Black Garden is a multi-channel video installation focusing on the memory and legacy of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a relatively-unknown but brutal conflict which occurred between 1988 and 1994 in the historically cosmopolitan Karabakh region bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan. Filmed as an accompanying piece to ‘The Sokhumi Elegies’ during a year-long stay and informal residency program in Tbilisi, Georgia, and made in collaboration with the Georgian artist Ketevani and poets Shalva Bakuradze and Nina Targan-Mouravi, the work takes as its central motif the extraordinary destruction during the war of the Azerbaijani city of Agdam, which today lies in total and astonishing ruin. Incorporating durational cinematography and environmental recordings of the ruined landscape, and complimented with archival footage, vernacular photography and text-based research, the film cycle features historic folk songs and poetry recitation in the local languages of Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian and Georgian to give context to the strange and terrible fate of the city. Bakuradze’s parallel memory of the conflict in his native Abkhazia and Targan-Mouravi’s Armenian family heritage in Karabakh are drawn upon towards the creation of an uncertain elegy, reflecting on nationalism, poly-cultural history, exile, trauma and transcendence.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small land-locked mountainous region in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, currently encompassed by the recently-renamed Republic of Artsakh - a de facto unrecognized republic controlled by its Armenian majority, and a de jure part of Azerbaijan, considered by the United Nations and most of the ‘international community’ to be illegally occupied. ‘Nagorno’ is Russian for ‘mountainous’, and ‘Karabakh’ is Azerbaijani, meaning ‘black (qara) garden (bagh)’. Whilst now being almost solely occupied by Armenians, it is historically cosmopolitan. For many centuries Armenians, Azeris (Azerbaijanis), Kurds, Russians, Pontic Greeks, Assyrians, and other small ethnic groups had lived and traded together. After being ruled variously by Armenian, Azerbaijani and Persian kingdoms for many centuries, it came under the control of the Russian Empire in the 19th century.
In the leadup and immediately following the collapse of the Russian Empire after the Revolution of 1917, a power vacuum in Karabakh was created which saw the rise of violent ethnic nationalist competition amongst what was previously a harmonious cosmopolitan community. This eventually resulted in a wide-scale pogrom against the Armenian population by the Azerbaijani armed forces in 1920. Several thousand Armenians were murdered in what was for Karabakh an unprecedented explosion of genocidal violence, resulting in the Armenian half of the historic capital Shusha being levelled to the ground. The city, once a prominent centre of culture in the Caucasus, was reduced to a village. The ruins were abandoned and untouched for decades, eventually being reinhabited after Russian power had come again to control the region as the newly formed Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union itself collapsed at the end of the 1980s, ethnic nationalism again rose up as Armenians and Azerbaijanis competed for political control and land as newly formed nation-states, with hard borders and mono-cultural identities which had never existed before, emerged across the post-Soviet sphere. The ghosts of the past came back to haunt Karabakh, resulting in the terrifyingly brutal Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994). Unlike the War in Yugoslavia, the conflict was largely ignored in the West and to this day its scale is little appreciated. An estimated 40,000 people lost their lives to the violence and the region was changed irrevocably.
The history of ethnic conflict in the 20th century is a history polluted by irresponsible assessments made by outside observers. So-called primordialism, as seen in much popular (and academic) interpretations of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, posits that ‘ancient rivalry’ is the causation of war between ethnic groups, and is therefore something for which apparently nothing can be done. Such assessments are commonly based upon racist, Orientalist notions principally politically-motivated to justify non-intervention. Primordialism as a discourse for understanding ethnic war is resoundingly and universally discredited in all credible academic study. In reality, ethnic conflict emerges not because of innate enmity between different cultural and ethno-linguistic groups, but because of modern circumstances; often arising from dominating former colonial powers’ systems of divide and rule, which when abruptly dismantled set previously co-existing and cosmopolitan peoples apart.
Unlike in the 1920s, in 1994 the Armenian side eventually prevailed, ‘ethnically cleansing’ Karabakh of its historic Azeri population. Some 600,000 people were driven from their homes and forced over the border into Azerbaijan proper where they largely remain to this day, variously in depressed refugee ghettoes strewn across the landscape. The largest of these acts of forced removal was carried out in 1993 by Armenian armed forces on the Azerbaijani city of Agdam, which before the war was a flourishing town of some 40,000 people. As the Armenian armed forces took the town and drove out the civilian population, they commenced what would become perhaps the largest single act of domicide ever recorded, systematically burning the entire city to the ground, mostly as an assurance that Azeri people would not be tempted to return. This awful plan worked, and today Agdam now lies in total and astonishing ruin, a landscape of quiet devastation that has been named the ‘Caucasian Hiroshima’.
