Alisha Sofia in conversation with Aline Derderian & Valeria Della Valle;(Los Angeles, California, US)

05/11/2020

T’aguhi, 2019

Ground pigments from rock sediments, gouache, sumi ink on tea-dyed paper, 60 x 42 in

(NB: The interview was held with the artist in preparation of the colloquium Dancing beyond memories: Armenian cultural heritage & corporeality South Caucasian approaches to creative practices)

  1. In order to introduce yourself to our readers, could you please describe the origins of your visual practice before joining the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and how it developed after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 2009?

I’ve grown up in a fairly creative family. My paternal grandmother was a pianist who taught piano lessons and my paternal grandfather played the violin as a hobby aside from doing extensive research in genetics as a microbiologist. So my father grew up constantly surrounded by music, he himself played the classical guitar, but now works as an engineer at NASA. My mother is a highly creative individual with a keen eye for design, always making her surroundings beautiful and inviting. She worked as a seamstress before going back into the administrative world. My sister has always had a huge impact on my art as well. She is very in tune with the aesthetic and conceptual sectors of art. She mainly works as a ceramicist, which inspired me to create some sculptural pieces of my own for my most recent show this year. I’ve always been interested in drawing since the age of 2. It was my escape as a child up until my teens. I found solace with sitting anywhere in the house and doodling away to my heart’s content. I decided during my high school years that this is what I would pursue as my main career choice so I applied to various art schools. And here I am today!

  1. Before attending CalArts, artist Judy Chicago also attended Chicago Institute so I guess I am curious to know more about the content of your training there and the way it might have taught you techniques or skills you still use. What is the school ethos?

To be honest, I was never taught techniques or skills there. Only the conceptual side of art. We focused on art theory and criticism during the first year. Given that I was only there for one year, I was not able to fully immerse myself in their curriculum. Classes consisted of heavy critiques that lasted for hours. In my opinion, not fun or inspiring. I preferred the Art Center’s curriculum because they were able to implement current tools that broadened your creative process. They were practical in a sense that they helped prepare you for the art world, thinking of the business side of things, which not a lot of artists are able to do, learning time management, and the ability to talk about your work in a clear way. Overall I think it depends on the artist and their drive for their practice. If you are inspired and ready to create meaningful work people will see that and they will recognize it.

  1. I was introduced to your work through the spectrum of our Armenian roots which, in my opinion, seem to most definitely inform one another. Could you tell us how your cultural heritage has embedded your artistry? It took me years to realize that whatever choreographic production I was initiating, it would almost always convey a South Caucasian folklore or aesthetic that I’ve happened to properly embrace while researching my MFA final project at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in London. I am wondering what your thoughts are in that regard, has that always been a conscious choice to link your Armenian heritage to your paintings and sculptures?

My Armenian heritage has always been the prominent focus in all of my works. I’ve felt a pull from my background, like it’s always calling me back. Even if it’s a small element in a painting that resembles something from our culture, whether it’s the woman’s eyes that I paint, her eyebrows, a plant indigenous to Armenia, a piece of jewelry, food items. It’s a way of reminding myself of the beauty that is left from our land. It saddens me that not a lot of preservation has gone into documenting and archiving our heritage, but I guess in a way I hope that my art can do that.

  1. It often appears that Armenian artists from the diaspora, for example Ani Javian and Theia Maldoom who are also part of the colloquium, have educated themselves on our common history through archives, books, family testimonies, documentaries, pictures etc… Did you have a similar experience while growing up as an Armenian-American woman artist?

My paternal grandmother’s side had losses during the genocide hence why they moved to Iran eventually. My mother’s side endured the Communist era and it was definitely not the most ideal environment to grow up in. You felt constantly watched and monitored by the government. Of course Russia was controlling everything and still is sadly. Russia is the big problem and we need to break away somehow.

  1. Could you please share your creative process with us? How do you initiate a new series and what is your research and development phase like?

I’m very pragmatic. I see things as they are and want to portray them that way because that is their true essence. I can be inspired by plants, people, food, and places. My goal is to highlight their beauty and impact on the world. Other times I can be very indirect with what I’m actually trying to say about a piece. There will be nuances, for example the way a woman is gazing onward, she can feel stoic and forlorn. Or the way she is posing her body, it can feel vulnerable. These aspects are the initiator of my creative process.

