by Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani
Google the name Chant Avedissian (1951-2018), and you will be led to over 20,000 links and images presenting the artist primarily through the lens of his world-recognized signature stencils. Fueled by Egypt’s twentieth-century political and cultural heyday or Golden Age, Avedissian stencils may have started as “childhood memories” but eventually transformed into a subtle critical discourse of the Egyptian and Arab society. Using newspaper images from the Egyptian press, the stencil technique allowed Avedissian to discover the truth or rather the “lie” propagated through the media. According to an interview with doctoral candidate Sadia Shirazi titled “Europe, Europe, Europe” and published in Threshold in 2008, Avedissian stressed “how an image [in newspapers] is not true” because “neither the people stand like that nor look like that; everything [is] fake.” For Avedissian, the stencil was the ideal medium, a fake façade as he defined it, because “it looks like a painting and it talks about something quite horrible, something quite dramatic.” In a way, Avedissian’s stencils shaped a multi-layered collective Arab culture torn between past and present, truth and lie, reality and propaganda. From Gamal Abdel Nasser to Om Kolthoum, well-known buildings and landmarks, Anubis, and other ancient gods, Chant Avedissian is a voyeur, a messenger of a sort, a kind of social realist or cultural critic. Avedissian reminded us to dig deeper and “see” beyond the montage fabricated to make us believe in celebrating our personal histories.
But what about the pre-stencil period? Who was Chant Avedissian then, and what was his message?
Born in Cairo on 24 November 1951 to Armenian parents fleeing the Turkish invasions of their homeland, Chant Avedissian is a transnational artist. He belongs to both an Armenian in Egypt and an Egyptian in Armenia. In the early nineteenth century, many Armenian Christians migrated to Egypt. Many were hired in government positions, while others established their private businesses. By the middle of the century, Egypt became one of the vital centers of Armenian political and cultural life. For example, in 1876, the Armenian Nubar Nubarian Pasha (1825-1899) became the first Prime Minister in modern Egypt. In Cairo, Chant Avedissian was schooled and later art trained in Cairo’s Armenian community. Avedissian studied at and graduated from the Kalousdian School in 1967. Formerly named Khorenian, Kalousdian Armenian School was established in 1854 and is one of Cairo’s oldest Armenian educational institutions. After graduation in the autumn of 1967, Chant Avedissian joined the studio of the prominent Armenian-born Egyptian fauvist figure, landscape, and still-life painter Ashod Zorian (1905-1970). Living a tumultuous life, Ashod Zorian was a painter, an art teacher in the Kalousdian School, and later had his private studio. Under his teachings, numerous Egyptian and Egyptian Armenian artists flourished and rose to fame. For example, Egypt’s Queen Farida joined Zorian’s studio after her divorce. From 1968, Chant Avedissian began designing posters, stage sets, costumes, and catalogs, and in December 1968, he exhibited hand-painted Christmas cards in Chake Alban’s studio. Chake (also Shake) was the right-hand of the Armenian studio photographer Aram Alban. Chake eventually took the reins of the business and married Aram. In May 1969, Chant Avedissian held his first solo exhibition under the direction of art teacher Nora Ipekian-Azadian (1923-2021). Born to a privileged Armenian family in Alexandria, Nora was a trained pianist and a student of Ashod Zorian. She was a refined portraitist and the first artist to introduce textile paintings in Egypt, which later influenced Chant. In June 1970, Chant held his second solo exhibition at the Carzou Hall, an exhibition space located inside the Kalousdian School and named after the prominent French-Armenian artist Jean Carzou. Originally Karnik Zouloumian (1907-2000) and of Armenian parents, Carzou left Syria where he was born and settled in Cairo in 1907 before moving to Paris on a scholarship to study architecture. In October 1970, Chant Avedissian moved to Montréal to pursue formal art studies at the School of Art and Design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Avedissian returned to Egypt in December 1972. He fused the techniques, concepts, and cosmopolitan experiences he acquired abroad with the heritage of his Armenian-Egyptian background to produce striking commentaries on the world around him. In 1975, Avedissian traveled to France to pursue further studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
This biographical background helps shed light on the importance of Armenia in Chant’s Cairo upbringing. And yet, Chant’s pre-stencil period is a celebration of Egypt and its people: “I am born in Egypt, and there is a reason my destiny made it that I am born in this country. I wanted to come back to this reason.” So, in 1981, Avedissian returned to Egypt and began experimenting with photography, paintings of the iconic Egyptian fellaha and Egyptian landscape, as well as costume and textile design, in search of an Egyptian aesthetic. In search of this “reason,” Chant Avedissian may have found the answer through Hassan Fathy, the world-renown Egyptian architect who advocated the use of local materials and craftsmanship. This encounter would mark Chant’s first art student-mentor relationship with an Egyptian, having a major influence on Chant’s thinking and art. It challenged Avedissian to reconsider local traditions of artistry and appreciate the properties of common materials.
