Redressing identity: The work of Chant Avedissian
Nigel Ryan

The death this week of Chant Avedissian robs Egypt of one of its best known artists. Though his international reputation had grown steadily over the last two decades in his homeland, his best known work remains a handful of images from the extensive series of Cairo Stencils, portrayals of iconic figures from Egyptian popular culture of the latter half of the 20th century.


Chant Avedissian, artist, b Cairo,24 November 1951; d Cairo, 24 October 2018


Chant Avedissian is a member of that growing band of artists whose name is more familiar than their work. That this is the case speaks volumes about what is deemed newsworthy in our cultures, and how that news is processed. Type his name in any search engine and the chances are that top of the results will be the news that, in 2013, he broke auction records at Sotheby’s: click on images and what you will see is a selection from the series of works that broke those records – intensely stylised portraits of Umm Kalthoum and of a host of singers and actors and actresses from the golden age of Egypt’s cinema, saturated and glittering portrayals – literally so, given the artist’s liberal use of gold paint – of a very glitzy crowd. What you won’t get is any suggestion these works are a typical: that they form a limited part of the stencil series from which they are drawn and an even less representative sample of Avedissian’s work as a whole. They offer a lopsided representation of his output, one that has permitted the mistaken view to develop that the artist was somehow a purveyor of nostalgia for some glamorous but now lost age.


Of course no art is produced in a vacuum; neither is it particularly useful – whatever the attempts to impose a cordon sanitaire or to sterilise the venues in which it is displayed – for it to be viewed in one.


Chant Avedissian was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1951. The name, place, date - they are all important. Avedissian – not an Arabic name but Armenian, though he was born in Cairo, and in 1951, a year before King Farouk was deposed in the 1952 Revolution planned by a group of army officers under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.


Avedissian has made many images of Nasser, and more than a few of King Farouk. Both men appear in the extensive series of stencils he worked on between 1991 and 2004. The background of the image of Nasser on this page contains both the Eagle of Saladin, first introduced as a symbol of the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and which still occupies the central white band of the Egyptian flag, together with a simplified map of the Arab world, a very clear reference to the pan-Arabism Nasser would espouse.


Avedissian grew up during the heyday of Nasserist pan-Arabism, a subject which would have dominated what discourse was permitted in the state owned media after Nasser nationalised the press on 24 May 1956, transforming it into a tool for the regime. Now, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves what Nasser’s pan-Arabism – which would have been a ubiquitous topic in the media as Avedissian was growing up in Cairo – might have looked like to an Egyptian of non-Arab descent. It is, after all, a project riddled with contradictions only partially glossed by the anti-colonialist rhetoric of independence, one whose overweening recourse to homogeneity rests on a flipside of exclusion.


I think it’s a safe bet to assume any response would, at the very least, be complicated. Certainly, a very complex relationship with the press emerges in any close examination of the Cairo Stencils – all based on images which first appeared in the illustrated papers that proliferated in the years immediately before and, to a far greater extent, after the 1952 Revolution. There are more than 200 images in the series, and they are a motley bunch. The stencils include Sayed Jamaleddine Al- Afghani (1838-1897), political adventurer, anti-imperial campaigner, religious moderniser, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, double agent or hardened opportunist – take your pick, alongside screen siren Hind Rustom (1929-2011), the Egyptian actress whose fate it was to be dubbed the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe. Gamal Abdel- Nasser (1918-1970), depicted in the kinds of heroic pose most readily associated with socialist realism, appears alongside a female shot-putter (another nod to the imagery of Soviet propaganda), political prisoners and pick-pockets.


Even a brief selection from the Cairo stencils is enough to show the range of subjects. It is a catholic gathering. In the great democracy of Avedissian’s stencils Nasser shares equal weight with a sportswoman, with political prisoners and petty criminals.


The one thing the occupants of this pantheon share is that they were all depicted in the illustrated magazines and papers that proliferated in immediately before and after the 1952 Revolution. The Cairo Stencils are images of images. They can, as Avedissian noted, be endlessly reworked from the cut outs he made based on the published pictures. In each re-production backgrounds can be changed, new juxtapositions created.


A single subject can be placed in multiple contexts. A soldier, symbol of our Arab forces as the calligraphic Arabic title declares, can charge heroically, Kalashnikov in hand, across a background of live fire and a battlefield occupied by ghostly silhouettes of other soldiers, but he can also charge across a field of heraldic eagles interspersed with the order NO PHOTOS, in capitalised Latin script, a once ubiquitous instruction in the vicinity of government or military facilities which, given the constant war footing on which Egypt was placed, could mean anywhere. They may be “our” forces but “we” cannot take a snapshot of them. We are not allowed to re-imagine them. But Our Arab Forces, as envisaged by Avedissian and symbolised by the soldier, can also be made to charge across a map of the Arab world, against fields of motifs drawn from 17th century Ottoman fabrics, architectural details culled from the length of the Silk Road or landscapes populated with a menagerie of hieratic figures of the kind that march around the walls of ancient tombs.


Chant was very clear about what he perceived as the advantages of his stencilling technique.


“Stencilling gave me the possibility of variation,” he said. “Once the drawing was cut out I could concentrate on colour, or different backgrounds.”


The process also imposed formal qualities.


The schematising of the figures, the paring down of all pictorial elements to areas of flat colour, turns the construction of a national identity pursued by the Egyptian regime following the revolution of 1952 – for that is, to a great extent, what the big state owned publishing houses were engaged in, alongside the Ministry of Culture or, to give it its full name up until 1970s, the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance – into an essentially decorative enterprise.


Avedissian’s simplification involved an acute compression of narratives. The subsequent emphasis on variation and the creation of new contexts by juxtaposition serves, ironically, to amplify the pick and mix techniques of the propagandist. The caption that accompanied the source image was usually retained, allowing the inclusion of calligraphy, that most privileged of Islamic art forms, in the overall design.


“Then,” Chant wrote, “I moved to a larger format, which enabled me to assemble on one panel different subjects and thus tell a story. Made on corrugated cardboard – sold as packing item in the souks of Cairo, in rolls and by the kilo…


“By attaching all the panels together, a whole space could be created. This gave me a large field of manoeuvre. The idea was also to replace the notion of one painting by a whole range of images that could be reused, replaced, interchanged and redesigned…”


It is a process which negates the possibility of any nostalgia for a supposedly Golden Age. By reusing images produced as part and parcel of the project to police the perimeters of identity, to promote a patriotism acceptable to the state and its approved narratives, the Stencils undermine, with humour and an often understated irony, the foundations of that enterprise. The carpet is pulled from beneath the Nasserist state’s attempts to construct identity. Indeed, I would go a step further and argue that Chant Avedissian’s stencils express a deep antipathy to the hegemonic, whatever form it might take.


In describing his own work Chant frequently employed architectural metaphors.  


“My art master was the adobe brick,” he has said. “Putting three bricks together to make a wall, to make a pattern, it’s magic.”


Architectural elements also form the subject of many pieces. Chant took many photographs of details of the glazed brick walls of mosques and other buildings in Samarkand and of brickwork patterns from buildings in the Egyptian oases of the Western desert.


His acknowledgement of the influence of the adobe brick, of the process of building with a single unit, on his own practice is a roundabout way of paying tribute to the influence of the visionary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi (1902-1989). In 1981 Chant began filing the architect’s papers and drawings, an association that would continue until Fathi’s death in 1989.


Fathi’s purism, his insistence “that genuine Egyptian art and the revival of crafts had to be tackled simultaneously” and belief “that the merging of ancient and modern art would succeed only if no external interference in the adoption of materials, techniques or cultural assessments” was allowed, would have a major impact. The architectural conceits which Avedissian continued to use in describing his own methods, indeed much of the work he produced during the 80s, the period in which he worked with the architect, can be seen, in terms of both process and content, as the artist’s homage to Fathi.


In 1985 Avedissian held his first exhibition of textile hangings. The works exhibited were the result of a painstaking process of assembly. The basic unit – Avedissian’s own touba – were the three basic shapes of the rectangle, square and triangle from which, he says, “one is able to construct panels out of wood, paper or any other material”. The results often echo the stark geometries of Fathi’s buildings.


The source patterns are eclectic, ranging from the painted triangular decoration of 18th dynasty sarcophagi to the marble decoration of Mameluke mosques. But while some of the patterns may be from Egypt the form has a wider cultural resonance.


