Karine Paronjanc (Photo by Andrey Losevich)

Karine Paronjanc: An Absolutely Armenian Artist in Latvia

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YEREVAN/RIGA — My friend Naira Khachatryan, a specialist in Latvian, brought Latvian artist and dancer Karine Paronjanc (Paronjanca/Paroniants) to my home last September. Her name was familiar to me, and I had written about her in my book, Armenians in the World Dance. A warm friendship immediately began with beautiful Karine, and I was completely overwhelmed with the need to introduce her to the greater Armenian world.

Karine was born in Riga; she obtained her master’s degree while studying at the Department of Monumental Painting of the Latvian Academy of Arts. In 2007 she studied fresco and graffito techniques at the Florence Art Institute in Italy. She has had more than 20 solo exhibitions in Latvia. She regularly participates in group exhibitions in Latvia, as well as in international art projects. Since 2007 she has been a member of the Latvian Union of Artists.

Her current studio is located in one of the historical buildings of the Riga Botanical Garden. The neighborhood includes pavilions with exotic plants, scientific laboratories, buildings of an old manor house and the lecture hall of the University of Latvia.

Karine Paronjanc (Photo by Andrey Losevich)

Dear Karine, it was a great pleasure to meet you in Yerevan, though it was a tragic time for our people. What were your feelings in Yerevan?

Artsvi jan, the Armenian community of Latvia was very concerned about what is happening in Armenia. Being a public person, I have raised the issue of the blockade of Artsakh and the war in the media space very actively and repeatedly. Of course, I flew to Armenia with a heavy heart. Initially, the trip had been planned as a pilgrimage, including a visit to see the myrrh preparation in Echmiadzin. But in the end, the event was cancelled. I decided to come to Armenia in spite of the fact that many people discouraged me, many were afraid to fly into Armenia: it seemed the enemy would go further.  I did not regret the decision; I was happy to see that the city lives in spite of the national calamity: the life was bubbling, including the cultural life, and there were many tourists. Well done, Armenians! Despite the difficult economic situation in the country, they have managed to accept about 100,000 refugees from Artsakh. Activists have been and continue to be active on the streets of the city and in social networks.

I always say that when I come to Yerevan, I hear the voices of Babylon. Armenians are carriers of ancient culture and it is felt in everything, even in everyday life. There are so many layers of the past there, it is such a birthday cake for antiquity lovers: legends, myths, history, East and West, Silk Road and Byzantium; such a mix of cultures, dialects. People’s genetic memory keeps the spirit of Great Armenia. The gene of David of Sasun, the gene of the winner is very strong in the inhabitants of this long-suffering country. We love holidays, we know how to receive guests, we know how to be generous and hospitable even now, when the businessmen, who fancy themselves hegemons, mercilessly redraw the map of the world, and the very statehood of Armenia is put under great question. There is a lot of strength in our culture. Of course, like all southerners, we are too fond of celebrating life, and like all representatives of ancient peoples, we rely too much on the achievements and victories of years gone by.

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In my childhood I often came to Yerevan with my parents. And every time it was like an Oriental fairy tale, thus, perhaps, my love for the table theme in painting. In my adult life, every trip to Armenia is an absolutely significant journey into my real self, a meeting with my roots. And each meeting with my ethnic homeland invariably results in a new painting cycle.

And so, it was this time too. It was a landmark trip on the eve of Sergei Paradjanov’s centennial, in the context of the great director’s book of screenplays, which, with a group of like-minded people and with the support of the prominent Armenian diplomat Tigran Mkrtchyan and his wife, the famous literary translator Ilza Paegle-Mktchyan, we hope to publish for the first time in Latvian.

I knew about you as a dancer of Eastern dances. Was it dancing or painting in the beginning? Not surprising if they bloomed simultaneously.

Of course, painting came first, I have been painting since early childhood, I always knew that I would be an artist.

I am an absolute visualist. Even with music, I see it first and hear it afterward. I draw all my work in my head first of all as a painter; I always cared about the composition of dance, the bright visual special effects. Yes, painting and dance, painting and music — they have a lot in common. After all, in painting too, rhythm and composition decide everything. But my main expressive medium has always been color, including on stage.

Dancing was a wonderful hobby in my student days! Our studio was one of the first to introduce in Latvia the fashion for exoticism, for the East. But even in this field, I continued to be more of an artist than a choreographer. And eventually it all grew into Latvia’s first foreign dance theatre. Our colorful costume shows on the themes of Indian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Caucasian dances were very popular. We even had medleys on Japanese, Chinese and Thai themes in our repertoire. I quickly realized that it could be sold, because I am Armenian, and commercialism is in our blood. As a result, it became a financially successful project. We even went on tour to Germany, Sweden and Finland. It was a great way for young guys, students (I was a very young first-year student at that time) to combine the love for adventure and travelling with a good income.

