His latest exhibition of sculptures and paintings is called Taking Time, which took place at the Flora Bigai Arte Contemporanea gallery in Pietrasanta, Italy, last summer to much acclaim. His Armenian role models in arts are Gomidas (Komitas) and Arshile Gorky (Vostanik Adoian).
Armen opines that the former dared to dig deeper into the Armenian culture and heritage and tried to intensify something that was at risk to be completely forgotten and lost. The latter, in contrast, had the ability to go beyond the limits of his surroundings, opening new doors and exploring the unknown without following what society was asking for at the time.
When he talks about sculpture, he not only makes you fall in love with art but with your entire surroundings, even with your inner self. Meet Egyptian-Armenian sculptor Armen Guerboyan, known by the pseudonym Armen Agop. “My name is Armen Guerboyan. I just use Agop, which was my father’s name, as an artistic name,” Armen explains.
Armen’s grandfather was part of the famous resistance at Musa Dagh. He was the younger brother of Movses Der Kalousdian, one of the leaders of the revolt during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. French ships brought the Armenians from Musa Dagh to safety in Port Said on the Egyptian coast. Later, the family moved to Lebanon, but Armen’s grandfather chose to stay in Egypt, where Armen was born in Cairo in 1969.
After turning 13, Armen began to study drawing and painting in the studio of the Armenian painter Simon Shahrigian. He then graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in the Department of Sculpture at Helwan University in Cairo. Following his graduation, he was awarded a research scholarship from the same university.
Winning the Prix du Rome – The State Prize of Artistic Creativity, from the Egyptian government, led to a sponsored stay in Italy for a year to focus on his artistic investigations. The Bel Paese – Italy’s poetical nickname meaning “beautiful country” – is described in Armen’s words as “a great place for a sculptor to live.” He elaborates: “Just as Egypt was a great place for a sculptor to be born, with all its heritage Italy is a great place for a sculptor to live. What is significant about Italian culture is its ability to extend the influence of its ancient culture into our contemporary world. Egypt and Armenia underwent several historical interruptions. Italy’s continuation of its past heritage, which was not radically interrupted, allows the presence of the past in the future.”
During his year in Italy, Armen participated in several group exhibitions and won another prize. There was enough interest in his work to encourage him to remain in Europe on a permanent basis.
Armenian and Egyptian Cultural Influence
Despite this move, when he was asked about his connection with his motherlands Armenia and Egypt, his answer was: “The nature of things is to be connected with our origins willingly and unwillingly, visibly and invisibly. Origins are rooted in us even if we are not aware of it. I think it is a part of a way of being, it’s built-in. I believe we are what we all have been; this doesn’t mean that we can’t be all what we want to be.”
He grew up in a generation of Armenian diaspora with the Armenian word koyadevel echoing around him. This word has a complex meaning, to exist and to endure — merely existing is not enough, and Armen relates a personal significance of timelessness to this it. This played an important role in enhancing his personal artistic investigations, with exploration beyond current trends and fashion.
Armen perceives the Armenian culture as a one of belief, more than conviction and he believes that only with belief, can one manage to transmit sacredness, whether by the music of the duduk or by carving on a rocky mountain and transforming it into a holy space. No wonder his sculptures have been described as meditative and spiritual. He declared: “I guess I owe a big part of it to the heritage of belief. It took me a long time to realize that I believe in believing [but] it’s a built-in system.”
Expression through Art
What many of us normally perceive as ordinary for him is an inspirational starting point. He stated: “If I want to talk about strength, I might talk about tears. Actually, with the paintings, there is no demonstration of abilities or skills. Anybody can do it. It is like intensifying the soberness of the smallest element and giving more importance to the least valuable element which we usually ignore. The point, which is the beginning of any line, is where I begin and where I choose to stop, repeating it over and over and being content with that, accepting the least and believing in its power to magnify something unknown inside us through time.”