  1. I understand Queens of The Caucasus emerged from a trip you took to Armenia and Georgia in 2018-2019. What aspects of our motherland did you discover and how did this particular trip in the region inspire you a new series?

Whether it was a detail of a carving in a 4th century monastery to a small plant I saw on a hike. I was absorbing everything I came across. It felt surreal to finally be setting foot  in my home country.

  1. The series portray physically strong female nudes performing all kinds of daily activities with a singular almost defiant gaze and a subtle yet specific Caucasian imagery and palette of symbols that echo a certain epicureanism (e.g. Churchkhela or K’nats). In what ways did the trip invigorate your already female led, corporeal aesthetic?

Physically seeing the women from these regions gave me a different viewpoint on what I was depicting prior to the trip. Their movements, their faces, their way of speaking. All of that made an impression on what I chose to paint in this series. They seemed softer and more approachable then what I grew up around. I felt more femininity from them.

  1. Nudity on stage is always an intricate, tricky matter for that it can be interpreted as a way to eroticize a piece of dance which intention is not necessarily that of sensualising bodies but instead claiming their true unveiled essence and mobility. In your articulation of nudity I see a sense of counterpointing a white colonialist male gaze and centuries of women portrayal through orientalised, sexualized, fetishized lenses. Could you talk to us about that?

My intention was to show these women as they were, with their bellies, with their thick thighs, bigger arms, thicker eyebrows, deeper set eyes. I never want to show a Western idealized version of a woman because that is not realistic to the rest of our world. It infuriates me that this is still the aesthetic of the majority of people, but yet completely unattainable by most.

  1. Technically, in what ways do you believe the materials you make and use to create your pieces support the organic, raw poetic that emanate from them?

The pigments I collect are from the earth, the paper I paint on is made of natural fibers and will eventually degrade over time. My hope is that they all return back into the earth. It is all cyclical.

  1. In your biography, we can read that the portrayal of Oriental, Eastern women are most often sanitized or romanticized for a Western audience, I would therefore be interested in knowing the various feedbacks you got from people who attended the vernissage of Queens of The Caucasus at Iris Project in Venice last January 2020 ? Would you say the receptions or interpretations of your show were different whether seen from South Caucasian or Western visitors’ eyes?

I think most people viewed the works in the same fashion. They were definitely impacted by the nudity and intensity of the women in these paintings. People from Caucasian backgrounds at the show were able to comprehend much more than the Westerners though. Especially regarding the titles of the pieces and were able to pick up on the artifacts and elements in each piece.

11. We recently saw through the release of Lady Gaga’s new single 911 – which revisited the classic 1969 Sergei Paradjanov’s film The Colour of pomegranates that your sister Nairi introduced to me while I was visiting in Los Angeles and which is a key influence to a lot of us – the limits of cultural appreciation and appropriation. I believe that part of our mission as art practitioners whose traumatic and tragic history is up to date lacking international exposure, is to find a pedagogic way to both transmit and reclaim our cultural, artistic, territorial legacy. Do you agree? If so, how do you believe we can negotiate between visual practices that are in essence representations of our personal themes we express through specific media (e.g. dance, sculpture, painting, film… ) and a militant statement that aims to revendicate what makes us who we are, simultaneously trying not to restrict our work to our Armenian identity?

I feel that Westerners especially have a hard time digesting any other culture that is not close to their own. We need to simplify and be direct with our approach otherwise it becomes misinformed and diluted. Just like Lady Gaga. Just like all of these other public figures that choose to appropriate other cultures for their own benefit, without crediting them.

To know more about Alisha Sofia’s work :

http://www.alishasofia.com

RECORDING OF THE CONFERENCE ONLINE


DANCING BEYOND MEMORIES: ARMENIAN CULTURAL HERITAGE & CORPOREALITY

South Caucasian & Diasporic approaches to creative practices

This online conference was supported by the University of Chicago Center in Paris, The recordings are now available below as well as on their YouTube channel. Please note that due to that diffusion rights, some presentations have been taken off the final recording.

Programme

10:00-10:15: Aline Derderian Introduction

Part 1. Decentralized culture: Survival, celebration, diffusion
Introduction and chairing: Valeria Della Valle


10:15-11:15: Hasmik Tangyan in conversation with Aline Derderian (Yerevan, AR)
Hasmik Tangyan is a performer, choreographer and dance therapist based in Yerevan,
Armenia. In 2011 she founded the Art Therapy Centre in Yerevan, where she works as a dance therapist with children and adults with different abilities (Autism, CP, ADHD). Together with Harutyun Alpetyan, in 2018, Hasmik co-founded the Contemporary Choreography Lab (CoChoLab Armenia), where she is currently running the Contemporary Dance School.

