Alain Navarra-Navassartian

Alain Navarra-Navassartian: ‘For me Armenia is the place of active belonging’

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GENEVA/YEREVAN — Alain-Barkev Navarra-Navassartian was born in Paris and resides in Geneva. He has studied at University of Sorbonne and Columbia University, New York City. He is a doctor in art history, PhD in sociology in Italy and the United States, vice-president of the association “Invitation to knowledge” and president of the NGO “Hyestart.” He is actively in touch with his colleagues in Armenia, initiating various social and cultural projects, teaching tourist guides to discover and study subjects of the history of art. 

Alain, your double name and surname hint your belonging of two peoples and cultures, western and Armenian. How this combination influences on you as specialist and person?

Indeed, I come from a mixed family: an Italian-American father with Hispanic and Maltese origins and an Armenian mother. I was raised by my maternal grandparents, who were Armenians, so Armenian culture is at the heart of my learning as a child and teenager and even my adult life. However, I had to develop identity strategies in order not to give up my mother’s culture (speaking the language, attending Armenian school, etc.) Thanks to the education I received, my Armenian identity was never a principled identity, based on dissociation. I never had to choose between different feelings of affiliation. It was obvious that an identity is built. There was an objective identity but also a subjective one. And this is the great gift that my grandparents gave me: the freedom of the sense of identity, the adherence to my Armenian identity is my choice.

There is a voluntary dimension in this choice; it is not only logic of collective belonging, but also logic of private trajectory. I am therefore comfortable with all my “legacies.” This freedom offered by my family has had a significant impact on my life and professional choices. First of all, I was led to rethink the definition of “culture” as the grandson of stateless people, and belonging to a group that has always appeared as the paragon of integration in the host country. Beyond beliefs and practices, a culture is characterized by ways of thinking about the world, the individuals, the family, etc. My education has allowed me to understand that I am not the mirror of a single cultural belonging without betraying family loyalties. The Narek echoed Saint Francis of Assisi as Vahé Oshagan echoed French existentialism.

My taste for art history and the arts, in general, is more a matter of family heritage. My grandfather had started studying architecture in Turkey, he painted and knew many Armenian artists in Paris. My grandmother was a musician. On the other hand, growing up in a diasporic family, marked by exile and the difficulties of integration in the host country certainly had an impact: the dialectic of absence and presence, of the said and the unspoken, etc., was not always easy to understand. I have always refused the place assigned to the Armenian group: a group with a ritualized memory in a social and spatial inter-self. Through the experience of my grandparents and my mother, the history of minorities imposed itself on me. And this is the subject of my sociology studies

Unlike many diaspora-born people, even being half Armenian, you are very connected to Armenia…

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I am indeed very close to Armenia, first of all by my family history; my aunt came to Armenia in 1948. She studied there and started a family. So we came to Armenia during the Soviet period and I have family there. But I also created my own network of dear friends. I carried out various activities with my association and other associations: teaching, participating in social-economic projects, organizing cultural trips, etc.

My link with Armenia is essential for me; I come there three to four times a year. Armenia is the place where I can avoid the diasporic standardization of identity. It is a country with all that it entails: social and cultural differences, meetings with a multitude of personalities, diversity. But I never come to find the “promised land,” a kind of imagined country, the center of amenity. First of all, because I refuse this idea of center and periphery. There are only centers that must work together. I never seek homogeneity when I am in Armenia, but on the contrary all the variations of a living population. My position is therefore quite clear: I am a subject of the diaspora but an active participant in a collective history, that of the Armenians. Armenia is for me the place of active belonging, I am among my people, confronted with various realities (pleasant or not) but also with creative and cultural bubbling. But the most obvious link is the love I have for the country and for my people who know how to show the greatest dignity in all difficulties.

In 2007 you published a study in English with an unusual title,Armenian landscapes in contemporary art and architecture landscape of symbols, landscape of the built environment, landscape of dreams.” As an art specialist what do you consider special in Armenian landscape for modern art and architecture?