“It was in western Rajasthan, and particularly in Jaisalmer, that I first came into contact with the world of appliqué textiles which inspired me to make textile panels,” wrote Avedissian. “Travelling by train through the Thar Desert one arrives at this ancient city through which merchants passed as they crossed Iran from Africa along the caravan route to India and China.


“The square is divided into rectangles and triangles. These squares placed together to form the panels. Several assembled panels form the tent; it’s a movable space, easily disassembled, folded and transported.”


Caravan routes to India and China, travelling through the Thar Desert, movable spaces – tents – suggestive of the kinds of nomadic existence the imposition of national borders has eradicated: the appeal to pre-modern models is at once deliberate, and deliberately contrived. It is difficult – no, it is impossible – to believe Chant did not first come into contact with such textiles in Cairo where an entire district is dedicated to the creation of the appliqued panels which are such a noticeable feature of the celebratory and funeral tents erected in the streets. But this is hardly the point. The post-event rationalisation of the origins of his own panels which he elaborated some two decades after the panels were made – is telling. It seeks to delineate a cultural space where borders are irrelevant and posits a visual language that is not constricted by such boundaries. It insists that a triangle is a triangle in China and Egypt and France, that a square is a square.


The same impulse is present in his account of the costumes he created beginning in 1987.


“There is not much difference over a huge expanse of geography in the basic cuts of a traditional costume,” he wrote. “Much as in Silk Road architecture, similarity is a constant feature…


From the Atlas mountains to the Nile, from Morocco to Mongolia Avedissian identifies variations on a theme.


Class boundaries are equally insubstantial.


“The wealthier the individual and the higher their social status the more expensive the material but from the top to the bottom of society the cut is the same.”


To note that reality differs from the idealised space Avedissian delineates is again to miss the point. Utopias necessarily involve wishful thinking.


A square may be a square but not all squares are equal, something Avedissian knew better than most.


To mark the centenary of Kazimir Malevich’s black square the Whitechapel Gallery in London staged an exhibition – Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 – which it described as follows: “This epic show takes Kazimir Malevich’s radical painting of a black square – first shown in Russia 100 years ago – as the emblem of a new art and a new society. The exhibition features over 100 artists who took up its legacy, from Buenos Aires to Tehran, London to Berlin, New York to Tel Aviv. Their paintings, photographs and sculptures symbolise Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns.”


Chant Avedissian was among the artists included. However explicit he had been about the pre-modern origins of his own textile squares they could still be co-opted by an exhibition to celebrate abstract art and society between 1915 and 2015 and exhibited beneath a rubric that straitjackets them as symbolising “Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns”.


Perhaps it was an attempt to escape such straitjacketing – to sidestep a discourse so hegemonic it can shamelessly portray artisans in Central Asia as taking up the legacy of Suprematism, transforming them – without a blush – into workers at the coal face of a European avantgarde – that in his last works, the panels included in the exhibition staged last year by Casa Arabe in Madrid, Avedissian foregrounded the designs that once formed the backdrop to the Cairo Stencils. He dispensed with figurative elements drawn from the pages of Egypt’s national press the better to focus attention on what is most often overlooked in the schema of earlier works. It is a reductionist ploy, though one which has the effect of opening up hitherto concealed vistas and, in so doing, amplifying concerns that had long been central to his work.


The panels that were included in the exhibition illuminate, rather than conceal, complexity. This time the juxtapositions were of abstracted forms drawn from designs on Bukhara caftans, Khiva mudbrick wall patterns, the geometries of the polychromatic marble floor of the14th century Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo, the çintamani of Ottoman velvets embroidered in gold thread.


The panels themselves are pared down, elegant. They serve as milestones on a journey that follows the Silk Road across the steppes of Central Asia. The destination, Samarkand, is both fabled city and a real place. It is a confluence – the intersection between the story/fable and reality/the city with its material culture, that Avedissian always explored, juxtaposing privileged narratives with unseemly facts.


Chant always took the long view: in examining the nexus of myth and reality he refused to allow hearsay to pose as history, expediency to dress up as fate. The exotic is just one trope he repeatedly shoots down.


Among the milestones along the journey is a panel which superimposes the Ottoman çintamani – as seen in the ceremonial robe of Murad IV – a triangle of three spots and a pair of wavy bands – over repeated Bukhara floral designs. Of course, there is little that can be neutral about an Armenian artist deploying Ottoman motifs. It cannot help but be a loaded gesture. But nothing in Avedissian’s work is as simple as it seems. The tiger stripes and spots of the çintamani, a typical feature of Turkish textiles and ceramics for centuries, may appear quintessentially Ottoman but the motif predates Ottoman rule by several hundred years. It can be traced to the Buddhist period in China when the lines represented sanctity. It was used by Tamerlaine (1336-1405) on coinage and to mark property. The spots could allude to leopards, the pelts of which were worn by heroes in the Persian tradition. In China the circles represented pearls.


Take the long view and symbols cannot be reduced, just as identities cannot to be constructed at the whim of the state.


The deceptively simple decorative motifs which Avedissian appropriates reverberate across the vast spaces traversed by the Silk Road. They echo in a space where boundaries are negated, where hegemonies cannot distort and identities need not be improvised.


It is in this space – capacious as a continent – that the artist carved out a home. Throughout his career he focussed on a single point, a geometrical abstraction, the parallel lines at the centre of a complex equation – the place where a square can be a square can be a square.


Chant Avedissian
Katerina Gregos

With his Armenian-Egyptian background and academic studies in art and design abroad, in Montreal and Paris, one might expect the notion of a fixed identity to present an issue for Chant Avedissian. But the artist has a very rational approach to it: ‘I carry an Egyptian passport and therefore, I’m an Egyptian, period.’ ‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘holding a passport of a country does not mean you fully embrace or are fully aware of the culture of that people... You pick and choose what you want. It is not a matter of pre-packaged culture that you just carry with you.’[1]

The fact of belonging to different worlds—as Avedissian does—often makes us more sensitive to the particularities and influences of diverse cultural elements. In his usage of a range of cross-cultural elements that are inspired by the customs and traditions of different civilisations and times, Avedissian creates strikingly hybrid visual works that become imprinted in the mind as kaleidoscopic icons.

The different versions of the work entitled Icons of the Nile consist of portraits of Egyptian public figures: popular singers and movie stars; politicians and intellectuals, among them King Farouk (1920-1965), President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970); famous singers, such as Umm Kulthum (1898-1975) and Abdel Halim Hafez (1929-1977); and movie stars like Shadia (b. 1931) and Hind Rostom, otherwise known as ‘the Marilyn Monroe of Egypt’ (1931-2011). These portraits are combined with scenes referring to Egypt’s recent past and present, which function as symbols of the dramatic changes incurred by the sociopolitical and cultural climate of the Arab world in general—and of Egypt in particular—in the twentieth century.

Avedissian’s prolific and multi-faceted output includes photography, costume and textile design and painted stencils on corrugated cardboard, such as the Icons of the Nile.[2] His stencils series tries to safeguard Egypt’s ancient and recent history and culture. He states, ‘a big part of the stencils was to invent an identity.’[3] He appropriates the heritage of Egyptian iconography, the geometry of Arab architecture, the arabesques of Islamic art and the plant motifs of Ottoman textiles. He began work on the series in 1991, during the Gulf War; and these works indicate a turning point in his career. They cover more or less the history of Egypt, up until the 1970s, starting with the Revolution of 1952, in which Nasser overthrew the constitutional monarchy of King Farouk and established a republic. Avedissian was born in 1951; and the turbulent birth of this new state coincided with the first twenty years of his life. It was the Egypt that the artist grew up in.

Avedissian draws his subject matter from the billboards and popular media of 1950s and 1960s Egypt. These include magazines, newspapers, TV broadcasts and ‘Egypt’s golden age of the movies’[4], with its voluptuous divas and profusely moustached movie stars, all of which provide a nostalgic, imaginative and humorous commentary on contemporary popular culture. He calls these works ‘reflections of the Orientalist vision of the Egyptian looking at his own culture’, and adds, ‘I wanted to disturb the traditional concept of ‘painting’ and incorporate the Egyptian artistic heritage that is so closely linked to writing and the art of calligraphy.’[5] The work is fuelled by his fear that Egypt's history and culture eventually might disappear, a pressing issue for many countries in an increasingly globalised and homogenised world.

