Arko Baghdasaryan – An Artist Caught in a Conflict

by Maria Karapetyan

Artist Arko (Arkadi) Baghdasaryan is a representative of the modernist school of art and one of the founders of abstract art in Armenia. He was born in 1945 in Baku. His father was born in Lyulasaz village of the Mardakert Region of Karabakh and his mother was from Tsmakahogh village. Arko spent his childhood with his grandfather and grandmother. From his childhood in Karabakh, he recalls his grandmother’s frequent mataghs (sacrifice) in the church accompanied by singing for him.

Now at the age of 66, he lives in Yerevan and he has passed through much to end up in Armenia as a person and where he is at as an artist. He agreed to share his life experiences with me although he was skeptical as to how much use there was in an initiative like ours.

Arko notes that he doesn’t miss Baku, and truly it is with little enthusiasm that he remembers the years spent there. He remembers his Baku address of Belogorodskoye Highway (now: Rabochiy Avenue) October 25 Street, house number 7, apartment 20 with the help of his sister. I ask Arko to tell how his family moved to Baku and what life was like for them.

“They needed working labor. They brought young people from Karabakh, for example, my mom. She ran away from Baku several times. They brought them to Baku [to get] a profession there, school of factory training. They are pure Karabakhis. My father was an orphan. My father built a house at the age of 9, like a fairy tale, then, it happened so that he was taken to Baku, too. He studied power engineering in a short period. He was a strong specialist.”

Arko was the oldest of the four children his parents had, and he shared the responsibility for his younger siblings alongside his parents. After graduating from a Russian school in the early 1960’s, Arko studied at the Fine Arts College named after Azimzadeh in Baku, and his memories of the time are not the most pleasant.

“They taught us Azerbaijani at schools, but who studied? I realized very early what is a Turk, you see? When I was studying in college, the teacher was a Turk, Mamedov, I think. I studied very well, excellent, and the group was large and international – Russians, Jews, different nations, Armenians. I think I was the only Armenian. I was studying applied arts. One day this Mamedov says, ‘Baghdasaryan is a very good, gifted student, but if the occasion rises, I will slaughter him first,’ and in fact in Russian and laughing. Do you see now? I wondered what sense it had.”

After this incident, Arko started distancing himself even from the few Azerbaijani friends he had. The young artist felt discriminated, and this feeling further deepened when he was trying to get a chance to continue his education in Moscow.

“You see, when I was going to study in Moscow, I went to the Regional Committee of Karabakh. There was an Institute of Fine Arts and Theater in Yerevan; there wasn’t one in Baku, and Moscow would send a reservation. The Regional Committee of Nagorno-Karabakh wrote a letter to Furtseva – she was Minister of Culture then – to issue a spot for me. To cut it short, they wrote the letter; Furtseva issued the spot for me – Baghdasaryan. Now it reached Baku. They are not giving it, they say, ‘No it hasn’t reached.’ So during class I went and got on the train, reached Moscow. I asked, ‘Can you… because the Turks aren’t giving it to me. Please, give me a paper with a specific number that I’ll show to the Minister.’ They gave. I am showing it to the Minister, a copy for him to believe. He said, ‘Son of a dog, Armenian.’

On his quest for his style, Arko was misunderstood in Moscow as well. His nonconformist modern style in art was not accepted by the Soviet logic and, as he said, he got disgusted from Moscow too and finally moved to Armenia.

“To cut it short, I carried out a production in one month, both drawing and painting. Immediately I got a five and I was accepted and I studied very well. Then I started doing modern abstract experiments; they wanted to expel me.”

When Arko’s father died of cancer in Baku in 1986, the family was discussing where to bury him – in his homeland Karabakh or in Baku. Part of Arko’s family still lived in Baku, and they decided to bury him in Baku. Arko ordered a monument out of white marble with Armenian ornamentation and bronze bas-relief of the artist’s father. On a special order, it was transported to Baku cemetery in Serebryovski – Noviy Ahmedli. Arko’s brother took a bit of the soil from Baku to Karabakh. Arko is very uncertain about the fate of his father’s grave, and he is hopeless that he will ever hear about what happened to the monument.

Arko was in Germany when the Karabakh movement started. He used to call his family in Baku and beseech them to move to Armenia. They would refuse hoping that the situation would ameliorate. Arko notes that his father regretted he hadn’t moved his family to Armenia earlier when he, as a prominent power engineer, was made a job offer to participate in the planning of a hydro-electric plant in Yerevan.

Arko’s wife who visited Baku for the first time after she met her future husband adds onto Arko’s early memories of an international Baku. She says, “It was a beautiful city, like a European city. The Swedes, the Germans built buildings there.” She points out that Armenians from Baku were more Russian-oriented and highbrow and often times looked down upon others. When she and Arko made the decision to send their daughter to an Armenian school, lots of their acquaintances used to stigmatize it. She points out that she places in high esteem the conservatism of Azerbaijanis or how they would defend a Caucasian woman’s dignity, “We are neighbors; we need to have cold but normal relations,” she concludes.

While Arko’s younger brother participated in the war as a soldier, the artist was bringing medicine from Germany to Karabakh. He recalls that in 1993, as he along with writer Zory Balayan and sculptor Ara Shiraz were travelling to Stepanakert for an anniversary, the view onto Lachin was black from bombing. He recalls that Stepanakert was devastated.

Arko’s connection with Armenia is amazing. His artwork is European style but with Armenian colors. Music, especially jazz, is a recurring theme in Arko’s art. After independence, his style was finally recognized and he was the first artist of independent Armenia that received the title of an honored artist. “I love my fatherland a lot, otherwise I would stay in Germany,” he concludes telling about his journey and reflecting upon his hopefully temporary health crisis, says, “God give I shall get better and continue what I have been doing.” And so we wish the avant-garde artist of Armenia good health in years to come.

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