In order to understand the culture of a people, its history, the signs of its existence, the study of the natural environment is essential. The distinctive characteristics of the place (climate, vegetation, altitude, natural resources, etc.) incite man to make precise choices and this is a particularly determining fact in geographical territories with a very pronounced character such as Armenia. For example, the presence of Mount Ararat on the territory is a milestone like all sacred mountains (Fuji-Yama, or Olympus) with a strong symbolic meaning, such as its verticality and the notion of elevation that it signifies. It is a “sacred” sign. It is an unchanged part of the Armenian landscape. But that will suppose a way of reading and analyzing the space, of representing it if necessary outside of the sensory grasp, of schematizing it in order to offer it to the aesthetic appreciation, of loading it with meanings and emotions.

Thus multiple logics determine the way of understanding space. Beliefs, expectations, cultural references, the drawing of imaginary places. There is no virgin perception. Other landscapes appeared with the social-economic upheavals of the post-independence period: industrial wastelands or the construction of new districts, or the destruction of certain historic areas of Yerevan such as the rehabilitation of Firdus. These landscapes and their modifications are obviously important for each individual and for artists as well. The landscape and how it is read, or how it is put into art, varies from individual to individual, but also from group to group, and is constantly changing over time. There is a historicity of the landscape. The landscape I was talking about in this text is the post-independence landscape, the one built during the entry into a poorly managed market economy (shopping malls, poorly planned urbanization, etc.) and this has generated an infinity of experiences for artists. The landscape is the personal and common history made visible and what has been interesting is to see how the awareness of these changes has been rendered by the artists, through the awareness of place. “All things are somewhere and in one place” (Aristotle).

The question of landscape reflects social, economic and cultural issues. The specificity of a neighborhood has an influence on collective identity by having a symbolic resonance. The overall destruction of this type in the center of Yerevan raises the question of these urban landscapes emptied of collective experience and social interaction. Talking about landscape is not just talking about a relationship with nature, it is a global vision obtained from certain points of view. Landscape is inseparable from the subject who perceives it. The constructed or natural landscape is a semiotic notion; it is a figurative whole producing values. It belongs to a territory and not only to a history, this text from 2007 was written after a study trip with art history students, whom I had brought to visit Armenia, to go beyond the simple typological reading of the landscapes they were passing through. To arrive at several levels of axiological apprehension, in particular for a social representation of the landscape. The vision of architecture, for example, and especially of the churches on the Armenian territory is a form of concretization of values of a society, how this society “structures” its beliefs. Architecture and landscape form an obvious whole in Armenia.

The simplest or most banal of landscapes is at once social and natural, subjective and objective, natural and cultural production, real and symbolic. I would take as an example the remarkable work of a group of Armenian students that we carried out on Yerrord Mas (Third) district in Yerevan, documented by photos. The anthropological, sociological and artistic work that reveals how a landscape, thought of as ordinary, takes on an emblematic dimension. This work has become a conceptual framework for understanding the relationship between territory and collective identity.

It is not a question of speaking only of the visual basis of the territory, but rather, of manifestations of a sensitive nature with the territory: mediation of art and aesthetic experience by the interpretation of the landscape as a cultural text to decode. But to also be interested in social actions towards this territory.

This year the book by contemporary Armenian writer Aram Pachyan has been translated.

It is important, for me, to defend contemporary creation, including Armenian, with a certain desire to think about the links between art, knowledge and action, so to look for creators who use, in a certain way, the force of opposition of art, those which endeavor to create, voluntarily or not, an “intervening thought” according to the expression of Berthold Brecht. It is not a question of opposing forms of artistic creation, but that also depends, quite simply, on my freedom as a spectator who chooses. But it is obvious that my training (art historian and sociologist) leads me to take an interest in the relationship between arts and society. What social function of art in a society which has undergone profound changes, such as Armenian society?

