Odette Nikgol

Odette Nikgol: Drawing and Animating in Norway

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

OSLO/YEREVAN – Odette Nikgol is a Norway-based Armenian painter, animator and translator. We have been in touch since 1997. “I have worked hard to be able to present myself as an Armenian both in Iran and in Norway,” she wrote in her first letter addressed to me. We met about 20 years later during her first visit in Yerevan.

Dear Odette, where does your surname come from?

My father’s name was Hayrapet Berjikian. He was born in Urfa and joined the Armenian Volunteer Army at a young age and also served in the French Army. He later obtained French citizenship, but, moving to Iran, married my mother, Emily Shahverdyan, and received a Persian citizenship. In memory of his mother, Vardanush he changed his surname into Nikgol, translating his mother’s name into Persian…

While acquainted with your biography you have an impression you have studied your all life.

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You are right; first I studied at the Bustan Armenian School, then at Shahnaz Gymnasium. I have always been involved in painting, so I received my higher education at the department of plastic arts, drawing, photography and design of Tehran University. In the 1970s I studied also instructional technology at Iran’s Television Educational School in Tehran, which consisted of a collected program created by the American universities for Iranian students. Then I continued my studies at Farabi University in Tehran, earning a master’s degree in animation and filmmaking.

While studying, I was a painting teacher and animator at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, then I worked in Iranian Radio and Television and for two years I taught photography and animation film at Tehran’s Al-Zahra University. I came to Norway to continue my education in cultural diversity and in-depth gender training. In 2001-2006 I studied media and communication studies and interdisciplinary cultural studies majoring in gender research and finally in 2012-2013 I studied Public Sector Interpretation. Here I also worked in various places, including teaching at Dragvoll Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, where I was a guest lecturer of the knowledge of the influence of the colors in the teaching methods.

“An Old Armenian Wedding”

After an active Armenian community life in Tehran was it difficult to move to a country with very few Armenians?

In 1977 I married an Iranian. We got married in a Russian church in Iran. Later, in 1988 we moved to Norway.  It took years before we adjusted; we did our best to integrate. It was difficult to work outside of your own country. I am a Christian from Persia, and the Armenian culture was with me, so we were able to integrate more. In Norway my family experienced many things, both good and difficult, even though we had moved to a peaceful country. We felt very lonely in a foreign environment. We moved to a city where there was not a single Armenian family around us. There were many Iranian families in this city but none who were Iranian-Armenian. My two sons lived far away from Armenian culture and the language, but this was not our main problem because I spoke to them in Armenian and in addition, I had been given assignments as a job to teach my children their mother tongue. According to the law in Norway, all children who have a different mother tongue are required to receive education in their mother tongue at school. So during these years, I had taught my sons two cultures, and now not only they, but also my husband speaks Armenian. My father was the only one who survived the Genocide; he always said we should keep our language.

Your drawings are mostly inspired from Persian folk art, am I right?

Yes, you are, combined with the look of a child. I am inspired by Iranian folk art like, miniature, and its arrangement of space in non-linear perspective, in a two-dimensional plane. Persian miniature developed and formed within Iranian ancient history and stories, and the highest point in the tradition was reached in the 15th and 16th centuries. Politically there have been many events in this country that leave its mark on each individual and especially those who practice and think artistically. The 1979 revolution changed the dynamics of the art scene, changing all artistic practices such as film, painting, literature and music in Iran. I am inspired from children’s art and the way children express themselves, with the help of colors, simple shapes and informal dimension and perspective. Children’s viewpoint on the world has a common feature with miniature art, and the blending of these two artistic worlds helps me to express my thoughts to my surroundings. This is an artistic form that I feel at ease with. As I work with children, I use their colors. Abstraction and animation are very close to me. When I paint, I figure out animated movements. Some of my computer drawings (Simorgh Bird; Happy Cleanliness; Environment and Nature) are on display at various exhibitions.

“Massacare”

You have made more 15 animated films in Iran and three in Norway. Some years ago participating in Roshd film festival in Tehran I was delighted to reveal to the world Iranian animation. What about the Norwegian one? 

While in Iran, I participated in the creation of many animated films, including “Amir Hamzeh,” “Atal Matal Tutuleh,” “Solidarity, One, Two, Three,” etc. In 1990 I co-animated two Norwegian cartoons and in 1994, I worked in Oslo for a feature animation film at the “Film Kamerater As” studio. Norwegian animations has some great films, like Flåklypa Grand Prix, Jakten på nyresteinen and Gurin med Reverompa, that I highly recommend to watch.

Creativity seems to be in your family. Your sister Hilda Nikgol has also participated in Iranian cinema as an artist and actress, and another relation, Armen Melkonian, is a layout artist of animation film in Canada.

To the names you in enumerated I will add the name of  my cousins René Gabri, who is a political conceptual artist living in New York, Sirak Melkonian, who is also an artist, and Alek Melkonian, an opera singer. Actor Narbe Vartan from Iran is also my relative; he acted in the Armenian-Iranian joint production “Apricot Groves.”

And your sons also inherited talents from their parents.

My husband Mansour Eslami is an artist and an architect. My son Karen is a painter and performance director, and my oldest son, Armin, is an architect who lives in Copenhagen. My husband and I share an atelier with Karen in Oslo.

I am in touch with Karen – please tell us about his activities.

He studied at the Fine Arts Universities in London and Norway, and also studied religion and philosophy. Karen has participated in more than 25 group exhibitions around the world, and his solo exhibitions have opened in Spain, Denmark, Italy, Norway and the United States. Karen works at the Oslo Museum of Contemporary Art, observing Norwegian cultural life. Two years ago he staged Petronius’s “Satyricon” by his own dramatization and design with contemporary interpretation. The performance received a lot of praise. He says he is mostly influenced by literature and films and among the Armenians he loves Sergey Paradjanov and Atom Egoyan. He is also one of the founders of the No Plays showroom, where he presents young Norwegian artists. Karen has organized various performances influenced by English rappers. And when the Norwegian royal family visits the Museum of Modern Art, he is entrusted to explain the exhibition. Karen’s last performance was “Ghetto Justice,” shown five times last September in Oslo.

You have been in Armenia once – do you have any new projects?

Yes I have plans to travel to Armenia again. I have an ambition to travel with my husband and son to Armenia to find the opportunity to exhibit our family artwork in an exhibition there. The exhibition can be painting, installation and performance…

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