Shadows of Time: the photographic art of Gagik Harutyunyan, 1970-1995


Gagik Harutyunyan. Untitled. From the series ‘Gharabagh’, 1992.

Soviet photography remains one of the least known and explored legacies in the history of the medium. Helping to address this lack, ‘Shadows of Time’ presents the first retrospective of Gagik Harutyunyan, one of the major Soviet photographers of 1970d-90s.

Despite an exceptional career that spans three decades, numerous exhibitions and countless reproductions in his native country, Harutyunyan’s work has been largely forgotten today. Partially due to indifference from official and critical establishments in Armenia towards photography, Harutyunyan stopped his practice in early 2000s, destroying most of his vintage prints.

After a long period of silence, the photographer has finally allowed for new prints to be made from his negatives under his direct supervision. Most of these works will be presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition ‘Shadows of Time’, organized collaboratively by ‘Lusadaran’ Armenian Photography Foundation and KulturDialog Armenien Foundation. Approximately 190 photographs have been assembled by curator Vigen Galstyan in what will be the first retrospective of the artist. A catalogue featuring an extensive new study about Harutyunyan will accompany the exhibition

‘Shadows of Time’ highlights Harutyunyan’s creative trajectory from epically inclined view of Armenia in the 1970s to the philosophically imbued and surreal vision that marked the end of his artistic career. Poetically dense and shaped by a rich expressionist aesthetic, Harutyunyan’s work captured a country and its people through a time of profound transformations and turmoil.

The exhibition reveals the breath of Harutyunyan’s oeuvre and his undeniable influence on younger Armenian photographers. It also fundamentally challenges ideas about the history of modern and contemporary Armenian art, from which photography has so far been written out.

‘Shadows of Time’ will take place from October 18 to November 7 at the House of Artists’ Union, Yerevan, Armenia.

‘Trouble in Paradise: photography and constructions of femininity

This exhibition looks at the current perceptions of femininity in contemporary Armenian photography, represented here by the works of Svetlana Antonyan (Oceana), Anush Babajanyan, Anna Davtyan,Vehanush Topchyan, Nvard Yerkanian and Nazik Armenakyan. These are accompanied byexamples of 19th and 20th century commercial photography, which give a partial overview of the historical as well as international developments in the visual constructions of the feminine.

In post-feminist vision of society and power, the disquieting and ‘troublesome’ aspects of femininity are often oppressed or relegated to daytime soap operas. Mass medias continuously exploit normative, sexualised images of femininity as a vital part of the ‘consumer paradise’. In this regard, photography has always been the medium most responsible for both, the commodification and the subversion of femininity as an object of visual (masculine) pleasure.

Photography is also the space that makes the dialogue between the participating artists possible. Coming from different professional backgrounds, these practitioners are interested in the tensions produced by disruptive, ambiguous and contradictory facets of femininity. They view it not as an aesthetic or a critically devalued construct, but a transgressive activity which can become a constructive force.
Their works refer to ubiquitous imagery drawn from television, cinema, painting, fashion and commerce. Through various ‘feminine’ interventions, these archetypes of domestic, public, political, and natural spaces are disturbed and transformed into arenas of imagination, poetry and play.

Photography and femininity themselves become fragmented in the process, turning into multiple phenomena. Taking different forms they slip and spill out from conventional frameworks, while enabling novel ways of seeing and representing the real.
Collectively, the close to fifty works exhibited here enter into an open-ended discussion regarding the performance of femininities and how it might be relevant to current thinking (by predominantly women artists) about identity, desire, gender and beyond.
Vigen Galstyan
‘Lusadaran’ Armenian Photography Foundation

Samvel Saghatelyan’s ‘Transromance’


Can porn be innocent? Or sexual desire in general? And why do perverts dream of flowers? These are some of the questions that one encounters in Samvel Saghatelyan’s 2010-13 series Transromance. Each of the eleven mixed media ‘tableaux’ that make up the series, feature the artist clad in sadomasochistic leather gear and stockings, accompanied by a transgender person. The photographic image of this couple is printed, photocopied, collaged, drawn over by hand, pasted onto a cheap cardboard and then rubbed over for a patina effect.

Samvel Saghatelyan. From the series 'Transromance' 2012. Photocollage and mixed media

The sequence unfolds like a dream. The trans woman initially appears as a projection rising from the artist’s slumbering body. She then materialises as a more concrete being, posing alongside Saghatelyan as if in a family photo and finally helping him reach a firework-like climax. It’s a quasi-biblical narrative (which at one point takes place on the foot of Mount Ararat) seen through the unashamedly pornographic prism of phalocentric male narcissism. But the narrative here is problematised by its representation. Awkward and cartoonish, the childish execution undermines the troubling nature of sexuality which lies at the core of Transromance. Aggression dissipates under the layers of genteel flowers, rainbows, mountains, purple glitter and hearts. Taken as a whole, Transromance appears like pages from a middle-aged man’s wet dream in the form of a teenage girl’s personal diary.