Art has not only a social nature but also social effects. Art is not a miraculous activity, the work is a production carried out under specific conditions by a socially and historically situated individual. The structure of the work is a product of the structure of collective representations. The art producer is situated in a dynamic vision of the social, but what characterizes him is not so much to be registered in a social reality as to derive from it something that is only in the state of potentiality. The choice of a work to defend starts, obviously from a subjective point of view, as far as I am concerned. As a spectator or reader, I claim the status of partner and not of simple receiver who would just have to diffuse the works of the artists. It is in this that the book of Aram, challenged us. It offers a space for social questioning and transgression and is situated outside the normativity of the Armenian literary field.

On the other hand, the translation of a language which is not dominant in the field of international literature is essential. HYESTART did the translation, to make an imprint in Armenian contemporary literature, because it is a potentially powerful tool of cultural mediation, it constitutes the type of cultural transfer, par excellence. Moreover, in a market which has become largely international, translation is a necessity. There are just few examples of contemporary Armenian literature, in the field of French-speaking realistic-fiction literature.

The activities of Hyestart NGO are diverse – from the program of the Armenian stall at the Geneva book fair to the election of the observation mission. How this idea of founding such organization came to you and what are your achievement so far? 

The bottom line is we need a truly democratic Turkey, a Turkey that accepts to confront its bloody past and decides to make amends in order to have peace in the region. That’s why we decided to create Hyestart with Alexis Krikorian. The situation we are observing today, that of a country which is hell bent on finishing the job of 1915 — the International Association of Genocide Scholars issued a statement two days ago warning of the risk of genocide against Armenians — proves us right unfortunately.

Our achievements this far: an Armenian stand on the Geneva book fair which is often voted as the public’s favorite stand on the book fair; a conference on Freedom of Expression in Turkey featuring as speaker, among many others, the famous Turkish writer Asli Erdogan; an honorary board which brings together Armenians and Turks: Ragip Zarakolu (human rights activist and publisher), Pinar Selek (sociologist), Serge Avédikian (actor, director), and Eugene Schoulgin (VP of PEN International and expert on freedom of expression in Turkey); our electoral observation missions to Armenia which accompanied the strengthening and the deepening of the Armenian democracy; as you mentioned, a first translation into French of an Armenian novel, Au-revoir, Piaf by Aram Pachyan (Editions Parenthèses, Marseille, September 2020); Supporting in the revival of the Armenian PEN centre of PEN International; a partnership with the FIFDH, the world’s largest human rights film festival in 2020 to present the documentary “I am not Alone” on the velvet revolution in Armenia (the civil disobedience process which led to Nikol Pashinyan to being Armenia’s Prime Minister). A model for us has been Ragip Zarakolu who was the first publisher to publish a book on the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1993 — a year later his publishing house, Belge, was fire-bombed and he now lives in exile in Sweden, like so many other Turkish human rights activists. His publishing house Belge has been a major cultural and democratic agent in Turkey.

That is great, but why also Turkey?

I think I have partly answered regarding Turkey. But I can add that both Alexis Krikorian and I have tremendous experience in the fields of culture and human rights in Turkey. We have worked extensively with artists, writers, publishers, intellectuals, freedom of expression NGOs to defend the right of freedom of expression in Turkey as a way to have a more democratic Turkey. When Hrant Dink was killed by an ultra-nationalist in 2007 we went to his public funerals which were attended by 100,000 persons. We have gone there dozens of times, at least until 2016 when the situation became really dangerous in Turkey, including for foreigners. If you look at Turkey specifically, the country is ranked 154th in the press freedom index of RSF, while Armenia is ranked 61st. In the latter, there are some taboo subjects, but generally speaking, there is freedom of expression. In Turkey, on the contrary, freedom of expression is now controlled, truncated, oriented. Journalists and human rights activists are being arrested. Fake news are mass produced. A new law was just passed in Parliament further restricting freedom of expression on the internet which had been until recently the last stronghold of freedom of expression in the country. Not anymore! In the current context, Turkish media say that the Armenian side started the war, which is completely false: Turkish reporters were on the spot in Azerbaijan to do live coverage of the Turkish-Azeri offensive on September 27th. Turkey and Azerbaijan have a lot of aggressive trolls who sow terror on social networks. Even if Facebook finally deleted 8000 pages of Azeri trolls a few days ago, the phenomenon remains massive.

