Friday, August 1, 2008

Art historian challenges indifference and intimidation over cultural vandalism

This was first published in the February 2, 2008 Armenian Reporter.

Art historian slams indifference and intimidation over cultural destruction in Nakhichevan

Interview with Anahit Ter-Stepanian

When Anahit Ter-Stepanian decided to organize an exhibit on the destroyed Armenian cultural monuments of Nakhichevan, she could not anticipate the threats she would have to deal with and the indifference she would have to overcome to get the word out. She succeeded, and the exhibit went ahead last November at the Harvard University. In a December 18 interview, she told the Armenian Reporter’s Washington editor Emil Sanamyan about the yearlong effort.

Born in Armenia, Prof. Ter-Stepanian earned a master’s degree at the Architecture Department of the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute and a Ph.D. in architecture theory and history from the Moscow Architectural Institute. Upon graduation, she worked for four years in Armenia’s Department for Protection of Monuments. Since 1993, Prof. Ter-Stepanian has been teaching art history at American colleges.

Ter-Stepanian: The idea for this exhibit was born by accident. I was in Yerevan in December of 2006 and met with my former colleague, an expert on Nakhichevan, Dr. Argam Ayvazian. That just happened to be the anniversary of the final destruction of the Old Jugha cemetery the year before and we talked about exhibits that Argam had so far organized on the subject.

And, so I decided to help organize an exhibit in the United States. Argam himself gave me contact information for diaspora organizations with which to inquire about possible assistance and which Argam thought could be interested.

Unfortunately there was almost no interest in diaspora organizations.

Reporter: How did you go about seeking diaspora support?

Ter-Stepanian: I called a number of individuals in charge of Armenian organizations and programs in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and Montreal. Per those conversations, I then submitted my proposals in writing. But for whatever reason, months went by, and I never heard back about the proposals and my efforts to again
reach some of them by phone were fruitless.

Reporter: I know that in Washington, there have been at least two events on the subject of Nakhichevan monuments in recent years: an exhibit at the Armenian Embassy
and a presentation at the Library of Congress. So, perhaps, that was the reason for the lack of urgency?

Ter-Stepanian: It is hard for me to say what the real reason was, but I hold no grudges and do not wish to confront anyone. The breakthrough finally came when historian Aram Arkun suggested that I write to Professor James Russell at Harvard. And so I did.

Professor Russell proved instrumental in talking to the university administration, specifically Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, which approved the proposal. The actual space was provided by the Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard, which provided us with a gallery, but the organizational matters were handled by the Davis Center.

Reporter: And how did you go about securing sponsorship?

Ter-Stepanian: In the end it was a Canadian company, COPRIM, which is a Montreal-based architectural development company where I have some personal contacts, that
provided us with a grant.

Reporter: When did you first hear from the Azerbaijani government?

Ter-Stepanian: It was in October that COPRIM received a letter from the Azerbaijani Embassy in Ottawa. The Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington contacted the Davis Center. And they even registered a web site with a nearly identical name to the one I created as part of the exhibit.

[The undated letter signed by the Azerbaijani chargĂ© d’affaires in Canada, Farid Shafiyev, told COPRIM “to withdraw support to this exhibition” alleging that it
was an initiative of the “Armenian communities abroad [that] exhibit [a] radical and chauvinistic stance” and seek to create “the so-called Greater Armenia.” The communication also included pages of the Azerbaijani government’s anti-Armenian

In response, a COPRIM attorney sent a letter to the Azerbaijani Embassy in Canada on November 18, stating that “the sponsorship and mounting of the Exhibition constitutes a legal act both in Canada and in the United States of America” and “constitutes an expression of one of the fundamental freedoms this country offers
its citizens.”

The CORPIM attorney further noted that the Azerbaijani diplomatic mission’s “presence and activity in Canada is limited to diplomatic representation between the Government of Canada and your Government, and between your Government and its citizens or nationals. You have no right, privilege or business

i. Writing directly to a Canadian citizen who has not solicited any assistance or information from you;

ii. Advising a Canadian citizen on the exercise of his political and legal rights;

iii. Attempting to influence by persuasion or threat, a Canadian citizen engaged in lawful activity;

iv. Interfering with a Canadian citizen’s exercise of rights in Canada or in the United States of America;

v. Invading the privacy of a Canadian citizen by investigating the ownership of COPRIM Inc., a Canadian corporation.”

