Tania Bakalian Safieddine

Tania Bakalian Safieddine: ‘All my works arise from my Armenian identity’

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YEREVAN / BEIRUT — Tania Bakalian Safieddine, known as Tanbak, is a Lebanese contemporary artist. Born in Beirut, in 1954, she studied Spanish literature in Madrid and Barcelona and international relations at Georgetown University in Washington. She lived in Paris, where she studied and taught in various art studios. Tanbak produces paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media installations using natural colors and materials to depict historical themes, including the Lebanese civil war. Since 1997, Tanbak has been widely exhibited in Lebanon, as well as in number of countries of the world.

A sketch by Paul Guiragosian of Tanya Bakalian Safieddine (Tanbak)

Dear Tania, you have degrees from two universities, but none of them is in art. Do you think your art would be different if you receive an academic art education?

I belong to a generation when women had to study serious subjects. If at the time I had said I wanted to go to art school, it would not have been serious. I wanted to leave Lebanon, so I went to Spain first, where I studied the language.

The contemporary art scene is active in Armenia. Our galleries and artists are in touch with their partners form various countries, but it seems here we do not know Lebanese modern art. How do you describe it?

It is very problematic. This is a good question study more deeply. Actually, on the cultural level relations between Armenia and Lebanon are equal to zero, although many non-Armenians Lebanese people travel to Hayastan and they love it. And we know nothing of the Armenian modern art scene. Ah yes. I remember a few years ago Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, had an Armenian guest for a lecture and it was extremely interesting. And in music festivals we often have musicians. But I do not recall any Armenian visual artists. 

Who are your teachers and what are your inspirations and concerns?

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In Paris I went to a preparatory school for art. I had never held a pencil in my hand: the teacher laughed at me and gave me the greatest piece of advice in my life: go and do anything except art. At that very moment I knew I would not do anything else. So I attended art classes at Ecole d’Art Martenot de Paris, after which I taught in Paris for a while and then returned to Beirut.

A creation by Tanbak

What did Lebanon, Spain, the US and France give to your art?

Of course, traveling always expands your viewpoint. Spain was where I met Goya, Velasquez and Antoni Tàpies. America was a country of nice ignorant people with no links to the world. As about France… well, I learned about the French Revolution and how to say ‘non’ when you have to.

My impression is that you prefer to use black, white and grey — some people will analyze this as you not being an optimistic person. Is this true?

The colors in the world are so beautiful; I could not challenge their creator by making some sad copies. The black is strong — it contains all the colors and it was a great challenge to create a work with only one color that is denied the attributes of niceness. No makeup — just a raw, plain and basic color. I am not really optimistic. With a genocide and half a dozen civil and regional wars behind me and this rotten state of the world, I would be foolish to be optimistic. But still, I am alive with a capacity to see. I try to think about what is going on around, enjoy flowers and good chocolate. And most importantly, I am working on half a dozen new plans and dreams.

In Yerevan we have a museum presenting the very impressive creations of Iranian-Armenian artist Marcos Grigorian. You also work with sand and ash. Do they have a special meaning for you?

It is a pity I did not see that museum (so I will have to plan another visit!). Yes, I like challenges, and sand and ash were for me full of meaning. The ashes were of Beirut, my destroyed city. They, of course, mean death, which in a way haunts the artist. And all the different shades of sand you can find are just amazing. Just going back to something primitive I guess, like the first drawings done in the cave!

In your French-language essay “Confessions in the Time of Corona,” I like your thoughts: “It seems overwhelming to me to think that this tiny, almost invisible virus can keep the world alive in anticipation of the worst. Until the vaccine hits the market, the writers of science fiction series, films and novels have plenty to do.” How has the pandemic affected your art?

We artists live in a world we constructed and put fences around it to keep us away from the insanity of the world, which is growing at an incredible speed. So I am working on a crazy tapestry which I had been planning for years.

 Where are your ancestors from and what have you inherited from them?