The artist’s relationship with the well-known Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), generally referred to as ‘The Middle East’s father of sustainable architecture’, famous for his mud-brick houses and use of indigenous building techniques, has been of crucial importance to the development of Avedissian’s own work. Fathy—who Avedissian assisted for ten years—acknowledged the importance of natural and traditional building styles, long before this idea became fashionable in the West.[6] Shahira Mehrez, a historian, art collector and friend of the Fathy’s was another major influence on Avedissian. As the artist says, Mehrez ‘helped me financially and culturally by giving me access to all her art book collections, Egyptian costumes collections, and Egyptian crafts collections. She organised in her flat my first and only textile show, designed by Hassan Fathy; and a few years later we continued to collaborate by shifting to costumes, still making use of her books and traditional Egyptian costumes collections. She knew I worked at Fathy’s for free; but she believed in the process, whereas all my friends thought I was mad working for no money. We stopped collaborating after that, as I didn’t have the intention or knowledge to go into fashion, which is a big industry.’[7]

Fathy’s use of local materials and crafts inspired Avedissian to account for the traditions of rural artisanship, craftsmanship and the use of ordinary resources. Avedissian is intrigued by Arab desert life and admires the provisional dwellings of the Bedouins, who can easily pack up and take all their belongings with them. This freedom of movement, of easily moving one’s home and possessions, gave him the idea to make the corrugated cardboard stencils or scrolls, which are easy to produce, change, pack and transport; and can be rearranged in a different order, thus telling alternative stories.

Avedissian’s usage of stencils not only allows for multiple results, it invites them. He uses these to create different versions of a painting or a portrait, giving them altered backgrounds or changed attire, like a set stage that retains its basic scenographic elements but changes its props. ‘I love the idea of not doing something just once’, he explains.[8] Apart from their engaging themes, the painterly quality of the stencils combined with their character as cut-outs is noteworthy for its bright colours, complicated meandering patterns and continuous repetitions and rhythms. These create movement, harmony, unity, space and ambience. Patterns, repetition and calligraphy are the main ingredients of traditional Islamic art, which of course has been a great inspiration to Avedissian. His real masterpiece, though, was the adobe mud-brick: ‘Putting three bricks together to make a wall, to make a pattern, it’s magic. You put two together and in the middle one more, and you stack them up to build a wall. Or you tilt one brick vertically, at an angle, or overlap one brick with another. It all starts there and you end up with a girl holding a Kalashnikov.’[9]

The so-called Nubian Doors are another important component of Avedissian’s oeuvre. The famous Nubian houses, decorated with beautifully painted doors, were another indigenous source of inspiration for him. Nubian Doors showcases sacred Egyptian animals such as the bee, the ibis, the jackal and the crocodile, who stand respectively for the sun god Re, the god of the moon Thot, the god of the dead Anubis and the female demon of fear, Ammut. With the use of these ancient symbols, Avedissian stresses the origins and continuity of Egyptian culture, which spans many millennia. Although these door decorations appear to have originated in old tradition, they were actually only invented around 1925 by Ahmad Batoul, a Nubian builder’s assistant who was responsible for the finishing touches to the then newly built houses.[10]

All in all, Avedissian’s work testifies to his constant intellectual and artistic struggle against what he calls the ‘Western, colonial and imperialistic influence on Eastern art’. ([11]) He strongly opposes the general tendency to evaluate the latter by European or Western standards. As he grapples with Western influences, his art becomes the result of the fraught tension between East and West. ([12])

In her book Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003, Liliane Karnouk questions the extent to which Egyptian artists should or could assimilate to Western art forms. ‘For many Egyptian artists,’ she describes, ‘assimilation to the modern age is felt as being as deadly to Egyptian identity as pollution is to the Sphinx.’[13] This feeling of unease, or even protest, is detected in several of Avedissian’s interviews, where he claims ‘I do not do art, (...) I have to do what I do, as an Armenian born in Egypt and against all Western influences. I don’t do art. I do fighting against influences. I paint, it’s not political art, but it’s an attitude.’[14]

                 Islamic artistic expression is predominantly a decorative art form. Geometric shapes, calligraphy and organic patterns make up the three non-figural types of decoration in Islamic art. The geometrical and organic designs usually feature repeated and overlapping polygons and circles, or of rhythmic patterns of interlacing foliage and tendrils. The Occidental preoccupation with figuration and the human body has seemingly made Islamic and Western art mutually exclusive, or at least inherently contradictory. However, the emergence of Western art movements at the onset of the twentieth century, such as abstract—specifically Constructivist—art, has led us to re-evaluate Islamic art and its relation to Western aesthetic developments.

                 Both art forms have a lot in common; and although Constructivism as such might not directly be indebted to geometric Islamic art, the similarities between the two do exist. Modern and contemporary abstract Oriental art, such as Avedissian’s, is in turn very similar to Constructivist painting and its later counterparts, in spite of Avedissian’s ideal of an unaffected and ‘unpolluted’ modern and contemporary ‘Eastern’ art practice. Can any artist avoid the influences of the past? When we look at Lyubov Popova’s and Varvara Stepanova’s fabric and textile fashion designs of the 1920s[15] [16], for instance, we notice a striking resemblance to Avedissian’s own pattern stencils (1991-1999), as well as his costume sketches and drawings[17]. There are ample instances that illustrate the resemblances between Islamic and Russian Constructivist designs, whatever the explanation of that might be.

For many years, Avedissian has been concentrating on painting patterns. Moving between modernity and tradition, his intricate artistic and aesthetic research combines elements of Constructivism with features of Islamic art, generating surprising relationships between Constructivist art and ancient calligraphy. These works are characterised by repetition and a variety of patterns, rhythms and motifs. Repetition arises from the frequent recurrence of the same object, colour or shape in a regular, rectilinear or cyclical way, to create interest, movement, harmony and unity. A pattern is a combination of distinct elements or shapes that are repeated in a systematic arrangement, such as mosaics, lattices, spirals, meanders, waves, symmetries and fractals. Rhythm is a variegated repetition of different elements, which can be random, regular, alternating, flowing, increasing or diminishing, like notes in a score. In visual rhythm, the motifs become the beats. Motifs originate from units of patterns, or combinations of elements, such as stamps, tiles, building blocks and modules. Motifs can be arranged in a plurality of sequences, be they repetition, rhythm or pattern.

The corrugated cardboard that Avedissian uses for his paintings, stencils and panels already has a pattern of its own; the ribbings in it even remain visible underneath the painted surface. He only uses the cardboard in one direction, with the corrugations in a horizontal position. Thus, the stencils can be rolled up and are easy to pack, store and transport; and can be hung up again upon arrival at the next temporary destination[18]. His pattern paintings, panels, cut-out stencils, and bands are painted with gouache, which reinforces the already matte surface of the cardboard. The predominant colours are red, yellow and blue; mostly bright and clear, but sometimes soft and subdued.

His motifs range from geometrical shapes, such as circles and spirals, squares, rectangles, triangles and other polygons; and different star forms such as pentagrams, hexagrams and octagrams, to organic and floral forms such as pomegranates, lotuses, blooming palmettes, grape-vines, date-palms, papyrus and bamboo. Combined, these produce extremely complicated and beautiful patterns. In addition to the aforementioned elements, Avedissian also uses the crescent moon and star and the so-called ‘Çintemani’—an ancient motif that formed the basis of the traditional design for Iznik Tiles during Ottoman times—consisting of a combination of design elements, which are referred to as ‘tiger stripes’ (a pair of undulating horizontal lines) and ‘leopard spots’ (three dots in a triangular position).

The calligraphic, arabesque and geometric elements that belong to the decorative canon of Islamic art and architecture rarely contain a symbolic meaning. Islamic art even seems to avoid the use of symbolism[19]. Rather, Islamic art strives for mathematical elegance and aesthetic attractiveness in its patterns and arabesques. And so does Avedissian. His work expresses his desire to establish a meaningful continuum between ancient, modern and contemporary Eastern art and aesthetics, without imposing a definite or unique meaning.