We have strong bonds with this country. This is where we are coming from. It is a country that matters to us and a country we need to see become a true democracy if we are to ever live in peace in this region. I must insist on the word “truly.” It cannot only be cosmetic; it has be some kind of Copernican revolution where we see a real and definite change of mentalities in Turkey. To reach this point, it may have to go through an end to the impunity this country has been enjoying since World War I.

What are the current project of Hyestart?

We have a fund for contemporary Armenian Literary Creation & the Freedom to Publish in Turkey. Our second book is being translated. We are or were planning to set up a creative writing program in Armenia in the field of fiction (which has a social and/or political resonance) and to publish or support the publication of the best texts selected at the end of the teaching by a jury of specialists. We are or were also planning to develop — through the fund — our support for freedom to publish in Turkey. Finally we were also planning a big conference against racism in Geneva next year (we see that anti-armenianism is at the heart of the current Azeri-Turkish war in Armenia and Artsakh). That said the current war — whereas said the very survival of Armenians is at stake — is obviously upsetting our plans to a large extent. We have to assess our plans in the mid-to short term. Armenians are alone. We have therefore led huge fundraising efforts for the Armenian Fund. We are also leading all around advocacy and communication efforts to end this war and to have the human right to self-determination of the people of Artsakh recognized.

This war makes that now all Armenians look on one direction.

I am ready, like many, to come and spend several months to help rebuild the country after this war and to finish I would like to underline only one thing, in all this disaster the dignity of my people, left alone.

THE ILLUSION OF SOLIDARITY AND THE UNUSUALITY OF COMPASSION.

The journalistic “law” of the “dead mile” seems to apply to the discourse of solidarity or compassion of certain Western leaders, intellectuals or even certain NGOs. The rule is simple: two deaths in a serious accident in Paris or London weigh more than 100 victims “at the end of the world.” In the exchange of emotions, not all victims have the same value, but the Armenian population of Artsakh does not need compassion, which is a heavy tendency in democracies, because through this process, all the political, economic and social dimensions of the conflict are erased. The “I suffer with you” is not of great use, even if the place of feelings is not to be neglected if they are put back into the political field. We are indeed the inhabitants of the same world, but the reality of the Armenians of Artsakh does not seem to be that of many others, they seem to be out of our field of consciousness. And yet…

Neutrality in this conflict is aporetic because the decisions taken by the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments do not spring from a cultural or historical void. When we speak of a new possible ethnic cleansing in the region, we refer to specific events: the pogroms of Sumgait and Baku. We, individuals of Armenian origin, should be well aware that compassion and solidarity are eminently political: relativizing certain crimes is immoral but, on the other hand, other imperatives seem to allow us to relativize the aggression of Aliev, Erdogan and sometimes even the negationism of the genocide of the Armenians. It thus seems obvious that the case of the Armenians of Artsakh does not fall within the “invariants” of Western solidarity, or even of certain NGOs, for that matter. This population and its claims to break free from the Azeri yoke do not have the same “assets” as other sufferings, all of which are absolutely legitimate, moreover. A general consensus continues to speak of ethnic conflict and here we have a notion full of innuendoes, since a false trial in archaism is taking shape. I am always surprised in all the interventions of experts to read so little reference to the reality of the life of these minority groups during the “pax soviética.” The ignorance and silence of violence in social relations is also one of the many factors that pushed a population to rise up. Perhaps this is what is blamed on the Armenian population of Artsakh: no internalization of domination, no silent response, no submission and no acceptance of dispossession, dispossession that was not only territorial.

All Armenians demand one essential thing: that our history be written in a proper way. Not like geopolitics, real-politics, European energy security or others, because we are well aware that in this conflict, the control of history, of its elaboration and of its good and correct understanding is still at stake.

Yes, I will come to help my people to rebuild…

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