For many years the ruin of Agdam was used for scrap metal salvaging by the nearby Armenian population; as such, all that remains today is concrete and stone rubble where lavish buildings once stood, reaching out into the horizon. Nature has taken over, and farmers from nearby Armenian villages use plots in and around the ruins to cultivate watermelons. It is said that Agdam watermelons are the most delicious of the region.
Baloglan Eshrafov is an Azerbaijani singer of traditional mugam music. Baloglan means ‘The Honey boy’, or ‘Son of Honey’. Mugam is the proclaimed ‘national music’ of Azerbaijan, a mournful and devastating sound mixing Turkish, Persian and Arabic influences and incorporating epic poetry for its lyrical content. The film cycle features a song by Eshrafov speaking of his youth, and he is joined on the recording by the famous Azeri guitarist, Rafiq “Remish” Hüseynov.
Remish was born and raised in Agdam, one of the key players in the virtuosic Azeri Guitar movement of the 1980s. Soviet electric guitars (particularly the red-coloured Jolana Special and its cousin, the Jolana Tornado) were imported into Azerbaijan and re-purposed to play traditional mugam music. Mugam is traditionally played on the Persian stringed banjo-like tar instrument, the Azerbaijani version of which, the kavkaz tar (Caucasian tar), having been invented in Shusha in the late 19th century. Keyboard, effects pedal and drum machine accompaniment were added to the instrumentarium with electrified and psychedelic results. Interspersed with archival domestic video footage taken in Agdam of the town before it was destroyed are some video recordings made at weddings, where Remish and Eshrafov can be seen playing. The videos, like the song itself, were recorded in family homes and wedding halls in Agdam, when the city was a leading cultural centre of mugam music before its horrific destruction
Nina Targan Mouravi is a Georgian poet and translator living in the Netherlands. Whilst being Georgian and growing up predominantly in Moscow, she has Armenian family heritage on her mother's side. The main hospital in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, was built by her grandfather, Mikhail Asrian, an Armenian resident who had fled Karabakh prior to the violence of 1920 and returned later to rebuild. Photos of Mikhail and his family can be seen in the montages of Armenian and Azerbaijani vernacular photography towards the beginning of the film cycle.
For the work Nina recites ‘The Carriage-Driver’ (‘Phaetonchik’), a work of Polish poet Osip Mandelstam, written in 1931. Mandelstam and his wife, the novelist Nadezhda Mandelstam, had visited Karabakh some 11 years after the pogroms against the Armenian population and the destruction of Shusha, and the poem details the horrors they encountered at finding the dead city, ‘forty thousand windows, a laboured and soulless cocoon, lying buried in the mountains’. Whilst Shusha has been partially rebuilt and is now inhabited by the local Armenian population, it is but a shadow of its former self. As archival photographs of the ruins show, it once resembled Agdam – a horizon of destruction and sorrow.
Khurshidbanu Natavan was an Azerbaijani princess, the daughter of the last Azeri ruler of the Karabakh Khanate; a poet, philanthropist and polymath who lived all her life in Shusha. She once beat Alexandre Dumas at chess during his visit to Shusha whilst on a tour through the Caucasus in 1858; a tobacco pouch personally embroidered by Natavan and gifted to him is on display at the Dumas house museum in Paris. She was a friend of the local Armenian population, and when she died in 1897 her funeral was attended by thousands from both the Azeri and Armenian communities. They carried her coffin by hand all the way from Shusha to Agdam where her body was interred.
When the Armenian forces took control of Shusha in 1993, they destroyed a large statue of Natavan which sat in the central square of the city. The head of the statue was recovered by the Azeri side and made its way to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, where it now rests outside the state museum. When Agdam was destroyed soon after, Natavan’s burial site was desecrated and lost. Her remains lie somewhere among the rubble. Her poem ‘To my Son, Abbas’ was written following her son’s untimely death in 1885, and is a lament to loss, exile and sorrow. “Through my tears, I see your image, you dried up so soon, oh my cypress tree.”