It might be clear that Oriental art forms and practices have been of crucial significance to Avedissian’s artistic development. But despite his denial of the importance of Occidental art to his own work, one cannot overlook that modern Western art has indeed made its imprint on him. And not just in the ways mentioned above; but also in how Avedissian’s work reminds us of the paper cut out works by Henri Matisse, which Avedissian no doubt is familiar with. However, his aversion to a supposed Western cultural hegemony[20], which still is prominent in the art world, has led him to the invention of his own innovative voice. If one were to try to situate Avedissian’s practice in terms of culture and geographical affinities, I would claim that it springs from a truly Levantine spirit. That South-Eastern part of the Mediterranean—the Levant—where ‘cultures met, borders blurred, and religions and people cross-bred for better or for worse’[21]. This special, sophisticated but decidedly Oriental brand of South-Eastern cosmopolitanism, which sadly waned after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of Arab nationalism. That place where Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews co-existed and understood one another, despite the fact that they spoke different languages and practiced different religions. Though he is too young to have experienced the Levant’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century heyday, to me Avedissian is clearly a child of this legacy; this place that is now a nostalgic ‘far away’ but nevertheless constitutes a latent second skin underlying Avedissian’s work.

                                                                                                                                                Katerina Gregos


                 



[1] Hratch Tchilingirian, Armenian International Magazine (AIM), August-September 1999, Vol. 10, No. 8 & 9, Looking to the East. Chant Avedissian rediscovers and redefines Egyptian visual art, p. 79.

oxbridgepartners.com/hratch/index.php/publications/articles/88-looking-to-the-east-chant-avedissian.


[2] Rose Issa, Press release for the exhibition Chant Avedissian, ‘Icons of the Nile’, Leighton House Museum, London, 1995:

‘The Fine Arts-trained Avedissian refuses to work in oil on canvas. Instead, he mixes his own pigments and uses the stencil technique to transfer the image on to card or locally made paper that can be rolled into scrolls. The stencil technique itself necessitates a simplification of line and colour, and thus becomes similar to the hieroglyphic concept of representation.’

http://roseissa.com/past%20exhib/Chant-Avedissian-Icons/past-exh-press34.html


[3] Sadia Shirazi, EUROPE, EUROPE, EUROPE: interview with Chant Avedissian in Jadaliyya, 22 June 2015. First published as Europe, Europe, Europe in Thresholds 33: Formalisms, 2008

http://www.reviews.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/21928/europe-europe-europe_chant-avedissian-with-sadia-sn

 

[4] Rym Ghazal in The National, January 29, 2015

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/the-review/when-the-stars-shone-from-cairo-remembering-egyptian-cinemas-dream-factory


[5]  Tchilingirian, 1999, pp. 77-79


[6]  Amira Elhamy, The Middle East Observer, 27 January 2016

http://www.meobserver.org/reviving-a-success-story-written-by-the-egyptian-architect-hassan-fathy/


7 Email sent by the artist on 12 March 2017


[8]  Shirazi, 2008


[9]  Shirazi, 2008


[10] Ernst Hans Gombrich, Reflections on the History of Art: Views and Reviews, University of California Press, 1987, p. 31, cited from Marian Wenzel, ‘House Decoration in Nubia’, University of Toronto Press, 1972

https://books.google.be/books?id=275zvEoivcoC&pg=PA31&lpg=PA31&dq=gombrich+wenzel+nubia&source=bl&ots=rE68oD_5Hp&sig=jC8aI2gBltqEiM7GHIzKHVPIdbo&hl=nl&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicwtHUz6nSAhUDtBoKHecnDjoQ6AEINjAF#v=onepage&q=gombrich%20wenzel%20nubia&f=false


[11] Tchilingirian, 1999, pp. 77-79

 

12 Tchilingirian, 1999, pp. 77-79

 

13 Liliane Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, 2005, p. 98

https://www.jstor.org/stable/27933988?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


14 Tchilingirian, 1999, pp. 77-79


15 Christina Lodder, 'Liubov Popova: From Painting to Textile Design', Tate Papers, no.14, Autumn 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/liubov-popova-from-painting-to-textile-design


16 Evgenia Dorofeeva, The Russian Fashion Blog, ‘Constructivism in Russia in the 1920s’, June 2013

http://www.russianfashionblog.com/index.php/2013/06/constructivism-russia-1920s/#axzz4ZL4KINqP


17 Sabrina Amrani, Chant Avedissian, List of gouaches on corrugated paper, panels and bands, details and digital images with explanations, February 2017

 

18 Shirazi, 2008, Avedissian: ‘The scrolls were done initially for a birthday party; you put it on the walls and afterwards take it off. You don’t live with the scrolls.’

 

19 Thomas Arnold, ‘Symbolism and Islam’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs,

Vol. 53, No. 307, Oct., 1928, p. 155

https://www.jstor.org/stable/863786?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


20  Shirazi, 2008, Avedissian: ‘I grew up until the age of eighteen with Paris as the centre of culture: in the house, in school, in my surroundings, in the French cultural institute in Cairo, in Egyptian cinema. I mean if you see Egyptian movies, everyone goes to Europe- the doctor is coming from Europe; they go to Europe to bring the machines. I mean the guy thinks his wife is having an affair with another man, he takes the child and he goes to Europe. This is in a famous Egyptian film. The wife goes to the villa of her husband and his mother says, the guy is not here and your son is not here and tomorrow morning they are going to Europe this is a very big event - the guy goes to Europe. He doesn’t go to Sudan, he doesn’t go to Afghanistan, he goes to Europe. So we grew up thinking Europe is the centre. You walk in the street and the birds sing that, ‘Europe, Europe, Europe’.’


21 Adina Hoffman quoted in ‘Whatever is Left of the Levantine Spirit?’ by Elie Chalala in Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Art, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015. See also: http://www.aljadid.com/content/whatever-left-levantine-spirit




Algebraic formulations: The work of Chant Avedissian
Nigel Ryan

In 1998 I proposed a profile of Chant Avedissian for the back page Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptian newspaper for which I was then working, and after the requisite period of haggling the proposal was accepted. I had known the artist for some time and duly arranged an interview, though that is probably the wrong word for what transpired. The interview is not a form to which Chant lends himself easily. Instead our meeting passed more in the manner of conversation, at times meandering and expansive, at others punctuated by the kind of declamatory statements for which the artist has a clear predilection. “To sit on chairs is pompous”; “Could any people be more racist than the French?”; “Countries celebrate the antithesis of what they are”.[i] One-liners peppered his speech, as they do in every interview with Chant that I have read.


Some random examples:


"In Egypt I'm a foreigner, in the West I'm Egyptian. In China I'm me".


Again, in a later interview: "In Egypt I am Armenian, in Europe I am Egyptian, but in China these definitions mean nothing."


“There is no such thing as universal art.”


“Anything that is not traditional Japanese, or close to its spirit, is pure barbarism.”


“If parents tell their children that Paris is at the centre of art - that is abuse.”


“I couldn’t care less about Shakespeare's entire literary corpus if I cannot go to England, say, tomorrow.”


Such statements are clearly intended to be provocative. Like much provocation they reduce complex sets of problems to soundbites. Were it not for the fact they reveal themes which inform Chant Avedissian’s practice as an artist and, in their compression, suggest a route by which his work might be approached and understood, they could easily be discounted as glib.


One obvious thing the soundbites betray is a focus on identity, or more precisely – “in China these definitions mean nothing” – the sketching of a strategy to escape identities that are imposed, a not surprising preoccupation on the part of an artist of Armenian descent born in Egypt and brought up during the heyday of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s pan-Arabism, a project riddled with contradictions only partially glossed by the anti-colonialist rhetoric of independence and whose overweening recourse to homogeneity rests on a flipside of exclusion. There is, too, a nod towards one of the great antinomies of our age, the claims of the universal versus the right to cultural specificity, alongside a referencing of the economic context within which such claims are made, particularly in the cultural sphere, exemplified by the difficulties the vast majority of Third World citizens face in travelling to the First World and the relative ease with which such journeys are made in the opposite direction, and certainly to Egypt, a country in which many people have little choice but to depend on the income generated by attracting visitors from richer states. [ii]


Yet despite the clues with which Avedissian liberally peppers his statements and writings the publicity for a 2011 exhibition of his Cairo Stencils – works that interrogate the mechanisms by which an Egyptian identity was constructed in the second half of the twentieth century – still managed to claim the artist’s “inspiration is fuelled by the pantheon of Egypt’s modern Golden Age”. [iii] Elsewhere, references to the supposed nostalgia of the Stencils abound. “The reflected nostalgia in Avedissian’s work is overpowering,” writes Rose Issa, adding that “the paintings depict an era, the Egypt of the 5O's, when the country was at the height of its cosmopolitanism: spies and tradesmen, Greeks, Italians, Muslims, Copts, Jews, Armenians, Palestinian refugees, Europeans and a great number of Middle Eastern intellectuals mingled.”


