Araks Sahakyan is a transdisciplinary artist who works across video, performance, installations, dance and theatre, music, drawing, painting, screen printing and even book binding and wood making.
She puts memory, intimacy, the body and politics at the centre of her colourful and lively work and migratory flows, flags, identities and transmission, borders and languages become materials in their own right and reflect the upheavals of the current world.
Araks describes herself as a “tireless globetrotter” who, in her thirties, has already lived several lives. Born in 1990 in Armenia, raised in Spain, she chose France as her “elected land”.
“I wanted my works to be easily transportable. I remember stories I heard about Armenian people who had to hide and keep all ancient manuscripts, sometimes cut in pieces, in order to preserve them.”
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your art practice?
First, I studied Translation and Interpreting of French and Spanish. This experience was crucial in my decision to become an artist. During those years I completed an internship in a publishing house where I was translating texts about performance and performing arts. During this period, I started to make my first video performances and decided to study Fine Arts. First at La Sorbonne and then at École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, where I graduated in 2018.
I always consider my art background to have started when I was a child. The artistic and aesthetic experiences in my life influenced and continue to influence my vision of the art and my life as an artist, such as different spaces where I lived, the colours of those exterior and interior landscapes, different people, languages, and cultures, especially my hometown Hrazdan in Armenia, my city Alicante in Spain where we migrated and Paris where I chose to live since more than five years.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist, how did you start out?
Since I never had any visual artist model in my family, I never thought about becoming an artist. This necessity to express my feelings and my worries are the root of my desire to become an artist. I always ask a lot of questions. Why is the sky is so blue, grey or pink? Why do people express angry, sadness or love? How can neighbours become enemies? Why do people can kill each other?
Do you remember the first art material you were given or bought for yourself? What was it and do you still use it today?
I’ve always used felt pens or markers to draw. I have a transdisciplinary art practice in video, performance, installation, and in drawing I always used these materials and I still use it today.
Do you have a favourite drawing material? What do you like about it?
My favourite materials to draw with are markers. In my head, all my souvenirs and my vision of the world are always with saturated and intense colours. I cannot see completely in 3D, so for me, it’s clearer to contrast everything I see by colour to be able to live naturally in this three-dimensional world. I’m happy that I could find a material – markers – with which I can express both my affective and sensitive memories.
Can you tell us about the recent work on paper that you make in multiple pieces, and how they come together to form a large work?
Most of my drawings are composed of multiple free sheets, and they come together to form a large work. I’m concerned with archives, conservation, and heritage. I worked in reparation of books and papers in the library of National Institute of Arts in Paris, I’m so impressed with bookbinding techniques and conservation. It is a thorough work of justice, where within small reparations we give another life to a book or to an archive. I wanted my works to be easily transportable. I remember stories I heard about Armenian people who had to hide and keep all ancient manuscripts, sometimes cut in pieces, in order to preserve them. During Armenian history, especially the Armenian genocide, a lot of books where burnt, erased or damaged. For me is important to know that my work can easily come with me wherever I am, and I can conserve them like an archive. So, these multiple pieces can come together and constitute a large work, and at the same time these pieces can be stored in a box like a book or archive. Inspired by traditional bookbinding, I create the cardboard and leather boxes as well as my own marbled papers.
I blame social media and modern pace of living in a capitalist environment, but mainly I blame myself for forgetting art should be a personal practice before anything else. I’m working on it though, and in comparison, to when I counted every penny and worried about paying rent, I’m now in a more flexible position and can finally start letting go of a feeling I need to please people with my art otherwise it won’t sell.
Why do you reference carpets in your work?
Carpets were present everywhere in my home in Armenia: on the chairs, on the couch, on the wall and of course on the ground. I always played on a carpet and could develop my imagination through the geometrical and floral designs. Carpet has also symbolic presence, since it is kind of sacred space, where we have to take off our shoes, where we live, where we make family life. Carpet design in my work creates a freedom to express a lot of issues, to mix different times, spaces, people. It is kind of ‘no man’s land’ where I ‘pose’ myself and expose all my questions about life and the world.
Can you expand a bit about the autobiographical content in your work?
I believe all artwork is autobiographical. At least, I believe as an artist I can speak about things which I know, which I feel, which I perceive. When I was a child I couldn’t imagine how big and how small the world is. I couldn’t imagine how other people live in another part of the planet. However, I had some family members who were constantly in movement in different countries. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the earthquake of 1988 and the war at the beginning of 90’s, Armenia experienced an economic crisis and people had to find something to stay alive and to maintain their families, so many people emigrated. My father came to Spain and we followed him after few years. This event has profoundly influenced my life and at the same time underlined my hunger and curiosity about knowing more and more about this world where I live. Spain’s cultural and linguistic diversity was a gift to me. My city, Alicante, its colours, its sun, its sea, its weather, its people, its everything inhabit in me. Despite some difficulties adapting, it helped form a strong Mediterranean identity which will always live in me alongside my Armenian and Parisian identities.
You describe yourself as a transdisciplinary artist, can you tell us why you use that term and what it means to you?
When I think about an idea which I want to develop, I don’t think in a technique, but I learn the technique and adapt it to my idea. Currently, I’m taking professional acting classes which are emotionally intense. This experience pushes me also to reinvent and to rethink my art practice in all disciplines. Right now, I’m also in a residency program in TAMAT Museum of Tapestry and Textile Arts, where I’m working on a theatre piece from García Lorca where I mix different mediums like sound, lighting, music, drawing and puppets. It’s a bit like being asked “do you feel more Armenian, Spanish or French?”. I don’t want to choose; I want to feel free to move in different disciplines. That creates very naturally a transdisciplinary work.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given, and do you have one piece of advice to share with an artist just starting out?
There’s an Armenian expression which is ‘the day will come and the good will come with it.’ This I heard mostly from my grandmother. It seems so simple, but it is really complex and could be applicable and interpretable in different context. This means for me that I just need to keep doing my things every day and I don’t have to stress about what will arrive tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.
As survivor’s descendant as well as growing up in different and sometimes difficult contexts, I’m still learning to live each day with calm and softness. Of course, in the 21st century everybody had deadlines and very quickly we can be stressed. I try to slow down everything to be able to enjoy more of each day, moment, work, project, sunrise, sunset, sky beauty, exhibition, theatre piece, film, etc.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you are happy to share with us?
I’m participating in an exhibition called “Western Silk Road” which will be held in Giudecca Art District in Venice where I present a very treasured work “Las ventanas de mi casa” (“My homes windows”). From March to May I am also participating at the exhibition “Menk” at CAC Landes in France.