Shalva Bakuradze is a celebrated Georgian poet and literary figure currently living in exile in Tbilisi, himself a veteran and refugee of the War in Abkhazia - a conflict which occurred at the same time as the war in Karabakh, some 500 kilometres to the north-east. He is the subject of The Sokhumi Elegies, a parallel piece to Black Garden. Here he recites a poem in his native Georgian, ‘Celestial Clouds’, reflecting on love, war and transcendence, to the images of a small village outside of Agdam and its historic Azeri graveyard - desecrated, ruined and left forgotten by the highway.
As a victim of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Abkhaz armed forces in 1993, and to this day an exile from his native land in Abkhazia, Shalva’s poetic oeuvre reflects on mythic themes of love, ancient history, metaphysical transcendence, exile and sorrow, defined by his experience as person whose life as a young man was destroyed by ethnic nationalism, by the absence of reason and dignity in the midst of senseless sectarian conflict. His is a story of survival amidst waste and misery. “My heart is holding this old war, like old friends torn apart, like a child with broken bones”.
The film cycle concludes with a recording of the great Komitas Vardapet singing ‘Hov Arek Sarer (Oh Mountains, Make a Breeze)’. Komitas was a pioneering Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist in the early 1900s, a hero of Armenian cultural heritage. He spent many years travelling throughout the lands of Greater Armenia, including Karabakh, collecting, recording and transcribing Armenian musical heritage. He was celebrated internationally for his music and academic research, for many years touring ensembles and choirs across Europe. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, he was imprisoned and tortured by the Ottoman Turkish authorities, eventually dying in an insane asylum a broken man. In the centre of the Armenian capital of Yerevan sits an enormous statue of Komitas, prostrated in anguish whilst dying in the asylum. As a modern cultural icon, his fate is often depicted as mirroring that of the Armenian people and thus part of national victimhood folklore.
The immense suffering experienced by Armenians during the Genocide, and the relatively small after-shock in Shusha in 1920, is today used, like the Holocaust for the Israeli state apparatus in their occupation of Palestine, or the Croatian Ustashe’s oppression during World War 2 for violent Serbian nationalism, as justification for nationalist projects; including the occupation and ethnic cleansing of Karabakh and the destruction of the city of Agdam. This is also mirrored in how Azeri victimhood in Nagorno-Karabakh and Agdam is now being used to justify the rise of violent nationalism in the Azerbaijani state, and how Georgian victimhood in Abkhazia is likewise used as an excuse for nationalistic chauvinism. Victimhood is always co-opted into nationalist narratives, wherever ethnic nationalist power is projected.
When considering the ancient cosmopolitan success of the Caucasus region and the context of its tragic modern history, forgotten and ignored by the world as it is, it is difficult not to see ethnic nationalism as anything other than a delusion and a disease. The songs and poems featured in the film cycle, written and performed by people native to this troubled region, suggest a tragic examination of nationalist narratives. Narratives which we must understand contain in them the seeds of division, destruction, domination and misery. In all cases of ethnic conflict there is always a clearer victor and a clearer loser. The loser knows nothing but misery, whilst the victor, succeeding in their claims to territory, do so at incredible cost.
The reality of the dreadful decision to engage in open conflict, and its subsequent trauma and devastation, is always infinitely vaster than either party in war ever likely initially predicts. This is precisely because the true dimensions of human life and culture are by nature vaster than anything that can be measured, calculated or imagined. Death tolls, territory calculations and refugee figures, when it comes to war, can never with the same metric accurately measure the sheer amount of destroyed lives. There is nothing than can measure the reality of broken hearts and lost dreams.
There is no simple solution to the misery that has descended on Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider Caucasus in recent history, with its closed borders and occupied territories and unending bitter resentments that the rest of the world strategically ignores. In which division and separation has seen a space of historical cosmopolitan success result in nothing less than an extraordinarily tragic waste of human potential. The experience of those in the region whose lives have been torn apart by war and devastation reflects this; the necessity to comprehend the shared tragedy and victimhood of common humanity. Denaturalizing nationalism, in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu, means to encounter and experience something that goes beyond it, towards a radical mutualism, a radical alterity, a radical cosmopolitanism.
The artist wishes to acknowledge and pay respect to the Armenian and Azerbaijani informants, collaborators and friends who each gave permission and blessing to this project, as well as to the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Melbourne who, variously, have been affected by the conflict this work alludes to.
Black Garden (2017)
3-Channel HD Video with Sound, 30:18