This is a strangely ahistorical description of works that examine the historiography of the period, not least in its misrepresentation of the 50’s, a decade which saw a massive exodus from Egypt of Greeks and Italians, many of whom were small tradesmen, of Syrians, Armenians and Jews, as “the height of cosmopolitanism”. There is no accessible data concerning the number of spies but it is hard to avoid the suspicion they are the illusory icing on this half-baked cosmopolitan cake.


And what should we make of the assertion that the artist is inspired by the occupants of the pantheon of this capitalised Golden Age?


They are certainly a motley bunch. Avedissian’s stencils include Sayyid Jamal al Din al Afghani (1838-1897), political adventurer, anti-imperial campaigner, religious moderniser, sunni muslim, shia muslim, double agent or hardened opportunist – take your pick, alongside screen siren Hind Rustom (1929-2011), the Egyptian actress whose fate it was to be dubbed the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe; Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), depicted in the kinds of heroic pose most readily associated with socialist realism, alongside female shot-putters (another nod to the imagery of Soviet propaganda), political prisoners and pick-pockets.


It is, clearly, a catholic selection. The one thing the occupants of this pantheon do have in common is that they were all depicted in the illustrated magazines and papers that proliferated in Egypt in the years immediately before and after the 1952 revolution. It is these depictions – from the mid-50’s onwards in media that was state-owned, earlier in papers and magazines that were rarely less than partisan – that Avedissian uses as his source material.


The Cairo Stencils, then, are images of images. They can, as their creator notes, be endlessly reworked from the cut outs he made based on images published in state-owned magazines and newspapers. In each re-production backgrounds can be changed, new juxtapositions created. A soldier, symbol of Our Arab Forces as the calligraphic Arabic title declares, can charge heroically, Kalashnikov in hand, across a background of heraldic eagles interspersed with the order NO PHOTOS, in capitalised Latin script, a ubiquitous instruction in the vicinity of government or military facilities which, given the constant war footing on which the nation was placed, could mean anywhere. [v] They may be “our” forces but “we” cannot take a snapshot of them. We are not allowed to re-imagine them. But Our Arab Forces, as envisaged by Avedissian and symbolised by the soldier, can also be made to charge across different backgrounds, across a map of the Arab world, against fields of motifs drawn from 17th century Ottoman fabrics, architectural details culled from the length of the Silk Road or landscapes populated with a menagerie of hieratic figures of the kind that march around the walls of ancient tombs.


Avedissian is very clear about the advantage of using stencils. “Stencilling gave me the possibility of variation,” he says. “Once the drawing was cut out, one could concentrate on colour, or different backgrounds.”

The process also imposed formal qualities. “I had to go hieroglyphic, i.e. simplifying to the extent of [what was] real[ly] essential.”


His schematising of the figures, the paring down of all pictorial elements to areas of flat colour, turns the construction of a national identity pursued by the Egyptian regime following the revolution of 1952 into an essentially decorative enterprise. His simplification involves an acute compression of narratives. The subsequent emphasis on variation and the creation of new contexts by juxtaposition serves, ironically, to amplify the pick and mix techniques of the propagandist. The caption that accompanied the source image is frequently retained, allowing the inclusion of calligraphy, that most privileged of Islamic art forms, in the overall design. It is an inclusion that cannot help but reference the sacredness of the Islamic text.



A perfectly made-up, be-ringed and braceleted figure bends over a ballot paper, pen in manicured hand, elaborate coiffeur bisecting a field of eagles, above the kitsch legend Eve Votes. The stencil is reproduced in Chant Avedissian: Cairo Stencils: London, Saqi Books, 2006, prefaced by an introduction informing the reader that “following decades of activism, mostly by upper- and middle-class feminist groups… women were given the right to vote in 1956. This symbolised their new participation in all aspects of life, no longer just as guardians of the family. Nationalist songs and films with socio-political overtones reflected these changes and the new Arab woman, neither a colonialised North African nor an ‘orientalised’ subject, was widely celebrated in the press.”


It is worth taking the time to quote this introduction, worth the effort to think about what is actually being said because it typifies a double misunderstand about Avedissian’s work. For while it seems a safe bet to assume the artist supports female suffrage the odds would be stacked against the assumption he is unaware Nasser was the only candidate on the 1957 ballot paper over which this female voter stands. [vi] Nor is it a coincidence that the example of “the new Arab woman” on which Chant Avedissian alights, “the new Arab woman” he chooses to re-frame in his stencil, is Eve. By retaining the original title and inscribing it in scarlet calligraphy he deflates any celebration. The stencil’s compression of narratives operates to foreground a subversive intent directed not just at the propaganda of the original but towards later, post-colonial formulations of which the “orientalised subject” of the introduction, an identity which this woman has purportedly escaped as she bends to vote, might serve as exemplar. Eve may be hailed as the “new Arab woman”, the representative of change, in an introduction which parrots the caption to the original image but in the image Avedissian re-imagines, and which retains the original caption , she is as old as the hills.


“Then,” writes Avedissian, “I moved to a larger format, which enabled me to assemble on one panel different subjects and thus tell a story. Made on corrugated cardboard – sold as packing item in the souks of Cairo, in rolls and by the kilo…


“Each panel has a cotton border, with attaching ropes to assemble one to the other. By attaching all the panels together, a whole space could be created. This gave me a large field of manoeuvre. The idea was also to replace the notion of one painting by a whole range of images that could be reused, replaced, interchanged and redesigned…”


It is a process that negates the possibility of any nostalgia for a supposedly Golden Age. By reusing images produced as part and parcel of the project to police the perimeters of identity, to promote a patriotism acceptable to the state and its approved narratives, the Stencils undermine, with humour and an often understated irony, the foundations of that enterprise. The carpet is pulled from beneath the Nasserist state’s attempts to construct identity. I would go one step further and argue that Chant Avedissian’s stencils express a profound antipathy to the hegemonic whatever form it takes.


Nostalgia, as any advertising agency will confirm, can be an effective marketing tool. But to brand Avedissian as its purveyor, to insist he is “inspired” by a golden age located in mid-20th century Egypt, undersells his achievement by misrepresenting his work.



I don’t do art. I do fighting against influences. I paint, it’s not political art, but it’s an attitude.”


Another reduction of a complex problem to a soundbite and Avedissian is being as disingenuous as ever. For his work is political. It is at its most radical in the manner in which it opposes orthodoxies, and it does so all the time. 


Back to the interview which passed in the manner of an amiable conversation: the photographer, when he arrived, was taken aback to find Chant had already sketched out the images that would accompany the interview. He had filters for lights, bags full of props. One of them was a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. I stood in front of it, dressed in a military uniform Chant had brought and which he insisted I wear. Chant stood behind me, in dark glasses and crumpled, collarless shirt. "There will be a photograph of you and me,” he insisted. “You will be interviewing, a military policeman, and I will be a Ukrainian spy.” But then I was working for Al-Ahram, source of many of the images used in the stencils, and a paper still owned by the state.


Building blocks


“Recreating an image in stencil is a process similar to printing, which involves assembling given forms like a brick wall…”


My art master was the adobe brick. Putting three bricks together to make a wall, to make a pattern, it’s magic.”


In describing his own work Avedissian frequently employs architectural similes. Architectural elements also form the subject of many pieces, be it the “Touba, a mud brick unit, with which Hassan Fathy built his unfinished masterpiece village in Kharga Oasis”, [vii] or the decorative brick work of Samarkand. The artist’s photographs of details from the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and other buildings in Samarkand, and of brickwork patterns from Al-Qasr in the Egyptian oasis of Dakhla, appear prominently in Patterns, Costumes & Stencils: London, Saqi Books, 2009.


Chant Avedissian’s association with Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1902-89) dates from 1981 when he began filing the architect’s papers and drawings and would last until Fathy’s death. Fathy’s purism, his insistence “that genuine Egyptian art and the revival of crafts had to be tackled simultaneously” and belief “that the merging of ancient and modern art would succeed only if no external interference in the adoption of materials, techniques, or cultural assessments” was allowed, would have a major impact on Avedissian’s work. [viii] The architectural conceits which Avedissian has continued to use in describing his own methods, indeed much of the work he produced during the 80s, the period in which he worked with the architect, can be seen, in terms of both process and content, as the artist’s homage to Fathy.