I believe I was able to complete this really cool hobby in time, prioritize and fully dedicate myself to painting. After all, behind this extravaganza of dance was also a huge administrative work, irregular schedule, terrible physical and emotional overload. But there remained incredible memories of youth and a fantastic collection of stage photo shoots. I know what to surprise my daughters with.

Do I feel nostalgic for that life? No! Not even the urge to blow someone away with my dance moves at a friend’s party. Although my body still remembers and that’s great!

I will tell the truth: with the dance theatre I earned much more than I earn now being engaged in highly intellectual labor, preparing art projects and exhibitions. But I treat it philosophically and with humor. That is the way our modern world works. I always know that the best works will be written on the table, the salon work will be bought sooner or later and I will be able to afford to create in the name of art again. Such is life. Recently, though, life has started to spoil me a bit, I have a circle of regular customers who give me the opportunity to create.

Karine Paronjanc, “Spindle” (2022)

Have Latvian art critics seen something Armenian in your work?

For Latvia, I am an absolutely Armenian artist, such a typical Caucasian woman. It is both interesting and difficult at the same time, to be everywhere not completely one’s own. For Armenians, I am almost a gothic Latvian, there is indeed a lot of Latvian in me. As I always joke, I am an Armenian of Baltic “spillage.” But for Latvians I am an absolute exotic, a bright, not always understandable spot on the background of a delicate grey landscape. I think this multiculturalism, this interesting genetic cocktail is my main strength. You cannot see it directly, but I have the opportunity to be at the crossroads, to see and broadcast my Armenian culture from the outside.

The genetic memory of blood keeps images of centuries-old Armenian miniature with fanciful ornaments of birds, letters and oriental motifs. Multiplied by the childhood fascination with Riga’s Jugend (ed. Latvian Art Nouveau style), these images are transformed into oriental fairy tales with a Latvian accent.

Does your fascination with depicting watermelons connect to your Armenian heritage too?

Of course! I even joke sometimes when people ask what I do, I answer that I sell watermelons. The “Watermelons” collection has taken a special place in my creative biography: the watermelon-shape “lotus” has become not only my trademark, but also the most recognizable image of my art.

I also had a series of works “Love and kebabs.” And there from watermelons only seeds remained – graphic, black, carelessly scattered on white discs of elegant plates, reminding of ignorant and hurried participants of the feast. The feast is over.

Paronian is the surname of a great Armenian satirist of the 19th century. Where are your roots from?

Yes, in Yerevan, just at the intersection with the street named after this satirist is my favorite house-museum of Sergei Paradjanov. I remember when I asked a taxi driver how to get to the Paradjanov Museum, he guided me: “Go straight on Paronian and you will come to Paradjanov.” I still laugh on this phrase!

My roots are from ancient Armenia, my ancestors fled the genocide of 1915 from Ani, the capital of old Armenia, and ended up in the northern Caucasus. And later, my grandfather, being a kind of Armenian dandy, in search of a beautiful European life, ended up in Latvia. To move to Baltics was a very brave and freedom-loving decision. The old generation of Armenians knew and remembered my grandfather Sergey Paronjanc well. He was a very charismatic man of a wide soul; he helped many people and did a lot for Armenians. Of course, he also had an Armenian style of having fun. Old-timers humorously called him the Armenian ambassador to Latvia.

My grandmother’s brother (whose family was also miraculously saved during that terrible time) became a famous professor in Moscow, headed the chair of light industry. Books and textbooks written by Yervand Melikov are still in active use.

I have many relatives in America, and we not only survived, but also managed to get a good education and make a career. This is the trick of history: they wanted us to be wiped off the face of the earth as a nation, but in the end, we were scattered all over the world and our Diaspora is very strong.

On my mother’s side, I have Siberian Latvians and Russian Old Believers — Filipovs from the colorful city of Daugavpils (the birthplace of the famous American artist Mark Rothko). Both of them were fully affected by Stalin’s repressions, because, as we know, the regime always mows down the best ones.

The Armenian community in Riga is small, but it is rich in interesting people. How would you assess its creative potential?

There are many interesting people among Armenians in general. But I believe that our strength lies in our unity, which we often lack. Every Armenian thinks of himself as a prince (one can understand that – we are descendants of the Great Armenia), but sometimes one should be able to step off of his personal ambitions for the sake of the common good.

Do you pass on Armenian traditions to your children?

Yes, of course. Blood is not milk. Roots are extremely important. It is the foundation; it is the connection with one’s ancestry. It is a great strength. We attend Armenian Sunday school together with our children. This sense of belonging is very important for me. My ancestry gives me my strength!

I am sure you have creative plans related to Armenia.

An exhibition in Armenia is a matter of the heart, not work, and certainly not business. Art and business in general are often mutually exclusive.

There are hints, plans and worthy acquaintances with extremely informative people, whose very communication is a great honor and spiritual value for me. Yerevan gave me a great number of incredible meetings. In many respects and thanks to you, dear Artsvi. Communicating with such people is enriching.

I hope to please you with information about my solo exhibition in Yerevan in the nearest future. The work in this direction is in progress!

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