Aramazt Kalayjian is a multi-disciplinary artist from New York, currently based in Yerevan, Armenia since 2011. The below text is a reflection on “If walls could see” a collaborative project with installation by Armenuhi Yeghanyan, and durational performance by Aramazt Kalayjian. The project took place in the framework of HAYP 12 12 12 RETROSPECTIVE, an exhibit that looked at the medieval caravanserai as metaphor for cultural meeting point. Themes of exchange, travel, displacement, fantasy, translation and encounters pervaded the works on view from December 12 -24, 2018 on the third floor of the Armenia Market.
Coffee is Seeing
Sometimes we need the other
Here we are all one
We all want to be seen and we do it in very different ways.
I had created a set of wall-hanging sculptures featuring haiku poetry, separated into three layers of glass, 4cms apart, making a visual puzzle. It was simple and playful.
Complimenting this I performed coffee cup readings. My guest would arrive and I would prepare coffee and read their fortune. I would write a haiku poem on an Armenian language typewriter and give them their reading to remember.
The door opens, I have received another guest. I greet them warmly and light the gas stove. She sits before me, asking questions. She seems familiar but I do not recognise her. “Do you remember me?” she asks. I mention a certain familiarity but that is all. “Then good, I won’t tell you anything more to see if your cup reading is authentic.”
I laugh and we drink our coffee and flip the cup. I was being tested but I had faith in the coffee grains creating their story on the white porcelain walls and in my ability to read the symbols and weave meaning.
My mother had an abortion before I was born. She was 19 and not ready for motherhood. Then, as now, taboos surrounded her decision. She was depressed, ashamed and in reclusion before my birth. I came along, like Simba, a joy for our family and community. The first-born of the youngest child in her family.
She had not had the childhood she would have hoped for. Her father passed away when she was just three. She had taken on the role of helper of the house, cooking, cleaning and babysitting cousins. She had become a mother before she was a woman. I understood why she began to train me, and later my brothers, to be her aids around the house. She later confessed she had always wanted a daughter.
On days off from school we were handed individual lists of chores in my mother’s handwriting or we were given extraordinarily inconvenient tasks such as reading a book aloud into a tape recorder so that there was proof of our having practiced reading that day. My father would take the cassette and listen to us read 40 Days of Musa Dagh or Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys on his commute to work. This was his way to make us present in his life. He could listen to our voice despite his absence from home.
It is here that I learned to cook and clean and learn and evolve. It wasn’t the best nor the worst childhood; there was love and anguish; there was appreciation and neglect; guilt and innocence; polarity also revealed duality.
The very first thing I learned from my mother was to make coffee. And this was a profound desire of mine.
Observing the family gatherings of my youth, the ceremonial aspect of receiving coffee at the end of a meal or an evening was divine. The first sips were spiritual ecstasy when the coffee was good. When it wasn’t there was criticism sprinkled in with gossip and conversation. It became a challenge I wanted my skills to meet.
Cups of coffee. Something human and universal being shared. First dates and breakups. Beginnings, interviews, being fired or laid-off. All can start with a cup of coffee and often do. Friends gather over coffee, families end gatherings with it. You can drink it before and after sex and at any other time!
Coffee is said to have been discovered by shepherds in the village of Kaffa, Ethiopia. Their goats were, according to legend, exceptionally frisky and energetic after eating the seed and flesh of the coffee fruit. It was considered to have magical or spiritual qualities and in Ethiopian culture today the coffee ceremony remains a staple in welcoming guests. Upon a bed of grass, several people gather around a clay pot and coals while the coffee beans are roasted on a pan over a naked fire. Frankincense is burnt. The coffee seed is roasted until the beans are browned and crushed by a mortar and pestle and then poured into the Jebenna, the aforementioned thin-necked clay pot Ethiopians use for coffee ceremonies.
Since then, the bean has been cultivated in a variety of different ways and its export from Ethiopia to the Ottoman Empire popularized the drink as a commodity and a pastime. As the grinds became more refined, so too did the tastes and methods of preparation. Mixes with milk and sugar, sometimes with tea or honey. The culture of coffee was born and it was widespread by the late 19th century.
We, humans, have sought meaning in patterns since the early cave paintings depicting man and nature. Cloud gazing, I-Ching coins, tea leaves, all offer a canvas from which patterns and meaning have been cultivated for centuries. Coffee grounds, naturally, offer this too.
I learnt how to read a cup from my mother and uncle. The reading always took place at the very end of a meeting or a gathering in our home. My mother read the cups as if to offer relief from worry emphasizing the positive and reminding the listener to be more aware of opportunities and others. My uncle, however, approached the matter as if reading tarot cards. His own interest in spirituality gave him a foundation to both see and to connect with the person before him when reading the coffee cup.
Having witnessed this throughout my childhood, I sensed that there was magic in the cup. Here was a way to truly connect with the love and attention channelled into it. It seemed like people felt they were being seen for who they truly were.
We trust the foreigner. We trust the neutral, non-attached person that is disconnected from our lives. People seek this possibility and coffee cups offer it.
I wanted to create this experience a long time ago and the caravanserai with HAYP offered the perfect opportunity, in the land of open doors and tinted windows.
The response at the exhibition was completely unexpected. I had imagined sitting in a room and having maybe one or two people arrive for coffee. Instead, the demand was great. Perhaps people have an inherent desire to sit and be heard. There is a comparison with Catholic confession, with the priest and the sinner. In our case the roles are perhaps more nebulous, beyond reader and listener.
What was most astounding was how readily people shared openly, with the cup between us. I was asked if I could see people looking negatively on them and their life. One woman described an emotional affair with another man and asked if that was worse than a physical affair. Someone else told me their entire story, from youth to marriage, and how her husband had became a brutal person, triggering a suicide attempt. All of this to me! I am no one. A man that made cups of coffee, a man that told stories as a way to see and be seen.
I was surprised by the variety of people that came along. Two women working in the wig store below the exhibition space arrived one by one. The quirky owner of the building with his right-hand man, seeking advice based on his profound belief in fortunes. An elder, an adult, and one of our youth, arrived at one point representing three generations of women. Artists, designers, performers, dancers, architects, musicians, writers, hopefuls, seekers, lovers of life, ordinary folk, all lined up for a free cup and a fortune, written in short form, as a memento.
I felt a deep responsibility. To remain as neutral as possible when sitting in front of another. To try to be totally absent of ego and present in the moment while interpreting the grains and the patterns, however subtle or bold. I did not want to color the story with my own and instead took symbols from the cup, interpreting meaning, somehow, to reveal simple truths.
I was left feeling exhausted and full of gratitude.
written by Aramazt Kalayjian
edited by Raffi Ouzounian
photography by Ed Tadevossian
video by Karén Khachaturov