In 1985 Avedissian held his first exhibition of textile hangings. The works exhibited were the result of a painstaking process of assembly. The basic unit – Avedissian’s own touba – were “the three basic shapes of the rectangle, square and triangle” from which “one is able to construct panels out of wood, paper or any other material” [ix]. The results often echo the stark geometries of Fathy’s buildings.


The source patterns are eclectic, ranging from the painted triangular decoration of 18th dynasty sarcophagi to the marble decoration of Mameluke mosques. But while the patterns may be indigenous the form has a wider cultural resonance.


“It was in western Rajasthan, and particularly in Jaisalmer, that I first came into contact with the world of appliqué textiles which inspired me to make textile panels,” writes Avedissian. “Travelling by train through the Thar Desert one arrives at this ancient city through which merchants passed as they crossed Iran from Africa along the caravan route to India and China.


“The square is divided into rectangles and triangles. These squares placed together form the panels. Several assembled panels form the tent; it’s a movable space, easily disassembled, folded and transported.” [x]


Caravan routes to India and China, travelling through the Thar Desert, movable spaces – tents – suggestive of the kinds of nomadic existence the imposition of national borders has eradicated: the appeal to pre-modern models is at once deliberate, and deliberately contrived. It is difficult – no, it is impossible – to believe Avedissian did not first come into contact with such textiles in his birthplace Cairo where an entire district is dedicated to the creation of the appliqued panels which are such a noticeable feature of the celebratory and funeral tents erected in the streets. But this is hardly the point. The post-event rationalisation of the origins of his own panels which he elaborated when writing the text for Patterns, Costumes & Stencils – the panels predate the text by two deacdes – is telling. It seeks to delineate a cultural space where borders are irrelevant and posits a visual language that is not constricted by such boundaries. It insists that a triangle is a triangle in China and Egypt and France, that a square is a square.


The same impulse is present in his account of the costumes he created beginning in 1987.


“There is not much difference over a huge expanse of geography in the basic cuts of a traditional costume… Much as in Silk Road architecture, similarity is a constant feature…


“The haik of the Atlas resemble the melaya of the Nile, which also resemble the sari of India… Similarly, caftans are found from Morocco to Mongolia. They are variations on a theme, and all of almost the same cut.” [xi]


Class boundaries are equally insubstantial.


“The wealthier the individual and the higher their social status the more expensive the material but from the top to the bottom of society the cut is the same.” [xii]


To note that reality differs from the idealised space Avedissian delineates is again to miss the point. Utopias involve wishful thinking. A square may be a square but not all squares are equal, something Avedissian knows better than most


To mark the centenary of Kazmir Malevich’s black square the Whitechapel Gallery in London staged an exhibition – Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 – which it described as follows: “This epic show takes Kazimir Malevich’s radical painting of a black square – first shown in Russia 100 years ago – as the emblem of a new art and a new society. The exhibition features over 100 artists who took up its legacy, from Buenos Aires to Tehran, London to Berlin, New York to Tel Aviv. Their paintings, photographs and sculptures symbolise Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns.”


Chant Avedissian was among the 100 artists included. However explicit he has been about the pre-modern origins of his own textile squares they can still be co-opted by an exhibition to celebrate abstract art and society between 1915 and 2015 and exhibited beneath a rubric that straitjackets them as symbolising “Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns”.


“If parents tell their children that Paris is at the centre of art - that is abuse” becomes less a provocation than an indictment when artisans at a market in Jaisalmer can be portrayed as taking up the legacy of Suprematism, can be transformed into workers at the coal face of a European avant garde.


Back to the fore


In the 2017 exhibition Transfer, Transport, Transit Avedissian foregrounds designs that once formed the backdrop to his Cairo Stencils. He dispenses with figurative elements drawn from the pages of Egypt’s national press – the inhabitants of the “pantheon of the Golden Age” frequently misrepresented as the primary subject of the stencils – the better to focus attention on what is most often overlooked in the schema of earlier works. It is a reductionist ploy, though one which has the effect of opening up hitherto concealed vistas and, in so doing, amplifying concerns central to his work.


The stencilled panels included in the exhibition illuminate, rather than conceal, complexity. This time the juxtapositions are of abstracted forms drawn from designs on Tashkent caftans, Khiva mudbrick wall patterns, the geometries of the polychromatic marble floor of the14th century Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo, the çintamani of Ottoman velvets embroidered in gold thread. Pared down, elegant, the panels serve as milestones on a journey that follows the Silk Road across the steppes of Central Asia. The destination, Samarkand, is both fabled city and a real place. It is a confluence, the intersection between the story/fable and reality/the city with its material culture, that Avedissian has always explored, juxtaposing privileged narrative with unseemly facts.


Avedissian takes the long view: in examining the nexus of myth and reality he refuses to allow hearsay to pose as history, expediency to dress up as fate. At its heart his vision is humanist but a humanism shorn of illusion: the exotic is just one trope he repeatedly shoots down.


Among the milestones along the journey included in Transfer, Transport, Transit is a panel which superimposes Ottoman çintamani – a triangle of three spots and a pair of wavy bands – over repeated Bukhara floral designs. Of course, there is little that can be neutral about an Armenian artist deploying Ottoman motifs. It cannot help but be a loaded gesture. But nothing in Avedissian’s work isas simple as it seems. The tiger stripes and spots of the çintamani, a typical feature of Turkish textiles and ceramics for centuries, may appear quintessentially Ottoman but the motif predates Ottoman rule by several hundred years. It can be traced to the Buddhist period in China when the lines represented sanctity. It was used by Tamerlaine (1336-1405) on coinage and to mark property. The spots could allude to leopards, the pelts of which were worn by heroes in the Persian tradition. In China the circles represented pearls.


Take the long view and symbols cannot be reduced, just as identities cannot to be constructed at the whim of the state.


The deceptively simple decorative motifs which Avedissian appropriates reverberate across the vast spaces traversed by the Silk Road. They echo in a space where boundaries are negated, where hegemonies cannot distort and identities need not be improvised. It is in this space – capacious as a continent – that the artist has carved out a home. Throughout his career his compass has been fixed on a single point, an algebraic formulation, neither here nor imagined, where a square can be a square can be a square.


©Nigel Ryan, July 2017



[i] Chant Avedissian: Go east young man, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2 April 1988.

[ii] In 2010, the year before the uprising that forced the removal of Hosni Mubarak as president, the tourist industry in Egypt employed 12 per cent of the population and accounted for 14 per cent of the country’s hard currency revenue. Egyptian Ministry of Finance statistics.

[iii] Chant Avedissian, Cairo Stencils, Mostyn 20 November – 19 February 2011. My italics.

[iv] President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the press on 24 May 1956, transforming it into a tool for the regime.

[v] The Eagle of Saladin, first introduced as a symbol of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, still occupies the central white band of the Egyptian flag

[vi] Article 1 of Law 73 of 1956 on the Exercise of Political Rights granted women the right to vote in Egypt. Women participated in national elections for the first time in 1957.

[vii] Stencils 1991 - 1996 by Chant Avedissian, November 1997

[viii] Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003, Liliane Karnouk: Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 2005

[ix] Patterns, Costumes & Stencils: London, Saqi Books, 2009.

[x] ibid

[xi] ibid

[xii] ibid

Casa Árabe
Nigel Ryan

Chant Avedissian is one of the most significant visual artists to have emerged in the Arab world in the last half century.


Born in Cairo in 1951, he studied at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design and later at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris.


His grounding in Western art practice, though important, has had far less influence on his practice than the decade he spent working with the visionary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, beginning in 1981 when he began archiving Fathy’s papers, and continuing until Fathy’s death in 1989.


Fathy’s purism, his insistence “that genuine Egyptian art and the revival of crafts had to be tackled simultaneously” and belief “the merging of ancient and modern art would succeed only if no external interference in the adoption of materials, techniques, or cultural assessments” was allowed, changed the direction of Avedissian’s practice. Of equal importance were the travels Avedissian undertook, first through the oases of Egypt’s Western desert and later to the Far East, taking in India, the countries of the ancient Silk Road, China and Mongolia.


It is from these two experiences – working alongside Fathy and exposure to the artisan traditions of Asia – that Avedissian contrived a breakthrough in his own work, producing a series of textile hangings - a painstaking process of assembly utilising local Egyptian cotton which was hand-dyed and then pieced together in large scale panels using three basic units, the triangle, square and rectangle - which often echo the stark geometries of Fathy’s buildings.