Through his words, you sense his passion for art. As any child, he drew and never found a good reason to stop, he said, “until reaching a certain age, when we discover that society calls that instinctive drive art and the one who practices it an artist. I believe artists are the ones who can’t ignore their instinctive drive. Then the main mission is to carry on protecting the purity of that instinct from the continued perseverance of society to influence it and canalize it.”
His connection to sculpture was not merely reflective. He further elucidates: “I guess that it is not that I was attracted to the art of sculpture itself, as much as I was and am attracted to the act of sculpting, to practicing the verb of sculpting. I believe it is an instinctive drive. As a kid I was attracted to drawing or modeling clay. Connecting with another part of nature, such as a stone or color, is a way to connect with the whole world, even if someone is not aware of it at his young age.”
Black granite is his main medium of expression, as it has many interesting characteristics. He says that the reason above all others for this is his instinctive connection with the stone. According to his description, its neutral aspect allows him to pursue his interest to articulate silence; the compactness and hardness require a slow rhythm and long process which permits him to discover what he really desires to share with the stone. For him, it’s about sharing time with this substance and coming to a point of agreement. “Granite resists time and change, yet is optimistic to the future,” he proclaims.
His artistic style is described as minimalist. He comments: “I know my work many times has been described as minimal, which is a term that changed its meaning in the public understanding and now is being used for simplicity.” In this regard, Armen gives us a brief about minimalist art born in the US in the 1960-70’s with different motivations and perspectives, relating it to his work that is driven by an ascetic approach (through a meditative process) which deals with soberness and simplicity, and trying to focus on the core values.
He said: “I guess, in a way, it is a prolongation of a belief system (the belief system I mentioned earlier). It’s more important for me to do the work than having it made better by others. By choosing the most basic elements, like a point or a line, and believing in their potential, through a meditative practice, I face these elements again and again, each time discovering a new way of being and a different dimension of existence.”
Through his artwork, Armen attempts to explore all the things that he does not talk about with others. More than just as a theme, he gives priority to meditative practice and the spiritual aspect. At the core of what he does in the studio is to follow his instincts and interests. He first explores and tries to understand them and then maybe puts them in context. He elaborates: “I just play. It all starts with playing. When I come to a point where I feel I need to pursue and develop something, I carry on blindly and obsessively, digging deeper, with an unexplainable belief — an irrational conviction that it might lead to something (without having any proof). It becomes a matter of faith. I don’t work, I either play or pray.”
The main struggle he has faced during his career is to stay faithful to the instinctive drive without letting the others/surroundings/societies impose their needs and temptations with their offers of superficial success and career-oriented banalities. “The main struggle is to just be who we are in our own nature, to resist the pressure of a society who wants to push us in such a way that they can understand, conceptualize or be entertained,” he concluded.
He described his exhibition “Taking Time” as a meeting of painting and sculpture, a body of work that is focused on a meditative practice which resulted in spiritual contemporary art. The works exhibited for the first time in Italy are quite distant from the Italian lifestyle or Western values of understanding time. He said, “Many Western cultures value more speed and outward strength. On the other hand, the exhibition was concerned with spirituality and inwardness and not speed or external power.”
Other Forms of Art
When it comes to music, he is mostly drawn to pure music without words or lyrics, especially folk music. In spite of geographical distances separating various creators of the latter, he exclaims that this musical genre can be very close in spirit everywhere. It usually depends on very basic instruments and so the music of different regions can have a lot of common links.
Armen even connects this kind of music with his artistic approach to sculpture, asserting that the non-representative aspect of pure music without lyrics, especially folk music, is very close to him. He encourages us to adopt his approach, saying that when we listen to lyrics they may be heroic or emotional or any other type; but when we listen only to instrumental music, this can open us to something we didn’t know about or touch a hidden part of us.
He added, “Words have meanings which activate our thinking. Although they can be very meaningful, they can also be limiting. I believe art is beyond meaning. The same happens in visual arts. I believe the most confusing aspect of visual art is its appearance. Whenever we see something, we try to associate it with something we already know. So the appearance of an artwork is a big obstacle to perceiving the core of the work.”
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