My grandparents on my father’s side were from Kayseri and mother’s side was from Izmir. So we lived in Beirut with the eternal smile, jokes, food, family from these two lost cities.

Some ten years ago you touched the theme of the Armenian Genocide.

When I returned to Beirut, the city where I was born, it was devastated by the Civil War. So it was obvious I had to speak about it. Thus, my first exhibition on the war was held. But working on it I realized that something deeper was coming out, hidden deep inside me. It was the Genocide. So I made a wall of martyrs and working on it I gave them the names I knew: Kevork. Aram. Puzant. Ara. Assadour. etc.

Is this unavoidable for a Diaspora artist?

The heritage of living around this hole is impossible to erase. It is within you. I realized that all my works come up from this identity, from my first exhibition to the last. The last one was on the camps (which Pompidou museum in Paris bought a piece) I called “In transit.” It was a great success because it sounded so contemporary to the world we live. Especially in the Middle East with all the migrations caused by wars. But originally the meaning was the Armenians.

If I am not mistaken, once you used the Armenian alphabet in an installation.

An Armenian organization commissioned it for the April 24 commemoration of the Genocide. It emanates from a very personal story. My father had a factory in the Karantina community next to Bourj Hammoud, a shantytown consisted of houses made of cardboard. He used to tell me every time we passed: “Never forget, my daughter, that we Armenians, lived in such houses.” Then the Armenian alphabet was commissioned to me. It is another “hole” in my life, because I neither know how to read it and nor speak it properly. Funny Armenian is the secret language of my heart, it comes up fluently only with my family members.

Many consider the Armenian ghetto of Bourj Hammoud inspiring. I see it as being very cinematographic. You also depicted that neighborhood in your work.

I like to call Bourj Hammoud a very particular place. Firstly, the low level of houses lets you see the sky. Secondly, it changes according with time. When I was a kid, I used to hate it because my grandmother used to drag us there to church and it used to be so long, never ending with the smell of incense that used to sicken me. But it was decorated with paintings and the whole ceremony and the priest’s robe was like being in a theater. But we were rewarded after that with lahmajoun. Years later a friend of mine, singer and songwriter Vicken Tarpinian, introduced me to a great guy, the late director Varoujan Hadeshian, who had assembled the youth of Bourj Hammoud and introduced them to the plays of Shakespeare. It is a pity that the spirit of Bourj Hammoud has faded now, as the Armenians who have money are moving out and they are replaced by Sri Lankan and Syrian workers. No more small shoe and fabric producers. China is supplying everything. I had a dream of creating a small museum of the immigration of Armenians in Bourj Hammoud. But I am completely outside of the community, and they told me the biggest dream they have is to get a visa to Los Angeles.

 Your portrait made by the brilliant Lebanese Armenian artist Paul Guiragosian is very remarkable. What is the story behind it?

It is one of the stories of my life I am very fond of. I was I think around 17 or 18 years old. I was getting out of a movie theater and had to catch a bus. There was a gallery just in front of the bus station so I decided to go in as the bus was late. An old shabby-looking old man became glued to me while I was watching the paintings. A very annoying man indeed. I thought he was the doorman, but it was Paul Guiragosian! Then he ran and got a piece of paper and told me he wants to do my portrait. I could not care less. He insisted. And in three minutes he drew a fantastic charcoal! It took him really three minutes. And it was really me from the inside out, not just outside! Afterwards he told me: “Please, come back and I will make a good oil painting of you! Look at my paintings, they are all tall women just as you.” It is true that I am a very tall woman and it was a problem then, because I was taller than most Lebanese. I never went back. When I told this to my agent, he told me: “Well, that’s how you lost half a million dollars.” And I don’t know why I did not tell him I am Armenian. Because I am sure he guessed it, he had the feeling. I used to like the fact of silent words were stronger, than bla bla bla…

You have been in Armenia only once. Any plans to return?

Of course I would love to return and to donate one of my works to the Yerevan Modern Art Museum!

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