The source patterns are eclectic, ranging from the painted triangular decoration of 18th dynasty sarcophagi to the marble decoration of Mameluke mosques. But while some of the patterns may be indigenous the form has a wider cultural resonance.


“It was in western Rajasthan, and particularly in Jaisalmer, that I first came into contact with the world of appliqué textiles which inspired me to make textile panels,” writes Avedissian. “Travelling by train through the Thar Desert one arrives at this ancient city through which merchants passed as they crossed Iran from Africa along the caravan route to India and China.


“The square is divided into rectangles and triangles. These squares placed together form the panels. Several assembled panels form the tent; it’s a movable space, easily disassembled, folded and transported.”


Caravan routes to India and China, travelling through the Thar Desert, movable spaces – tents – suggestive of the kinds of nomadic existence the imposition of national borders has eradicated: the appeal to the pre-modern is an attempt by the artists to distance himself from both the Eurocentrism of Western art school teaching and from the derivative modes that have dominated art production in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.


The same impulse is present in his account of the costumes he created beginning in 1987.


“There is not much difference over a huge expanse of geography in the basic cuts of a traditional costume… Much as in Silk Road architecture, similarity is a constant feature…


“The haik of the Atlas resemble the melaya of the Nile, which also resemble the sari of India… Similarly, caftans are found from Morocco to Mongolia. They are variations on a theme, and all of almost the same cut.” [i]


Class boundaries are equally insubstantial.


“The wealthier the individual and the higher their social status the more expensive the material but from the top to the bottom of society the cut is the same.” [ii]


To note that reality differs from the idealised space Avedissian delineates is again to miss the point. Utopias involve wishful thinking. A square may be a square but not all squares are equal, something Avedissian knows better than most.


To mark the centenary of Kazmir Malevich’s black square the Whitechapel Gallery in London staged an exhibition – Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 – which it described as follows: “This epic show takes Kazimir Malevich’s radical painting of a black square – first shown in Russia 100 years ago – as the emblem of a new art and a new society. The exhibition features over 100 artists who took up its legacy, from Buenos Aires to Tehran, London to Berlin, New York to Tel Aviv. Their paintings, photographs and sculptures symbolise Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns.”


Chant Avedissian was among the 100 artists included. However explicit he has been about the pre-modern origins of his own textile squares they can still be co-opted by an exhibition to celebrate abstract art and society between 1915 and 2015 and exhibited beneath a rubric that straitjackets them as symbolising “Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns”.


If the textile hangings and costumes Avedissian created in the 1980s oppose a hegemony that can portray artisans at a market in Jaisalmer as taking up the legacy of Suprematism, transforming them into workers at the coal face of a European avant garde, then his best known works, the series of Cairo Stencils, casts the net further, articulating Avedissian’s profound mistrust of the hegemonic whatever form it takes.


The Cairo Stencils lend themselves to a host of interpretations, the laziest and most pervasive of which is based on the assumption they purvey nostalgia for some lost golden age of Egyptian culture.


“The reflected nostalgia in Avedissian’s work is overpowering,” writes one critic of the Stencils. “The paintings depict an era, the Egypt of the 5O's, when the country was at the height of its cosmopolitanism: spies and tradesmen, Greeks, Italians, Muslims, Copts, Jews, Armenians, Palestinian refugees, Europeans and a great number of Middle Eastern intellectuals mingled.”


It is a strangely ahistorical description of a series of works that examine the historiography of the period, not least in its misrepresentation of the 1950’s, a decade which saw a massive exodus from Egypt of Greeks and Italians, many of whom were small tradesmen, of Syrians, Armenians and Jews, as “the height of cosmopolitanism”.


The subjects of the stencils are a motley bunch. They include Sayyid Jamal al Din al Afghani (1838-1897), political adventurer, anti-imperial campaigner, religious moderniser, sunni muslim, shia muslim, double agent or hardened opportunist – take your pick, alongside screen siren Hind Rustom (1929-2011), the Egyptian actress whose fate it was to be dubbed the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe; Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), depicted in the kinds of heroic pose most readily associated with socialist realism, alongside female shot-putters (another nod to the imagery of Soviet propaganda), political prisoners and pick-pockets.


The one they have in common is that they were all depicted in the illustrated magazines and papers that proliferated in Egypt in the years immediately before and after the 1952 revolution. It is these depictions – from the mid-50’s onwards in media that was state-owned, earlier in papers and magazines that were never less than partisan – that Avedissian uses as his source material.


The Cairo Stencils, then, are images of images. They can be endlessly reworked from the cut outs he made based on the images published in state-owned magazines and newspapers Avedissian is very clear about the advantage of using stencils. “Stencilling gave me the possibility of variation,” he says. “Once the drawing was cut out, one could concentrate on colour, or different backgrounds.”


The process also imposed formal qualities. “I had to go hieroglyphic, i.e. simplifying to the extent of [what was] real[ly] essential.”


His schematising of the figures, the paring down of all pictorial elements to areas of flat colour, turns the construction of a national identity pursued by the Egyptian regime following the revolution of 1952 into an essentially decorative enterprise. His simplification involves an acute compression of narratives. The subsequent emphasis on variation and the creation of new contexts by juxtaposition serves, ironically, to amplify the pick and mix techniques of the propagandist.


By reusing images produced as part and parcel of the project to police the perimeters of identity, to promote a patriotism acceptable to the state and its approved narratives, the Stencils undermine, with humour and an often understated irony, the foundations of that enterprise, pulling the carpet from beneath the Nasserist state’s attempts to construct identity.


In his most recent panels, first exhibited in 2017, Avedissian foregrounds designs that once formed the backdrop to his Cairo Stencils the better to focus attention on what is most often overlooked in the schema of earlier works. It is a reductionist ploy, though one which has the effect of opening up hitherto concealed vistas and, in so doing, amplifying concerns central to his work.


The stencilled panels included in the exhibition illuminate, rather than conceal, complexity. This time the juxtapositions are of abstracted forms drawn from designs on Tashkent caftans, Khiva mudbrick wall patterns, the geometries of the polychromatic marble floor of the14th century Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo, the çintamani of Ottoman velvets embroidered in gold thread. Pared down, elegant, the panels serve as milestones on a journey that follows the Silk Road across the steppes of Central Asia. The destination, Samarkand, is both fabled city and a real place. It is a confluence, the intersection between the story/fable and reality/the city with its material culture, that Avedissian has always explored, juxtaposing privileged narrative with unseemly facts.


He takes the long view: in examining the nexus of myth and reality he refuses to allow hearsay to pose as history, expediency to dress up as fate. The deceptively simple motifs Avedissian appropriates reverberate across the vast spaces of Central Asia. They echo in a space where boundaries are negated, where hegemonies cannot distort and identities need not be improvised. It is in this space – capacious as a continent – that the artist has carved out a home. Throughout his career his compass has been fixed on a single point, an algebraic formulation, neither here nor imagined, where a square can be a square can be a square.

Chant Avedissian: Go East, young man
Nigel Ryan

Al Ahram newspaper

2 - 8 April 1998

Page 20. People Section

 

Costume drama, boxes and a penchant for the East. But never, never exotic

 

“I shall wear a costume from Mongolia... practice calligraphy... from the cultural revolution and then dress in black, and be modem, because everyone dresses in black in Korea, and you will interrogate me". Chant Avedissian.

 

Asked to describe what he does, Chant Avedissian becomes coy. Once upon a time he took photographs. “But the minute you say you are a photographer you run the risk of going mad." For a decade he worked with Hassan Fathi, com-piling his archives, filing, cataloguing, imposing order on mountains of paper, on drawings, plans and theoretical texts. And this “was possible only because I am not an architect." He travelled the length and breadth of Egypt. photographing Fathi’s extant buildings for a book published by the Aga Khan Foundation. In 1990 he showed a collection of clothes at the Institut du Monde Arabe, reworkings of traditional costumes, the patterns meticulously miniaturised and, of course, filed, alongside samples of the cloth used. In 1995 his textile hangings were shown at the Barbican Centre. London; later, stencils were exhibited at Leighton House, London and the British Council, Cairo. Last year he was commissioned by British Airways to produce a design for the fin of an aeroplane. And since 1991 he has been engaged in an on-going series of images, monotypcs created front stencils, reworkings of photographic sources, of pictures that first appeared in magazines and newspapers published in Cairo in the late '40s and '50s. (It is these latter that provide the most valid clues to current preoccupations.) He studied painting at the Montreal School of Art and Design and applied arts at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Currently, he works out of one room, divided into two levels, in an apartment shared with his sister. Chant Avedissian is irreverent, seriously if selectively so. Certain things are simply fair game, the French for instance. "Countries celebrate what they are not, celebrate the antithesis of what they are. The French go on screaming about liberté, egalité, fraternité, but could any people anywhere contrive a greater xenophobia, be more racist?"