11:15-11:45: Screening of Forget me not, (2021) a film by Margot de Kerangat & Oscar Viguier (Followed by a recorded interview with the artists with English subtitles)
Margot de Kerangat grew up near the Atlantic Ocean. She is a film director and video artist based in Paris. Oscar Viguier is a photographer and photography director. Together, they collaborate through various creations in the quest of capturing the sensible, exploring movement and lighting. Their work look at creatively portraying, embodying their vision of the world simultaneously poetic and brutal.

11:45-12:15: Theia Maldoom (London, UK)
In-between

Théïa’s work with yarn started soon after her trip to Armenia and has come to hold many of the themes of her thoughts regarding her family’s Armenian identity and her relationship with Armenia. Théïa’s presentation will look at sharing her work, expand upon her theoretical research and consider how her dance, improvisation and somatic practices have informed her experience and the process of making the works.

Part 2. Choreographing memories: Research & transmission
Introduction and chairing: Azza Ben Chaabane

12:45-13:15: Xuân-Lan Bui Khac (Ecole Nationale Supérieure Paris, FR)
Marguerite Yourcenar (known as one of the greatest French female authors of the 20th century) wrote in 1938 a collection of short stories entitled Nouvelles orientales (Eastern Short Stories). The question is: what does « Eastern » designates and how are these short stories entitled to be qualified as « Eastern »? They indeed take place in various countries from Greece to Japan. Apparently there is no link between such extremes, and most of the people growing up in Europe nowadays would not think of Grece as an Eastern country. This work invites us to think about the pseudo frontier between Europe and Asia, and question through collective imaginary, myths and tales, the construction of our perceptions and fantasies about what’s Eastern. If Yourcenar’s literature is accurate, it means there is a lot more in common between Aline Derderian’s Armenian heritage and my own Vietnamese, even if none of us has a deep knowledge of each other’s culture. Is this common ground a fantasy or could it be relevant? I then suggest a cross-referenced
interpretation between Aline’s piece Kanayk’ (2018) and Yourcenar’s heroines. I don’t call it a comparative reading because it is not focused on text analysis, but on how collective imaginaries are built, shaping our perceptions and understandings of the so-called Eastern female body. Yourcenar allows me to introduce what Eastern means, and how Aline Derderian’s work echoes my own experience as an Asian woman born and raised in a Western country.

13:15-13:45: Christina Gillinger-Correa Vivar (University of Salzburg, AT)
Self-conscious Challenging of the Image of the ‘Orient’: The Modern Expressionist Dancer Armen Ohanian


The dancer Armen Ohanian (1986-1976) arrived in the ‘civilized world’ (in London) in 1911 after having fled the anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku and lived in Persia, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Her career as a dancer and poet led her through various cities in Europe and the USA until she finally settled in Mexico City where she died in 1976. Drawing on her own writing (published and unpublished), secondary literature of the time as well as press coverage, I will demonstrate that Armen Ohanian deliberately exotified herself as an oriental dancer in order to exploit the craze for the exotic of the time and at the same time to make a living. These seem to be rather trivial motives, but her complex biography shows that she was a modern, well-educated woman with a very strong and self-determined view on politics, gender-roles and the relation between the orient and the occident (which she called ‘civilized’, using this term in an ironic way).

13:45-14:15: Iris Karayan in conversation with Ioanna Bili (Athens, GR)
Iris Karayan is a dancer, choreographer and teacher based in Athens, Greece. She studied dance at the Greek State School of Dance (2001) and completed a Master of Arts in Performance and Culture (2007) at Goldsmiths College, UK. She is also a graduate from The American College of Greece, Deree College and holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (1997). She has taught choreography and improvisation at the Greek State School of Dance from 2007 to 2018, at Rallou Manou School of Dance from 2016 to 2018, and at the School of Fine Arts (Nafplio), University of Peloponnese from 2009 to 2010. Since 2013, she has been leading movement and improvisation workshops for people with and without visual impairment, at the educational program of the Onassis Stegi. Her works have been presented in European festivals and venues. Mothers (2012) was selected by the dance network Aerowaves 2013 and the Dansnät Sverige in 2014 for
touring in Sweden. Alaska (2016), commissioned by the Onassis Stegi, premiered in Athens and was presented in Le Quartz Scène Nationale de Brest during DañsFabrik, and at the 24th Kalamata International Dance Festival. Unauthorised (2018) has been selected by Aerowaves 2020. She has received support and funding from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, the Onassis Stegi, and the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation. In 2010, she was awarded the 1st prize of the Jarmila Jeřábková Award in Prague for her works A Time to Mourn and Legacy. In 2017, she was a resident artist in SAARI, Finland, supported by the Kone Foundation. In 2018, she was awarded a Fulbright Foundation Artist Grant for artistic research in New York City, USA. In 2020, she was awarded a fellowship of the Bogliasco Foundation, completing an artistic residency in Italy. Currently, she organizes and teaches movement improvisation workshops exploring areas of her research. She is planning to pursue an artistic research PhD.


