The first-ever show in Turkey of artwork by the late Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov illustrates both the challenges and necessity of cultural exchange across closed borders.
More than 45,000 art lovers have visited the show since it opened in December at Istanbul’s Pera Museum, one of Turkey’s most important cultural institutions. It brought 76 works of art – including collages, storyboards, costumes, drawings and photographs – from the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, making it the largest overseas exhibition of the museum’s collection.
It pulled this off despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia, bitterly divided for a quarter century since Ankara closed its frontier in 1993 to protest Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno Karabakh and show support for its close ally Azerbaijan. An older wound also bedevils the relationship: The forced displacement of Armenians living in Ottoman Turkish lands during World War I wiped out a millennia-old culture, and Armenians, as well as most historians, say the massacres were genocide. Turkey denies they were systematically orchestrated.
Yet interactions between artists, businesspeople and civil society groups continue. Now, the Pera introduces Turkey to Parajanov, a master of 20th century cinema who was also a prolific plastic artist. The show runs through March 17 to coincide with what would have been Parajanov’s 95th birthday in January.
“Art is the shortest way to reach somebody’s heart,” said Zaven Sargsyan, director of the Sergei Parajanov Museum, who curated the show at the Pera. “This is a chance for Turkish people to get to know Armenians. It is unfortunate that they don’t hear the names of Armenians here. But we are making the connection with this show.”
Called “Parajanov With Sarkis,” the show is actually a duo exhibition with one of Turkish contemporary art’s most important and original voices. At age 80, Sarkis, who is of Armenian descent, continues to create art in his Paris studio that explores themes of remembrance, displacement and identity, and he credits Parajanov as a seminal influence.
Sarkis’ work occupies the top floor of the Pera and is pure homage to Parajanov. The director’s signature in the Armenian script is rendered in neon lights, his photograph is embellished with water color and stained glass, and a sculpture of wood, fabric and VHS film is called “Portrait of Parajanov.”
“My installations have always been in conversation with other artists, philosophers, musicians and filmmakers, but Parajanov holds a separate place for me,” Sarkis said in an interview, estimating he has watched Parajanov’s films more than 100 times. “In his work, and in mine, there is a confluence of cultures. For example, he uses Azeri, Georgian, Armenian and Turkish languages in his films. This blend of identities informs my work as well.”
Born in Tbilisi in 1924, Parajanov was fascinated by the swirl of cultures of Transcaucasia. The Georgian capital was still home to a large Armenian community while Parajanov studied music and dance at the Tbilisi Conservatory before enrolling at VGIK, the Moscow film school.
His early films were state-backed genre movies, but seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” in 1962 triggered Parajanov to disavow his earlier work and pursue his own vision. Subsequent films contain highly stylized acting and painterly mise-en-scenes that maximize the color saturation of Soviet-era film stock, making everything appear lurid and fantastical.
While his distinctive poetic ideals earned him accolades from maestros like Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard, back home it raised suspicions about his political leanings as he defied the state-sanctioned art of socialist realism.
Parajanov’s elaborate costume designs stand alone as works of art, and some are on display at the Pera, including a kaftan made of patchwork squares from Oriental rugs that appeared in 1988’s “Ashik Kerib,” based on an Azeri fairy tale. It was the last film Parajanov completed.
Sarkis hangs his own robe, adorned with children’s garments and trimmed with fairy lights, directly one floor above Parajanov’s kaftan. It dangles over a room blanketed with Caucasian kilim rugs and punctuated with vintage television sets playing scenes from Parajanov’s surrealist masterpiece, “The Color of Pomegranates.”
The 1968 biopic of the great 18th century Armenian poet Sayet Nova is a lyrical, avant-garde meditation on color and composition. But the Soviet censors saw the religious and ethno-nationalist iconography of “The Color of Pomegranates” as evidence of Parajanov’s subversive streak and sent him to a gulag for four years following his arrest on trumped-up sex-crime charges in 1973.
Art that Parajanov made in his prison cell – with ball-point pens, nail polish, magazine clippings and metal scraps – is on display at the Pera. After leaving prison, he was banned from making movies and dedicated himself to other artistic pursuits, including the transformation of everyday objects like a leather suitcase into an elephant’s head and kitchen chairs into mosaic-clad baroque objects, also in the show. “When he wasn’t allowed to make films, he had to find new ways to express himself,” Sargsyan said in an interview.
Another stint in prison in 1982 ruined Parajanov’s health, and he died eight years later at the age of 66. He had only recently returned to filmmaking amid the thaw of glasnost, and a year before his death, Parajanov visited Turkey to receive a jury prize from the Istanbul Film Festival for “Ashik Kerib.”
After the Istanbul screening, he reportedly faced intimidation for comments he made about Karabakh. The exhibition includes four works Parajanov created while in Istanbul.
Both Parajanov’s artwork and his films skirt the line between truth and the unreal; for the filmmaker, that line was always blurred. In a 1988 interview ahead of “Ashik Kerib’s” premiere, Parajanov said: “I ask, ‘Did I make it up or is it the truth?’ Everyone says, ‘It’s made up.’ No, it’s simply the truth as I perceive it.”
Ayla Jean Yackley is a journalist based in Istanbul.
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Ayla Jean Yackley is a journalist based in Istanbul.