"India is too colourful."

"To sit on a chair is pompous."

The one-liners come thick and fast and it is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether they are intended to be taken seriously. They are, up to a point.

 

You can just see a little peep of the Passage in the Looking-Glass House, if you leave tire door of our drawing room wide open: and it is very like our passage as far as you can see, only you knots it may be quite different beyond...

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

 

In China it is profoundly unimportant to know about Picasso and Braque painting in L'Estaque in 1907. They simply don't care, about the origins of cubism. about any of these -isms. They are after all, just rectangular things to hang on the walls and the Chinese don't hang rectangular things on the wall. They roll things up and put them in boxes." Chant Avedissian has been conducting an affair with the Far East. He has travelled in China and Mongolia. He knows the back streets of Ulan-baatar and the price of Genghis Khan vodka. His exercises in Chinese calligraphy fill several books. In 1995 he was the only Egyptian to take part in the Korean Biennale.

 

"We must go East." he announces. "Why visit Paris, London. New York when the West is here, in Cairo. Cairo can be more West than the West; it can be a parody of New York, more exaggeratedly French than the French. The Middle East, Europe, they are reflections of one another. But in China they do not care what lies to the West. Mention Egypt and they might have heard about the Pyramids but nothing else. This gives space. In Egypt I am Armenian, in Europe I am Egyp-tian, but in China these definitions mean nothing."

 

Yet if the Middle East is merely an extension of Europe, or vice-versa. Egypt retains a firm hold on his affections. It is just that there are difficulties. In one published interview he tells his interviewer, quite baldly, that his work is too Egyptian to be noticed here. And again, there is a point. He adores Hassan Fathi, has only the fondest of memories. "Fathi was, in some ways, very like Matisse. As an old man, Matisse would receive visitors who sought him out, and the first question he would ask was what did you think of the flowers. And of course, these people would be so nervous about coming to see the great man, the ex-emplary modernist, that they failed to notice the flowers in the garden, could not describe them. and then Matisse, a little disingenuously, would dismiss them.

 

While Fathi was always polite, visiting him could become an ordeal. Experts on Islamic architecture would come from Geneva. And then they had to cross Mo-hamed Ali Street, and find his house, and climb the stairs, and for these Geneva based experts it was often their first real experience of Islamic architecture. Visiting Fathi constituted a little course in Islamic architecture all by itself." Avedissian's photo-graphic work with Fathi, however, seems to eschew this lived experience. His architectural photographs are essays in reduction. A horizontal band of light picks out the stones in the courtyard of Sultan Hassan, the custodian of AI-Muayad is caught in a perfect triangle of light that pours through the door. These are geo-metric abstractions, and it is on the non-negotiability of these perfectly balanced equations that he focuses. In many ways his work has been an extended experiment in paring down, an exercise in reduction. "There is no room for paintings in an Arab house and so I started to produce textile hang-ings. There is, really, no room for chairs in an Arab house." Not surprisingly. Avedissian has experimented with making chairs, wooden boxes, the size of a brick, in which tea-making things can be stored, and on which one might squat. They were a product of his first visit to China, after which he determined to work only in carpentry, make only boxes, a short-lived resolution and one perfectly indicative of the way he does things.

 

His room is full of boxes. Indeed, he inhabits a box, a wooden platform with matting and sliding paper screens. A ladder leads up to a second level where everything is stored, in boxes. It is here that he works.

 

"It was in China that I discovered you do not need furniture. The necessity of furniture is an illusion. The only necessary things can be rolled away." And in Mongolia he discovered that architecture too is an illusion. "Yurts. One can live perfectly well in a yurt." Fortunately, "Egypt is not obsessed with stones. Everything decays." In 1991, as the Gulf War was raging, Chant Avedissian went to Luxor. He stayed for several months, during which he began to work with stencils. The process is illuminating. He works from photographs - magazine images published three, four decades ago. These images are blown up, partitioned into blocks of plain colour. The stencil is made and then the colour - pigment mixed with gum Arabic -applied onto sheets of wrapping paper, butchers' paper, sometimes corrugated cardboard. "The paper is not acid free. I am not interested in pemsanence. At some point these images will simply self-destruct."

 

The works that result are images of images. They often strike a heroic note, these portraits of key-players from the nationalist heyday. There was always, of course, a propagandist element's," the photographs, and this is played up, merci-lessly, so that many figures are stuck in the mock-heroic poses of socialist realism. The captions, too, are kept, the stylised Arabic script becoming one more decorative element. The choice is eclectic: a biscuit, Bimbo, or Umm Kulthoum, Dalida, a group-of nurses, an hilariously camp photograph that accompanied an article on the tragedy of the mother who has no daughter to help her look after her sons. Nothing is privileged in this most catholic of democracies. Over the years the stencils have become increasingly flexible, and now can comprise up to 20 separate sheets. These are carefully numbered, and then stored. There are hundreds, and each one is infinitely reproducible. Just take them out, apply the paint. So has Chant Avedissian consciously developed a method of working that could serve as a neat, perhaps too neat, paradigm of post-modern practice? Signification, appropriation, authorship, deconstruction, discourse, ideology: the buzz words of the last decade are all invoked in his work.

 

The stencils can be reproduced -"anyone," he says, "can do it." He does not pretend to an authoritative originality. These images of images explore the way symbols shift, the way meanings change when they are put into different contexts. The images are not original -no set of signifiers can be since they are all implicated in the ideologies -patterns of language or representation- of the cultures that produce or interpret them. The original photographs are historical documents, of a kind. But all this is water off a duck's back. And asked about that other post-modernist determinant -identity- Chant Avedissian becomes coy once more. "My passport is Egyptian. I am 47. It says I am male. These pictures are my past revisited."

 

A burst of temper. "My grand-mother walked to Syria. My aunt was born during the march. They were fleeing the Turks. Is that what you want?" And then back to what he does. "No one can carry on doing the same thing anymore. I cannot paint anymore. There is no point my painting and exhibiting in a gallery in the middle of Paris. I might as well be a panda in the zoo. I would simply be exotic. People should chop and change. Imagine if Youseef Chahine were to be made the director of Cairo Zoo. Cairo Zoo would become a wonderful place to visit. Or the minister of culture was to be put in charge of hospitals. At least they might stop painting operating theatres that dreadful shade of green."

 

“There will be photographs with this profile?" The man who feels he would be as exotic as a panda in a Parisian gallery becomes animated.

 

“This is my first public appearance. I am neurotic. I shall wear a costume from Mongolia. There will be a picture of me practising calligraphy. And the cultural revolution. And then I shall dress in black, and be modern, because everyone dresses in black in Korea, and it is very modern. And then” -the images are quickly worked out on paper- "there will be a photograph of you and me. You will be interviewing, a military policeman, and I will be a Ukrainian spy."

 

And none of this, he insists, is exotic. "You see, everything will be stylised, will be hieratic, very Pharaonic." Modem Cairo, a reflection of the West, has now moved East. A little journey, perhaps, around the corner of the reflected passage. 'There are connections," he says, but refuses to be drawn.

 

Calligraphy, carpentry, boxes in which to store things made in the past. But what next?

 

"I think tea ceremonies. Nothing on the wall, just a Japanese tea house and objects in boxes and six people at a time who can take the things out of boxes. But not in a gallery. I don't do galleries anymore.”

 

He does aeroplanes, makes cos-tume dramas, photographs, clothes, stencils, chairs, after a fashion. Some of his most recent work is on scrolls, rolled away, neatly filed. The stencils themselves have become increasingly Far Eastern in feel. They too can be mounted, in series, and folded away. The packaging is immaculate.

 

Chant Avedissian is very tidy.

 

Until 3 May Chant Avedissian is exhibiting at the Cultural Centre of Berchem, Antwerp

 

Profile by Nigel Ryan