Chant Égyptien reveals the lesser-known Chant, the growing of age Chant, and presents a stunning collection of paintings, drawings, and photography produced in Cairo during his teenage years up until the mid-1980s. The exhibition demonstrates Avedissian’s wide interests and expansive culture in folk art, Sufi poetry, and his immense love for his adoptive homeland. The source patterns are eclectic, ranging from Pharaonic patterns and iconography, Bedouin carpets and classical Islamic arts. In Chant Égyptien, Avedissian chants Egypt and his main inspiration are Egypt–its people, mosques, churches, the Nile, trees, and its light. It is the postcard Egypt, underlying its simplicity, tolerance, multi-confessions, multiple facets, all harmonized and tranquil, where it matters not whether you are from Armenia or Egypt.
Bridging tradition and modernity to reconstruct the cultural identity of his native land, Avedissian depicts vibrant tall women, either strolling with bread on their heads or standing still, all dressed in a traditional black galabia. Other works depict endless lines of palm trees instantly recognizable as a fundamental element of the Egyptian landscape. Avedissian’s technique is visually simple and matter of fact. Heavily sketched and depicted figuratively or abstract, the art is soothing. It is as though Chant found peace in art. According to his late teacher Nora Azadian, Chant was “directionless and undisciplined,” a potential high-school drop-out. When the administration of the Kalousdian School at a certain point decided to expel Avedissian, Azadian raised hell to keep Chant in school and challenged the administration stating, “Tomorrow you will be as proud of Chant as you were with (French-Armenian artist) Carzou.” Chant’s simplicity is underscored by the subject matters, evoking an Egyptian experience that is both juvenile and exploratory. Serving as a documentary of his youth and the land that inspired him, the works reflect Avedissian’s approach to the Egyptian values of desert and city life. Using painting, photography, and texts, three central themes form Avedissian’s early works: the Egyptian fellaha, the Egyptian landscape, and spiritual Egypt. Snapshots of the Egyptian (rural) daily life, the work links with ancient Egypt in the flat depictions, the facial expressions, and the body stature. Avedissian’s photographs of mosques, buildings, and cafés also disclose his mastery of light. At the same time, his juxtaposition of poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud onto paper brings to light his multi-cultural, highly versed background and love for French literature and classics, never isolating his visual expression from other artistic endeavors such as music, theater, and poetry. Also on display are greeting cards consisting of small graphic works hand-painted that Chant sent to friends and family on happy occasions. The two stunning Armenian costumes showcased in Chant Égyptien and designed by Chant for theater performances are testament to his roots. Overall, there is nothing static in Avedissian’s early work; everything seems to be moving in graceful patterns, like an Egyptian folkloric song or tale. To Chant, here is Chant Égyptien.
The exhibition is also a celebration of the life of GEORGE MIKAELIAN (1914-1986).
Born in Cairo to Armenian parents, George Mikaelian was an Accountant by education. He started his career at KODAK Corporation Egypt. He later had the opportunity to buy “Readers Corner” bookshop and “GM’s Bookshop,” two concessions located in many five-star hotels such as the Mena House, the Semiramis Hotel, the Nile Hilton, and Le Meridien.
A prominent art patron and Armenian at heart, Mikaelian was a founding Board Member of “Les Amis de la Culture Arménienne,” which published the seminal book “Peintres et sculpteurs Arméniens.” Always passionate and eager to support art and local artists, George Mikaelian was an early art patron. He organized several exhibitions with prominent Egyptian Armenian painters such as Simon Samsonian (1912-2003) and Kotchamanian, to name a few, and was a dedicated advocate of up-and-coming young painters. Mikaelian actively contributed to the “Mekhitarist Congregation of Vienna” and the Kalousdian National School to educate the Egyptian-Armenian youth. Mikaelian was a lifelong member of many associations, such as La Bienfaisance Armenienne Catholique, the non-profit AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union) established in Egypt in 1906, and founder and Board Member of St. Thérèse Armenian Catholic Parish Hall.
We want to thank the family of George Mikaelian for their trust and generous support.Private Collection of George Mikaelian.