By Suzi Banks Baum
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
GYUMRI, Armenia — The world is a small and marvelous place. Those who are fortunate to know the sweet bite of preserved Armenian apricots stirred in to fresh yogurt or honeyed green walnuts eaten with a cup of thyme tea sipped on a chilly afternoon in Gyumri know that vast beauty and a difficult reality make life in Armenia a challenge for the strong, resilient people who live there.
I have traveled to Gyumri three times in the past two years to develop a project called New Illuminations which unites women artists with the ancient practice of hand bound books, known to many as illuminated manuscripts. New Illuminations connects women to their heritage while empowering them through personal narrative writing and brings the book art form in to contemporary and eager hands. These hands are ready to meet the world with a feminine perspective on life told from a densely patriarchic society. This project has improved the lives of over 75 artists and has an active audience in the cultural hub of Armenia.
What brought me to Armenia in the first place was John Stanmeyer, world-renowned National Geographic photographer and humanitarian. During a workshop with him, and Nazik Armenakyan and Anush Babajanyan of 4Plus in Gyumri, I interviewed and photographed women artists to learn about the challenges they face in daily life and in pursuing their profession as artists. In that first visit I met with 25 women in their homes, in parks or cafes, in the schools they attend or teach in, and at the offices where they work. It was a whirlwind immersion in to the lives of women who are mostly well-educated, but subsumed after college into marriage and family life, many forgetting the fires of passion that fueled their education in the first place; so many told me “no one cares about the women of Armenia.” They are truly under the radar of world attention, many living in poverty and with the effects of trauma in their families and communities, with few services to support healthy family life or opportunities for meaningful work.
It was a hard visit, but while I was there, I fell in love. I fell in love with Gyumri and the people who allowed me to photograph them on the street, the women who sweep the streets at dawn, and the many women who shoved furniture away from walls to show me paintings, who dug out stacks of images to share with me, who told me stories that they longed to write but did not think anyone cared about.