Art Beat - Sophie Aghajanian

Palestinian born artist whose work is 'unashamedly escapist'

The Aghajanian family tree has its roots in the 4th century, soon after Christianity was established as the state religion of Armenia. At this time Armenian pilgrims established an enclave in Jerusalem where Sophie Aghajanian’s father was born.

Her mother’s people had fled the Massacres of 1914 in Turkey to seek refuge in Palestine where, in 1943, Sophie was born. With the plantation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948, social and cultural divisiveness caused civil unrest and political instability. The Aghajanians sought asylum in Jordan. Being Palestinian meant statelessness – political non-identity. Sophie’s father, a judge, applied for British citizenship and took a job in Cyprus.

Sophie Aghajanian had inherited a sense of insecurity and transience. Hers was a world of diaspora and shifting tensions in which her path towards security was through drawing and storytelling.

She had inherited too her mother’s creativeness: a school teacher with talents in painting, choreography and costume design who made her own clothes. Sophie recalls drawing endlessly on strips of scrap paper at the age of four in Jordan and later taking her sketchbook everywhere.

In the English junior school she attended in Nicosia, Sophie experienced, through her peers, the peculiarities of English racism, snobbism and classism but this lessened in secondary school where English children were not in the majority.

Here her art teacher, who had come through the English art school system, introduced her to Augustus John’s brand of Romanticism. Culturally inculcated into Englishness, when civil war broke out with Greek independence, Sophie and her sister applied to Ravensbourne College of Art and Design in London to study and escape. In 1974, when the Turks invaded Cyprus their parents too were forced to immigrate to London.

Ravensbourne College of Art in 1962 had become an outpost of abstract, hard-edged minimalist painting – a doctrinaire regime that outlawed the study of human form and Romanticism. Aghajanian found herself at odds with this teaching practice but conformed because she was in awe of English culture – a culture her schooling and her father had instilled in her as worthy and superior. Being a perpetual migrant and cultural refugee nourished her self-consciousness and negative self-criticism. Art school confounded her self-belief but introduced her to the craft of lithography and printmaking which she studied at postgraduate level in Brighton College of Art in 1966/67.

In 1970, while living in Brighton, she and Jim Allen, a Belfast-born printmaker, married in Cyprus. When he successfully applied to help establish the Belfast Print Workshop in 1977 they moved again, taking up residence in a gate lodge at Riddel Hall which the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had taken over. In this near-rural setting Aghajanian shut out the Troubles. She made dark black and white etchings of scenes from her windows – gardenscapes with a sense of order and stillness – an escape from turmoil. And sombre interiors with a spiritual calm – a vase of flowers – hope. Pervasively, the Troubles impinged psychologically.

Somewhere along the troubled road between childhood and artistic maturity, colour had got lost. Aghajanian had to reclaim it – tentatively by touch – by massaging with her fingertip chalk pastel into black and white images – gradually resuscitating and revitalising.

She had discovered the printmaking technique of monotype at Brighton and now employed this process to infuse her imagery with tertiary colours. Monotype encouraged a free and painterly approach to picture-making, the image being evolved on the blank surface of a copper plate from which the print was taken.

This print process involves chance and accident – unique incidences that Aghajanian stimulates and welcomes. There is in her art-making a dialogue between the sub-conscious and conscious levels: a constant struggle to reconcile inner emotions through a set of variables that must be controlled and mastered via printmaking or painting with oil on canvas.

By the 1990s Aghajanian had developed her own distinctive visual language based on gestures, recurring echoes, reflections and movements of light within her studio at home. An old tarnished, time-worn mirror provided, not only a point of reference, but also a window into a shifting world in reverse. A window of planes and differing levels in which objects moved in and out of focus. Aghajanian recorded this constant flux of mirage and dust motes with her camera, evolving soft-edged imagery that might well be interpreted as a metaphor of her life.

Whereas all Aghajanian’s printed images are of a theatre of indistinct gestures and out of focus ambiguous objects, her oil paintings depict more solid inscapes where stronger colour dominates and shapes are more defined. These are glazed when framed, the play of light across the glass providing yet another picture plane.

Her evocative language, which she hates to compromise with precise or over-suggestive titles, lends itself, appropriately and sympathetically, to the illustration of textual narratives and poems. Hers is not an illustrative technique of literal references but one of accompaniment where the poet’s vision is complimented by her own harmonious insight.

In 1992, she was invited to contribute to the Great Book of Ireland in which poets were coupled with painters to produce pages implying collaboration had taken place. However, the project was ill-considered and less than satisfying. Now, through Seamus and Marie Heaney, she has met Peter Balakian, an Armenian writer living in New York whose award-winning Burning Tigress details the massacres of Armenians in Turkey during the first world war. They have exchanged works and swapped memories and are now set to collaborate with a project that will marry images to poems.

The Belfast Print Workshop provided a vital resource for Aghajanian enabling her to regenerate processes initiated in England and reassemble her personal imagery. Without this communal facility she may have lost contact with printmaking. The downside of shared facilities being that one has to cope with the working habits of those whose standards of order and cleanliness are not the same as one’s own.

Aghajanian is a meticulous worker who likes her studio to be clean and tidy. She has, after many years of coping with the pluses and minuses of sharing, finally created her own workspace where her concentration is not compromised. This has led to a greater sense of self and a stronger assuredness, which in turn has compelled the use of more forceful colours.

For Aghajanian art is a solitary pursuit which occurs in a private, Alice through the Looking-glass World that is not impinged upon or invaded by the outside world. Although she acknowledges that external events often colour her mood and shift her focus, her approach is unashamedly escapist. Her relationship with the viewer is one of shared intention: both seeking by necessity, to escape beyond basic, mundane human existence to that place of illusion, fantasy and evocation.

By Peter Haining

Further reading
Sophie Aghajanian catalogue (1994), Arts Council of Northern Ireland; Thinking Long (1996) by Liam Kelly, Gandon Editions; Stepping Stones (The Arts in Ulster 1971 – 2001) (2001) edited by M Carruthers and S Douds, Blackstaff Press.