Gyumri artists with Suzi Banks Baum (photo: Anush Babajanyan)

Our Eyes Are On Armenia


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.

A family studies an artist’s book (photo: Raffi Berberian)

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.

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I care. I care about women’s voices the world over. This is the work that I pursue in the United States and abroad. I am a writer and visual artist. I utilize the book arts and photography to tell the stories I hear. In Armenia, I found women eager to gather in community to learn new skills furthering their own artistic explorations and connecting them to the world in a new way.

“My book has become my real friend, all my emotions, my life’s events are shared with him, and my book has become my true companion, the best occupation I can ever do. I want to deepen my knowledge of book art and also have a collection of my books,” said one of the women, Hasmik Gasparyan, 25-years-old.

One step towards uniting these artists with the Armenian tradition of illuminated manuscripts was to bring them to the Matenadaran as a group. The Matenadaran is a world-renowned scriptorium, museum, and research center in Yerevan. Dedicated to the preservation of its collection and furthering the study and understanding of the volumes of over 26,000 books, the museum is a unique resource for Armenians. Yet, most of the women I worked with in Gyumri, which is just two hours away from Yerevan, had ever visited this place.

Facilitated by my coordinator Ani Ginosyan, and with special permission from the leadership at the Matenadaran, the advanced artists of New Illuminations were invited to a special tour of the museum. Of the 11 women who took a bus from Gyumri, only three had been there before. My Armenian guidebook calls this museum, “a shrine to the Armenian language and the soul of the nation.” The museum contains illuminated Gospels, books about botany, animal husbandry, and philosophy. For generations, Armenians have had personal relationships with these illuminated manuscripts. Villagers go to the Matenadaran to visit the sacred books that once resided in their village. The museum is home to books up to 1,600 years old. The illuminated manuscripts were created in workrooms in monasteries, entirely created by men until the years of the Armenian Genocide. Then, during the Soviet occupation, the practice of making these sacred texts fell away. There are no surviving manuscripts created by women, though many of the people working at the Matenadaran are women, skilled, educated, and devoted to preserving this icon of Armenian culture.

These lavishly embellished, hand-made books, which have extensive historic, spiritual, and artistic value, are missing half of the population’s vision and voice. The illuminated manuscripts shed a light, through language, on the non-physical entity that is the soul of Armenia and its people. But, when women’s stories are not told in the archives of human history, we cannot say we know the whole truth. New Illuminations seeks to carve a new history of the women of Armenia by empowering them with skills to create contemporary manuscripts blazoned with the beautiful and difficult reality of their lives.

“This project helped me to be more self-confident, to know myself not only as a person, but as a woman. Most importantly, with the help of this project, I was able to drop all my fears. I could be myself. After the project I started creating different books. And every book has its own story. I find my consolation in the books. The book is man’s best friend… These books have become a part of me. Every book created by me, have its own character. The book is me,” said Yunona Kirakosyan, 20-years-old.

Topics: Armenia, gyumri

This November, I will return to Gyumri for my third residency. Thanks to the generous support of the NAREG Foundation, the workshops take place in a clean, well-lit space on Ghorganyan Street in central Gyumri. I provide all the materials for the book making along with lunch for everyone in the workshop, which includes two translators from Gyumri, and two photographers, one from Gyumri and another from Stepanakert. We work closely and intensively. Since my first visit to Gyumri, I have worked with Ani Ginosyan as my translator. Both in the interviews with artists and conducting the workshops, Ani is integral to the project. She lives and works as a teacher and translator in Gyumri. The workshops are four full days long, attended by at least 15 women. This year, aided by a specialist from the Matenadaran, the advanced artists will learn the Armenian book binding style. Recognition of New Illuminations by the Matenadaran adds a very rich layer of validity to this project.

During my original residency in 2016, HAYP Pop Up Gallery of Yerevan produced and curated the first exhibition of the work of New Illuminations. Produced in an old stone house on Shahumyan Street in the city center, the exhibit was curated by the HAYP team of Anna Gargarian and Charlotte Poulain. This exhibit showed work by three international Armenian book artists including Dana Walrath (US), Marsha Nouritza Odabashian (US) and Nairi Khatchadourian (FR) along with 30 books made in the initial workshop. Hundreds of people attended the month-long exhibition and accompanying events, including grandmothers with grandchildren from the neighborhood and art lovers from Yerevan. In November 2017, we produced our own exhibition at Café Nancy in Gyumri of the 50 new books made during my second residency. Over 125 people attended this one-night event.

Upon seeing the first exhibition of the work of New Illuminations, scholar Erin Piñon wrote, “New Illuminations is a formative, multifaceted exhibition and bold surge of creative production, which will be written into our new and evolving history of manuscripts as a critical moment for female artists and creators in Armenia.”

We weave even closer into this ancient art form with the vigorous curiosity of artists seeking to make a new future for themselves in the rapidly evolving country that we love. Our eyes are on Armenia.

I will deliver two public talks about New Illuminations this summer, one for the Jewish Federation of Pittsfield, Mass. on June 7 at 10:30 a.m. and the second at the Cook Memorial Library in Tamworth, NH on Wednesday, June 13 at 7 p.m. Fundraising will begin in earnest in July to fund this project, which requires $16,000 to run successfully. Donations made through our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, are fully tax-deductible. *Link to Fractured Atlas

For more information, go to *Link

(Suzi Banks Baum is a writer, artist, actress, teacher, community organizer, and mom. With roots in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Suzi uses the written word, hand bound books, and photographs to say what she means. Her first book, An Anthology of Babes, celebrates the writing of women artists. Deeply curious about the thresholds we cross in to creative practice, she writes personal narrative with an ear for transformation though engagement with the ordinary. She inspires us to live from the space of creative spirit and to value our contributions to the world and one another through workshops steeped in book arts, ritual, and writing. Suzi teaches in the Berkshires and for the International Women’s Writing Guild. Published in The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory by Anchala Studios and Writing Fire by Green Fire Press. Visit her blog at, www.suzibanksbaum.com


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