The attorney further notified the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. Department of State, and Harvard University of the Azerbaijani demarche and demanded “an immediate written retraction of your letter with an unconditional apology for having sent it, the whole within five (5) days of your receipt of this letter.”]

Reporter: Did COPRIM receive this apology or any further communication from Azerbaijan?

Ter-Stepanian: None that I am aware of.

Reporter: Turning to the exhibit itself, what would you say its impact had been at the university and the Boston community at large?

Ter-Stepanian: The evening before the exhibit, on November 1, Mark Mamigonian at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, Mass., organized a presentation by Argam, Steven Sim [a Scottish scholar who snuck into Nakhichevan in 2005], and me at NAASR, which some 80 people, mostly older Armenian Americans, attended.

There, too, we had an exchange student from Azerbaijan who tried to disrupt the event, and several more of his friends joined him at the Harvard exhibit launch the
next day. Their efforts were widely covered in the Azerbaijani media.

At the exhibit launch on November 2, we had some 80 to 100 attendees, mostly from the Harvard student body, and more came in the subsequent two weeks to see the exhibit.

Reporter: With this specific exhibit now behind you and considering that the Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan has been pretty much destroyed....

Ter-Stepanian: To our knowledge, everything has been destroyed in Nakhichevan. There is not a single monument that is still intact.

Reporter: What it is that can be done at this point? There is quite a bit of photographic evidence....

Ter-Stepanian: Fortunately, Argam has an archive cataloguing virtually all of the monuments, with measurements, drawings, and photos. Fortunately, we have that. So, although Azerbaijan is already saying that there were never any Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan, we can definitively prove their existence. We have the documentation. Argam has the idea of recreating at least some of the best of Old Djulfa khachkars somewhere in Armenia.

But of course this would be a secondary artifact not a restoration. All we can do at this point is to raise awareness through publications and events.

Reporter: The Armenian government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, has done much to raise awareness of the destruction. But do you think it could have taken a tougher stance on this issue?

Ter-Stepanian: It is hard for me to say. The government is fighting on many fronts and I am not sure what other tools they had at their disposal that they could have used. There were a lot of comments in the media about why the Armenian government would continue negotiations [over Karabakh] when this monument is being destroyed.

My personal opinion is that interrupting negotiations for any reason would be something that [Azerbaijan] was looking for; perhaps that was in part their motivation [to destroy Old Djulfa].

UNESCO is supposed to be doing something and it is doing precisely nothing. Waiting for the Azerbaijani government to do something noble is ridiculous. There has to be
a third force.

From this very small event that I organized and from the [Azerbaijani government’s] reaction, now I understand who we are dealing with. These are people that have no values, no standards for telling the truth, and are ready to twist the reality anyway that fits them.

My feeling is that we have to be more focused, realize the gravity of the situation that is developing today, and take action. f


See also in the Arts & Culture Section of this issue (Feb. 2, 2008] an article by Gregory Lima on an Armenian woman from Agoulis in Nakhichevan who preserves costumes, jewelry, and traditions from the region and beyond.


Anahit Ter-Stepanian (l.), James Russell, Argam Ayvazian, and Steven Sim during the
presentation launching the November exhibit. Photo: Karine Ter-Stepanian.

Surb Hakob church in Shorot in 1980 and the same site in 2005. Photos: Argam Ayvazian and Steven Sim respectively. Nakhichevan exhibit at Harvard in November 2007. Photo: Karine Ter-Stepanian.

Online Project Documents Cultural Destruction in Azerbaijan

Simon Maghakyan, a student at the University of Colorado (and an occasional contributor to the Armenian Reporter) last month launched The Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum at “aimed at spreading awareness about cultural cleansing in the Republic of Azerbaijan” focusing specifically on the destruction of the Old Djulfa khachkars. We encourage readers to visit the web site, which includes film and reference material on the history and destruction of the Djulfa cemetery. The Photo section features a number of previously unpublished images of the cemetery taken by French-Lithuanian art critique Jurgis Baltrusaitis, who visited the site in 1928. A publication co-authored by Baltrusaitis has also been digitalized and posted on the website. f

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