Exhibition review: Armenian traditional garments and decorative art objects displayed in China for the first time 

Exhibition review: Armenian traditional garments and decorative art objects displayed in China for the first time 

By Ani Margaryan

The introduction

The exhibition of the 19th-20th century Armenian art relics from the permanent collection of the Yerevan History Museum in one of the national first-class museums of the People’s Republic of China, Fujian Museum, Fuzhou, was organized with the aim of celebrating the recent dynamics and evident warming in the Armenian-Chinese cultural relations. The exhibition showcased the cultural heritage of the Armenian ethnicity of the past two centuries with the strong accent on its connections to the Silk Road intercontinental commercial and cultural context. The significant exhibition was made possible thanks to the collaboration between both countries’ state and municipal authorities and museum administrations. The “Armenian-Chinese Partnership Center” NGO played a key role in facilitating their productive dialogue and ensuring a seamless process. The motivation behind the organization of the exhibition was to display the monuments of the visual culture of Armenia as the essence of Armenian identity, as well as to make the country more instantly identifiable for Chinese vast audiences, demonstrating the keen pursuit of both parties to foster closer cooperation through the use of art and culture as a common language.

The subject of the exposition and the structure of the exhibit 

The exhibition was entirely dedicated to the 19th-20th century culture of Armenia with impressive ethnographic exhibits from the Yerevan History Museum, more precisely, silk (some types imported from China), cotton, velvet, and satin traditional garments, national costumes and their replicas and stylized versions, textiles, tapestries, samples of decorative arts, vintage photographs and their reproductions of the old Yerevan streets and architectural monuments, as well as of Armenians posing in those costumes, the accessories of silverware and exceptional metalwork – all completed with an art documentary related to the theme and the iconic “The Color of Pomegranates”- the 1969 film by Sergei Parajanov. Taraz ensembles for men, women, and children, once belonging not only to the residents of Armenian states and provinces of Western and Eastern Armenia but also to the Armenian diasporic communities, served as a cogent starting point on one’s passageway to the multilayered and elaborate “Armenian world.” The sensuous floral motifs and lacework of the Yerevan and Tiflis taraz groups were juxtaposed with the bold color contrasts of the geometrical ornaments and rich silver details of costumes derived from Syunik, Artsakh, Trabzon, Musaler, and Vaspurakan. The variety of intricate, multicolored, and sophisticated Armenian needlework of Vaspurakan gowns, outwears, and mantles, the metallic-thread embroidery (goldwork) forming the apotropaic almond-shaped patterns on Bardzr Hayq/ Upper Armenian garnet-red velvet aprons and pinafores, the softness and delicacy of Aintab monochrome stitch (pulled thread and drawn work) embellishing the trousseau gifts such as runners, napkins, and nightgowns, was demonstrated as a distinctive trait of ancient Armenian attires. The embodiments of Armenian developed metal-smithing, such as the belts, buckles, sashes, breast decorations, bracelets with chains, skull caps, earrings, necklaces, and rings adorned the glass cases, pedestals, and stands at eye level for viewers.

The wide range of Armenian double-knotted rugs from Aintap, Syunik, and Artsakh, as well as the samples referred to the Armenian traditional rug-weaving in the Soviet era of the 1970s, with their colorfulness and rich combinations of muted ochre tints concordantly continued the aesthetics and palette of the taraz ornamentation and the notion of enduring dedication to the tradition and family values. 

The notable exhibits from the Artsakh-Karabakh region, such as sumptuously ornamented rugs, the distinguished red-green ensemble, and the ornamented filigree-dotted jewelry from Shushi, unveiled the varied culture of the Armenian-inhabited region and its palpable interrelations with the other provinces of the Armenian Highland. 

The curatorial concept and the content of the exhibition 

The original title in English and Chinese, “View from Ararat,” indicating the cultural and social reception of Mount Ararat as a symbol of the nation’s collective image, might, ancestral heritage, longing for the historical motherland, and Armenians’ unity, worked as a warm welcome for the visitors, who were able to take photos and selfies within the monumental carton imitations of Armenian manuscript initials, filling the lack of representations of the Armenian original manuscripts and folios among the body of the exhibition. The spatial relationship concept was used in a digestible manner: it didn’t leave the impression of the fewness of the exhibits and, at the same time, did not overwhelm Chinese visitors with a large amount of information and multiple focal points. The curators succeeded in creating a memorable comfort zone for all the visitors in terms of the arrangements of the exhibits, the appropriate distance between the audience and the exhibit, the correct source of lighting, dimensional relations between the communication devices, media, and the exhibits, and the elements of the overall design of the hall. The background of burgundy-red, which was different from the wide-spread hues of bright red in centuries-old Chinese culture, and the Armenian knotted ornament typical for the reliefs, metalwork, manuscript illumination, and embroidery was the rational choice to utter the whole impression and, at the same time not to distract the gaze of the viewer from the main exhibit details. The variety of art forms, such as textile, tapestry, metalwork, and photography, were separated according to their cultural value and formal qualities, yet the logical and visual links between those items were visible. 

