Turning Cliché to Art: The city of Yerevan aims to become a regional center for graphic printing


Turning Cliché to Art: The city of Yerevan aims to become a regional center for graphic printing

When trying to think of the most common cultural centers where celebrities from all over the world come together, unfortunately, Armenia is not at the top of the list. However, there are a few instances that challenge that fact, and one of those rare occasions is the traditional Yerevan International Biennale of Printed Graphics. In this interview, Regional Post talked with Sona Harutyunyan, founder and chairperson of the Dialogue of Cultures Foundation and founder of the Yerevan Biennale of Printed Graphics, about the Biennale phenomenon, printed graphics, and our local Armenian artists from the field. 

Interview: Angela Alekian



Tell us, please, how did you decide to start something this large-scale in Armenia? 

The idea to create the Yerevan International Biennial of Printed Graphics emerged in 2015. Since 2012, when the Dialogue of Cultures Foundation was founded, we have been cooperating with Arman Vahanyan and Tigran Sahakyan, two of the best graphic artists working in the field of printed graphics in Armenia.

It was Arman Vahanyan's dream to have a Biennale of printed graphics in Armenia, and Dialogue of Cultures decided to bring it to life. The five of us went back and forth on whether we were ready to be the first to launch such a large-scale project in Armenia, and eventually, everyone agreed to do it.  

In 2017, the launch of the first Yerevan International Biennial of Printed Graphics was announced. To the delight of many, more than a thousand graphic artists from 76 countries registered to participate. 

We soon realized that one of the main reasons for the success of the first Yerevan Biennale was Armenia — it interested many artists with its novelty. We were also honored to see so many famous artists among those who registered for the Biennale. 


 1st place,  Agnieszka Lech-Binczycka, "Onna II, intaglio", Poland


The fourth Biennale was held this year. Can you describe your journey during this period?

Our first Biennale was held at the NPAC (Center for Contemporary Experimental Art) in 2017. During that time, 400 artists from 75 countries showcased more than 500 prints. An international panel of judges was created for the Biennale, and they chose the initial Yerevan Biennale winners. Hayart Center for the Arts followed in 2019, the National Center for Aesthetics in 2021, and the Aznavour Cultural Center in 2023. 

It is important to note that all four Biennales were very different in format and perception. We deliberately selected different venues so that we could create a new atmosphere in each one.  Most visitors already have an idea of what to anticipate from these locations, but we wanted to entirely alter those perceptions during the Biennale, connecting them to graphic designs. 


2nd place, Paweł Delekta, "Chess IV", Poland

We also provide printed goods like postcards, flyers, posters, albums, shopping bags, and badges. Many visitors to the Biennale may want to purchase a work of art, but that is not possible. So, we produced postcards featuring all the works, allowing visitors to buy their favorite. 

Having said this, the artist, designer, and graphic artist, Sarkis Antonyan, became a crucial part of our team during the Fourth Biennale. He designed the entire marketing campaign and his design became the face of the Biennale for the Armenian society as well as for international artists and associations. The Biennale logo was designed by him, as well as the design of the Aznavour Center, which helped to increase visibility.


 3rd place, Todorov Alexander, "Strasse E 1",  "Strasse E 2", "Strasse E 3",France


Furthermore, for the Fourth Biennale, we partnered with Snkhchyan Architectural Studio. Armine and Ashot Snkhchyan's idea at the Aznavour Center led us to develop an architectural solution for the exhibition site. 

Using scaffolding and an unconventional lighting system allowed us to maintain the printing press's authenticity through the metal tubes. We attempted to convert the machine's horizontal position to a vertical one. Then we created an "art labyrinth" using transparent plexiglass fixed to the scaffolding. This gives visitors the space to move around and contemplate the artwork, instead of just walking in a straight line.

International Jury making decisions.

I'm pleased to say that this year's partners of the Yerevan Biennial are the Armenian Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports, the Yerevan City Council, and the All-Armenian Fund. Diplomatic missions accredited in Armenia were also involved in all four Biennales. 


Do you choose a theme for each event, and are there any technique limitations? 

We don't do themes to give the artists complete freedom. Experience has shown that any work can fit under a theme, even if it has been announced. We have only one requirement; the works must have been created in the three years leading up to the Biennale. Additionally, we only accept works up to two meters in size, so that they can be sent via mail. 

Fortunately, there are no limitations on the techniques artists use. We wanted digital prints to join traditional techniques since many artists use digital printing today. There are also traditional methods like classical woodcut etchings, stone engraving lithography, metal engraving etching, and the popular silverless photographic process, cyanotype. 

During each Biennale, it's essential to offer all kinds of artists the chance to participate, no matter what methods they use. 



In your opinion, why do artists push beyond the canvas and put in so much extra effort? 

Many famous figures, from Picasso to our own Khanjian and Hakob Kodjoyan, have pursued printmaking. Diasporan artist Edgar Shagin is also an outstanding contributor to print graphics. 

Printed graphics and book printing have developed together since the Middle Ages. Today, they are popular in Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Holland, Germany, and Belgium. One of the leading countries in this field is Poland. It's worth mentioning that China is also a leading country, and many Chinese artists participate in our Biennale. 

In fine art, using materials is vital. There are various ways to make prints with different textures, such as letterpress and gravure methods.

Graphic printing changes the texture of the paper. It allows artists to create multiple copies that are all original, making it a unique and exciting medium. This way, artists can share their work with a larger audience. There are many groups that unite graphic artists, allowing them to share their experiences. 

The craft of printmaking involves skillful creation. It presents a challenge to the artist, who discovers the need for more patience and perseverance in the process. Printmaking inspires perseverance, widens thinking, expands the range of tools and materials used, and creates art.