Part 3. Armenianness and corporeality: Contemporary diasporic practices
Introduction and chairing: Ioanna Bili

14:30-15:00: Alisha Sofia in conversation with Valeria Della Valle (Los Angeles, California, US)
In Queens of the Caucasus, Alisha Sofia draws from Byzantine masks, Greco-Roman sculptures, and living faces encountered in the Caucasus region. She gathered raw pigments, powdering and mixing them in the studio to create her palette. Terra cotta, rhyolite, greywacke, and charcoal create the silver necklaces, cypress, dates, and sea buckthorn adorning her subjects. These forms, often romanticized and sanitized for a Western audience, are revitalized through Sofia’s insight as an Armenian American. Her heritage allows her to peer behind the traditional structured aesthetic to uncover a deeper understanding of the pagan roots of the region. Alisha Sofia b. 1987, Los Angeles attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, completing her degree at Art Center College of Design in 2009. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles. 

The interview  is excluded from the video above due to copyright restrictions. You can find it in written here

15:00-15:30: Ani Javian (Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, New York, US)
The earth is old, we are ancient


The earth is old, we are ancient is a solo multi-media video work that creates dedicated space to recognize and honor ancestral trauma. Utilizing narratives from the artist’s grandparent’s immigration documents, field recordings from a recent research trip to Yerevan, Armenia, and family interviews, photos, and heirlooms, the work asks, “In what ways do I hold ancestral memories, knowledge and stories in my body?” The work brings the past into the present and is the latest iteration of Javian’s recent creative research that explicitly explores her Armenian heritage. Javian aims to make work to contextualize personal experiences – to create a space or place in which they can exist, become magnified, turned upside down, and illuminated – so that we, as viewers, may interpret the world differently, if only for one moment.

15:30-16:00: Collective conversation and Conclusion by Aline Derderian

Dancing beyond memories: Armenian cultural heritage & corporeality

South Caucasian approaches to creative practices

Organized by Aline Derderian (Université Rennes 2)

In which measures can visual, dance and movement practices be envisioned as social/political tools for female dance & performance practitioners in regions such as Armenia, where cultures, aesthetics and institutional programmes are patriarchally led, geographically excentered ? Looking at dance & performance studies from a decentralized perspective how can the moving female body be a material of contest, liberation or a place of celebration for inherited culture?

This research gathers female creatives and scholars from South Caucasus or in diaspora with a dance, performance practice or visual artists whom for the body is central to their work and who look at interrogating their femininity in mirror to their cultural heritage in order to either transmit, protest, transcend it yet simultaneously acknowledging their singularity and how their roots impacted their artistic journeys.

In the aim of showcasing unrepresented Armenian and South Caucasian personalities, this project focuses on contemporary art and how the complex, worldwidly majorly undiscussed political, religious, economical histories most oftenly remains a barrier for them to deploy their work locally or internationally.

The communications, recorded/filmed performances, cases studies, interviews and testimonies presented in this research address the following:

  1. How can creative/choreographic methodologies generate a decentralized feminist discourse ?
  2. How does/can inherited cultural traditions influence creative practices and physicalities?
  3. How can movement analysis methodologies be applied to folk dances and what discourse does that create ?
  4. How do performing practices in alternatives spaces represent a platform for the transmission, survival and contemporary reinvestment of cultural heritage or folklore ?
  5. How can dance/performance/visual art be documented in order for Armenian and South Caucasian artists to be internationally acknowledged and promoted?

Here you can find the programme and the archived recording and further resources of the colloquium. 

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