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Exhibition, Explained | Churches, Cardboard, and Cultural Erasure: A Reflection on Conflict and Heritage

April 21, 2024


By Shant Charoian


New Exhibition, Explained | Churches, Cardboard, and Cultural Erasure: A Reflection on Conflict and Heritage

Shant Charoian, an architectural designer from Aleppo, based in Yerevan, holds a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Harvard and a Bachelor's from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He earned the Outstanding Senior Project Prize appointed as a Graduate Research Scholar at Harvard's Davis Center for Eurasian Studies. Charoian has conducted workshops at the TUMO Center and his work has been showcased at the GSD Kirkland Gallery. He’s currently working on establishing an architecture school in Armenia.

Writer's name Shant Charoian

Architectural designer, architect.

City/Country Writing from Berlin, Germany

As the end of April draws near, I am thrilled to announce the upcoming installation at the Kiezkapelle in Berlin on April 26-27, Friday to Saturday. Hosted by the Ararat Collective and generously supported by a grant from Culture Moves Europe, the exhibit titled Churches, Cardboard, and Cultural Erasure: Traces of Artsakh is an exploration of conflict and heritage.

At the heart of this exhibition lies my personal journey, one that has been shaped by experiences of displacement and a commitment to preserving cultural identity. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, and now residing in Yerevan, Armenia, I have witnessed firsthand the consequences of conflict on cultural heritage. In my journey as a designer, the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020 was a pivotal moment. It forced me to grapple with complex questions: How can the design world contribute to political debates and spark new forms of activism? What does it mean for an architect to imagine new spaces while my people's heritage is under threat?

The project, "Cardboard, Churches, and Cultural Genocide," is more than just an artistic endeavor—it is a testament to resilience and resistance. Through meticulous craftsmanship, I seek to shed light on the deliberate defacement of Armenian heritage sites in Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijani authorities. The recreation of the iconic conical dome of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi serves as a poignant symbol of cultural endurance amidst adversity. Spanning generations from its inception in 1888 to its successive cultural genocide attempts, including the replacement of the exact same dome in the 1920s, after the Armenian Pogroms of Shushi. Now in 2023, after the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Artsakh. Historical revisionism is being done, in the open, with the tacit agreement of UNESCO, which was also paid to look away from the cultural destruction of the cemetery in Julfa.

This exhibition is a call to action, timed to coincide with the Armenian Genocide commemoration. It invites a diverse audience, including art enthusiasts, Armenian rights advocates, and political activists, to engage in dialogue and reflection. By reconstructing a significant cultural symbol, I aim to spark and catalyze meaningful conversations about the challenges faced in conflict zones. After a book launch about Artsakh’s cultural heritage got canceled in Berlin on March 7th, the need for this dialogue is more pressing than ever.

Sustainability lies at the core of this project, reflecting my commitment to minimizing environmental impact. Every element of the public art installation, crafted entirely from reused cardboard sourced from the streets of Berlin, speaks to the importance of responsible stewardship of resources. Far from detracting from the artwork, the varied origins of the cardboard add a layer of depth and beauty to the installation, symbolizing the resilience of communities in the face of adversity.

My journey as an architectural designer and activist has been marked by a dedication to education and collaboration. From running design workshops at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan to co-teaching courses at Harvard GSD, my aim has always been to facilitate positive change. Ongoing projects, including a summer school and an upcoming festival in Armenia, reflect my commitment to innovative and sustainable design solutions.

As the doors of the Kiezkapelle open to visitors, "Churches, Cardboard, and Cultural Erasure'' invites us all to confront uncomfortable truths, challenge prevailing narratives, and envision a future where cultural heritage is cherished and preserved.  As an architect in today’s volatile world, imagining new spaces takes on a new significance when my culture's heritage is under threat. It's a constant balancing act between honoring the past and envisioning a future that safeguards our cultural identity.

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