How has the Biennale affected the direction of graphic printmaking in Armenia? 

Five years have passed since the first Yerevan Biennale, and within the framework of the fourth Biennale, Armenian participants are in second place in the context of scale, with Poland being the first.

Only after the very first Biennale, the interest of Armenian artists in graphic printing began to grow rapidly. In addition, Armenian artists became convinced that they do not need to print in A4 format, as it is possible to make works on two-meter and three-meter canvases. 

Furthermore, after the first Biennale, “Dialogue of Cultures” has been constantly organizing international artist exchange programs, through which many Armenian artists get to go to Switzerland and Germany, work in specialized workshops, gain experience, and return to Armenia. 

Through this, more and more students want to study graphic printing at the Academy. The Union of Artists holds a special exhibition of etching, which takes place in the National Center of Aesthetics — another important direction that has also been activated. 

Within the framework of the Fourth Biennale, the printing press at the Terlemezian State College of Art has begun to operate and students can already print their works. This makes us very happy.

In May this year, an exhibition of one of the most famous representatives of graphic printing, German artist Otto Dix, was held in Armenia at the National Center of Aesthetics, which was organized by “Dialogue of Cultures” in cooperation with the Goethe Center or IFA Gallery in Germany. 

During the first Graphic Print Biennale, it was Dialogue of Cultures that invited the Tumo Centre to set up a graphic print studio, and we organized the first master class in Tumo, for which we invited Swiss artist Marcel Mayer. Since 2017, graphic printing workshops have been held continuously in Tumo. 




While preparing for the Fourth Biennale, we held the first printmaking symposium in the region, which was called “Armenia — the Center of Printmaking in the Region''. 21 experts from 32 countries came to Armenia to participate in the symposium, and each of them gave master classes on their working techniques. For example, Henryk Krolikowski, the Polish printmaker, photographer, and digital artist, gave master classes on dot linocutting for Armenian artists. 

During the fourth Biennale, we came to the realization that nothing as influential and large-scale as the Biennale exists in the region anymore. Slowly but rapidly, Armenia is becoming a place in the region where many world celebrities come to visit. Many of this year’s participants and artists admitted that it was thanks to the Yerevan Biennale that they saw and met each other in person for the first time. For years, they had been communicating with each other, but only virtually, and it was Armenia where they met face to face. Among them was Victor Manuel Hernandez Castillio, who won second place at our fourth Biennale. 

Another noteworthy visitor this year was Jean-Pierre Tanguy, the founder of the Paris Biennale of Graphic Prints. During this year’s Biennale, Armenia was invited for the first time to participate in the International Print Biennale in Sarsel with a separate pavilion. 

The International Print Biennale in Sarcelles opened on November 25, and the representatives of “Dialogue of Cultures” — project manager Sona Hovhannisyan and public relations officer Marianna Achemyan — traveled to Paris. 


 Grand Prix winner Ichiro Tsubaki, Night Market, Japan.


Did you envision such results? Do you think the Yerevan Biennale has a special place among other similar projects? 

Of course, we did not imagine that it would be like this. Although we doubted not in our efforts, but in the fact that such an interest among the world's artists would receive a Biennale from Armenia. 

And as it turned out, it was the Armenian factor that was decisive in our success. So, it is one thing for our efforts, and another thing for the members of the international jury, who say that with all their experience in this field, they are surprised that such results can be achieved at the third Biennale because many world-class celebrities were among our participants. 

At the fourth Biennale, Mateusz Otreba from Poland, President of the International Jury, said that we should probably organize the next Biennale on another planet (laughs). Of course, it is very nice to hear that. In addition, our participants from other countries often say that we are not only organizing a Biennale, but something bigger with great attention to details— from the color of the walls, to the design of the space, to the organization, to the choice of location. 

Another peculiarity of the Yerevan Biennale is that many experienced masters of the field come here to share their experience, as they see it as their mission. 

For example, it would be difficult for an Italian to share their experience in France: this sphere has been formed and established there for a long time. Whereas Armenia is considered as a new place where one can share their professional knowledge and train young artists. 

In other words, it turns out that Armenia involuntarily attracts the interest of many artists, which gives local artists the opportunity to take advantage of the opportunity and learn from world-renowned masters. For example, in France or China, it may be more difficult to do the same thing, because this direction is already fully formed, they have professionals of their own. But in Armenia, for a very long time — and I am not exaggerating — it was only Arman Vahanyan and Tigran Sahakyan. During Soviet times, the state established the policy in the sphere of art, now we can say that this function has been taken over by “Dialogue of Cultures” for several years in a row. We also very much appreciate the fact that the state has appreciated our efforts and provided support. 




What do you think is needed for the future development of the sphere?

Our experience suggests that these days, advertising plays a very important role in anything, and it is only through advertising that we can make our Biennale accessible to the public. During our fourth Biennale, we realized that we need good funding to ensure widespread awareness about the Yerevan Biennale. Many people are buying plane tickets and coming from faraway countries just to see such a unique exhibition, but the people who are living in Armenia don't even know it exists. 

I wish there was more state support, both from the Ministry and the Municipality, because our graphic print Biennale is the only one not only in Armenia but in the entire region. 

Today, we don't have companies in the private sector that reflect the importance of fine art and graphic printing. When we deal with movies,for example,  things are a little different - everyone has seen at least one movie in their life and has an idea of this art form. But graphic printing, and real art in general, is often incomprehensible to businesses, and it takes us years to prove its importance. 

Despite all the challenges, the fact remains that large-scale international projects, such as the Biennale, allow society to develop and form artistic taste. 



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