This bawdy tone is typical of Saghatelyan’s practice since the mid 1990s and has become more prominent since his move to Los Angeles in 2002. One of the works from the 1996-2013 series Body, for example, depicts ghost-like phalluses rising out of the windows and doors of the Ejmiatsin Cathedral – the holiest of Armenian religious sites. Such brazen attacks on institutionalised value systems are representative of an artist who emerged during the period of Armenia’s transition from a Soviet to an independent state between 1988 and 1991

Chief amongst the many things placed on the operating table in Transromance is male sexuality and desire. Its grotesque space of power and domination is lampooned as a kitsch, masturbatory act. Literally so in two of the last images, where the male figure, named ‘Armenian King’ urinates and then jerks off over his submissive fantasy mistress. However, despite their open sarcasm, Saghatelyan’s images rethink the post-modernist arsenal of pastiche and parody. The artist complicates the use of such devices through the emotive, tender tone that floods the works. ‘I was thinking of Sayat-Nova while working on the series. It related to the kind of trance-like state where the simultaneous presence of the opposites creates a vague space of in-betweenness in which sexuality, images, feelings and perception are all ‘trans’.’(1)


Samvel Saghatelyan. From the series 'Transromance' 2012. Photocollage and mixed media

The reference to the 18th century Armenian bard Sayat-Nova is telling as Transromance clearly gestures towards Sergey Paradjanov’s 1969 film Colour of the Pomegranates. In the film, the poet was played by an actress (Sofiko Tchaureli) who also personified his love interest and muse. This duality is shared by Saghatelyan’s hero. The trans-woman and the male figure are clearly a part of the same body, shown at times like Siamese twins.

Their liaison is further complicated as the transgender character is represented by different persons of South-East Asian origin. In this ambiguous body of desire, sexuality is made fluid and paradoxical. Hyper-masculinity, hyper-femininity as well as ethnic stereotypes can be provocatively indulged in, because ultimately they are shown to be nothing more than ridiculously sentimental and co-dependent garbs. Like in a 19th century photography studio, the fun lies in the exchange and the performance during which new poetics of identity can be developed. This aspect is yet again reinforced by the aesthetic of the works where the compositions are constantly repeated and only their painted surfaces change, like skins or costumes. What the artist seeks in this liminal, transitory condition is the possibility for guiltless enjoyment and exploration.

Transromance is symptomatic of the kind of contemporary art, exemplified by international artists such as Catherine Opie, Jeff Koons and Patt Brassington, that has digested the lessons of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and queer theory to go beyond critique. With impressive effortlessness, the series weaves through these terrains to reach back to a point of pleasure and emotion. As theorist Judith Butler has noted ‘to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.’ (2) It is this ‘knowingness’ that allows Saghatelyan to fearlessly play with problematic symbols, clichés and meta-narratives.

What we see in Transromance is a self-aware theatre of appearances in which art, body and desire shift-shape and morph by assuming a variety of interchangeable masks. By synthesising the aesthetics of family photographs, folk and naïf art, Saghatelyan makes evident the nature of images, identity and gender as a socio-cultural construct. But rather than negate these confines, Saghatelyan unfolds his game within them normalising and domesticating that which is repressed and derided. Rather than being merely clever, the images acquire their strength on the basis of their honesty. Recalling critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ (3), Transromance utilises humour, confession and burlesque to create a productive space in which homogeneity, power and ideology are dissolved to give way to the romance of transformation.

Transromance was presented as a one day happening-event, which took place at the private apartment of film historian Shahane Yuzbachyan in Yerevan, Armenia on September 12, 2013. The show was organised with the assistance of ‘Lusadaran’ Armenian Photography Foundation.

Vigen Galstyan
curator, 2013

i) Conversation with the artist, Yerevan, 09.09.2013
ii) Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, Routledge, New York, London, 1990, p 40
iii) See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rebelais and his world (1940), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2009

This essay originally appeared in the booklet accompanying the exhibition.

Conflicted visions: Gabriel Lekegian and the Oriental imagination

Upcoming exhibition project, 2017

Tracing the life and work of the enigmatic Egyptian-Armenian photographer Gabriel Lekegian, ‘Conflicted Visions’ is an attempt to re-evaluated his place within the annals of late 19th century Middle Eastern and ‘Orientalist’ photography.

Although ‘Photographie Artistique G. Lekegian & Co.’ produced some of the best known images of Egypt between 1880s and 1900s, little is known about their creator. Moreover, no effort has been made to properly evaluate this complex body of work that depicts all aspects of Egyptian life during a period of cataclysmic cultural, social and political transformations. A highly successful operator who was enlisted as the official photographer to the British Army in Egypt in the 1890s, Lekegian was also an active participant in international exhibitions, such as the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Nevertheless, the man behind the camera remained in the shadows, preferring to leave his personal life unexposed.

Drawn entirely from Lusadaran’s collection, this is the first exhibition that will showcase the immense variety of Lekegian studio output through close to fifty vintage photographs from 1880s to 1920s. These works are divided into two major groups. The early production which was carried out by or under direct supervision from Lekegian between 1880s and 1900s is followed by photographs made in the first two decades of the 20th century when the studio was sold by Lekegian, but preserved his name. Although made by different photographers, these later images were strongly influenced by the overall stylistic and thematic approaches developed by Lekegian.

Ranging from typical Orientalist subject matter such as architectural ruins, ethnographic types to early forms of industrial and documentary photography these commercial photographs remain a fascinating, albeit conflicted record of an Eastern country on the path of modernisation.

Extensive research undertaken over a ten year period will throw much needed light on Lekegian’s prolific career and mysterious biography. An accompanying catalog will be published to coincide with the exhibition. Exhibition venues and dates will be released in 2017.

Barrages Est du NileMarket SellerTurkish Woman in her House