The Christian tombstones excavated in China as the ending point of the visitor’s circular walk culminated the exhibition’s objective, which, first and foremost, was the indication and perception of Armenia as the mysterious Christian land located on the routes of the Great Silk Road. 

The demonstration of the Armenian national music instrument duduk alongside the local flutes (bili) and against the background that mimicked the Chinese silk painting of female musicians with flute-like instruments corresponded to the textual description of the “Silk Road Music.” The exhibit also highlighted the historical ties between Armenia and China, with Chinese historians noting the presence of Armenian ethnicity in their records. As an added bonus, visitors were treated to a glimpse of modern Armenian souvenir production, showcasing the country’s ongoing craftsmanship. 

Nonetheless, incorporating the gamut of decorative arts and crafts to stage the wax figures and bring the indigenous Armenian folk scene to life would possibly make the exposition more immersive for visitors.

The implementation of the textual information

The bilingual wall texts provided a brief yet sufficient socio-historical context in quite a comprehensive way, working as additional orientational tools to fulfill the curiosity of the Chinese visitors, accentuate the garment’s characteristics and techniques and draw the spectators’ eyes to certain details and specificities of craftsmanship. The historical review of the capital Yerevan recalled the cooperation with the Yerevan History Museum. 

The texts uncovered the important elements and mandatory pieces of the ensemble, such as the outwear, headgear, undergarments, and belts, the symbolism and hidden messages behind their color combinations and ornamental structure, and the differentiated features of Western and Eastern Armenian taraz groups, underlining not only the formal traits but also the purpose and intended function of each pattern, relating to the dominant ideas either of fertility and ensuring healthy generations or warding off the evil spirits. 

The exhibition itself responded to the mission and ethos of the museum 

The Fujian province, which has its center in Fuzhou, is known as one of China’s most culturally and linguistically diverse provinces. It has been a bustling tea port for centuries and is the birthplace of Blanc de Chine or Dehua white porcelain, beloved among the Western elite and collectors. The province takes pride in its multicultural essence and openness to artistic dialogues, which is reflected in the museum’s permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, and curatorial concept. “View from Ararat” was harmoniously intertwined with the expositions in the rest of the halls, where the interconnections and mutual influences of other civilizations being documented and preserved in archeological discoveries, gravestones, maps, models of ships, and, more importantly, in the formal properties of porcelain statuettes, dinnerware, alterations in their palette and selection of the ornaments bear evident stamps of the international trade with the Western powers. 

The perception of the audience, the potential resonance, and the impact of the exhibition 

The exhibitions opening ceremony was attended by the representatives of the local and Armenian governments, heads of both museums and Armenian ex-pats in China; the crowds of art lovers (approximately 152.476 visitors) within the period of two months responded positively, as the exhibition brought together people from different backgrounds and ages. The involvement of the youth and the variety of activities arranged for them is particularly noteworthy. It’s heartwarming to know that the exhibition felt like home for many Armenian visitors who fulfilled their desire to connect with their roots. The free entry made it accessible to everyone, and it’s great to see how it turned into a source of entertainment for families and tourists alike. It’s exciting to hear that many Chinese people expressed their interest in exploring Armenia further, and I hope this exhibition is just the beginning of more cultural exchanges to come.

Viewed from the lens of Sino-Armenian cultural relations, the exhibition, which provided essential insight into the cultural heritage of one of the oldest civilizations, was unprecedented and might set particular standards and criteria for further accomplishments in the identical field.  The Chinese-Armenian aesthetic interactions were previously limited to rare group and solo exhibitions and shows of modern art, particularly the Armenia Art Fair’s partnership with Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery which resulted in the display of two video art pieces in Yerevan in 2022. The Armenian Contemporary Art Exhibition “Sunshine Roots,” which was held in 2021 in Wuhan, China, as another fruitful outcome of the mutual efforts of the “Armenian-Chinese Partnership Center” NGO and Chinese authorities, might be regarded as another page in the cultural exchanges of two countries. It’s worth mentioning the Armenian tangible presence at the Beijing Biennale 2012, which was preceded by the “Days of Armenian Culture,” complete with music concerts and art exhibits organized by Armenia’s Ministry of Culture and Armenia’s Embassy in China. 

Thus, the “View from the Mountain Ararat” challenges the misconception that Armenia “looks only to the West.” So far, it remains one of a kind, which contributed to the formation of the uniquely-Chinese perception of the Armenian culture “as ancient and distinct as their own.” 

ChinArmArt would like to express its gratitude to the “Armenian-Chinese Partnership Center” NGO and the Fujian Museum for the invitation to contemplate the exhibition and their heartfelt welcome. 

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