of a Muslim leader in the Agdam region, which research has revealed to be the work of an Armenian builder who has also constructed two other edifices in present-day Armenia. Considering the fate of other Armenian structures in Azerbaijan, most notably in the Nakhichevan region, it raises questions about whether Azerbaijan will celebrate the multicultural heritage of the region, or erase it like it has done with so much else.
- Reporter Nevdon Jamgochian looks at the history of artwashing by the Azerbaijani state and its erasure of Armenian heritage, citing specific cases and incidences to demonstrate the pattern that continues.
- An Armenian refugee of Baku herself, Yelena Ambartsoumian writes about the perplexing lie by the Azerbaijani government that no Armenian Christian heritage exists in the country and the hundreds of monuments and structures are in fact Caucasian Albanian, a cultural community that shared communion with Armenians but have since disappeared.
- Art historian Christina Maranci considers the earliest known depiction of a mother nursing a child in Armenian art, comparing it to the Madonna and Child images that appear in manuscripts and elsewhere. Located in the now Azerbaijani controlled Kelbachar region, the fate of the late 12th- or early 13th-century khachkar is uncertain.
- Scholar Rachel Goshgarian looks at the figure of Hasan Jalal, an Armenian leader in Artsakh, and how his personal history tells a complicated story that challenges the modern tendency to assign identity as a fixed thing.
- Writer Hrag Avedanian considers the politicization of Karabakh rugs and carpets by Azerbaijan and how the country’s propaganda attempts to warp the history of these unique artworks.
- Scholar Mashinka Firunts Hakopian considers the colonization of the museums of Shushi (also known as Shusha) by Azerbaijani forces.
- Photographer Scout Tufankjian was in Artsakh during the handover of territories to Azerbaijani authorities. She joined me for a podcast to discuss the experience, and shared photographs from the emotional trip.
- And finally, a text by the late Neery Melkonian, who was an active curator in Artsakh, about the Front Line project by artist Hrair Sarkissian that recorded images both of landscapes and veterans of the first bloody war in the 1990s.
I’m grateful for the research and work of each scholar who researched and shared these stories with the world. The use of Artsakh is the predominant term used throughout the edition, as it is the term used by the Indigenous inhabitants of the region, but the terms Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh are also used, though the latter is often used specifically to denote the Soviet oblast, which is outlined in the map above. This decision was made to reflect that many of these terms are often used interchangeably and reflect various cultural and political perspectives. The term Karabakh is used in the article about carpets as it is the most common term in the field.
This issue is designed to tell the stories of the Armenian heritage that is threatened. I hope you will spend time with the material and learn about this corner of the world where hate threatens thousands of years of art history. This isn’t in the past, this is about today.