From East to West  

Our East-West Resident Ruben Malayan is back from Brussels.

July 10, 2019  |  by Creative Armenia

Art director, calligrapher, and our 2019 East-West Resident Ruben Malayan spent the month of June at the Villa Empain in Brussels. Now, back in Armenia, he shares with us his experience and plans for upcoming creative projects.   

CA: The East-West Residency was your first experience of a residency program. Tell us about your overall impressions. How did it contribute to your creative work?

RM: The residency is located in Villa Empain, which is an Art Deco house constructed in the 1930s, so the aesthetic environment is refined and impressive. In general, that part of Brussels is known for its architectural landmarks, especially from that period of time. The fact that Flanders is within an hour’ ride, cities like Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp made a big impression on me because I grew up on Old Masters’ paintings. The chance to see  Anthony van Dyck and Pieter Bruegel was welcoming. And when you see the beauty you have loved all your life, of course, you get inspired. Letter culture is everywhere, and it turned out that Brussels was more under the influence of Art Nouveau and Deco than Gothic art. The city is full of parks and lives in a calm pace. It’s easy to travel around with a bike, which I did every day. Almost everywhere you can see beautifully executed classical monumental sculptures dedicated to the First and Second World Wars.

CA: During the residency you have been working on your book The Art of Armenian Calligraphy, which has been an ongoing project for 5 years. Tell us a little about the book. Did you push the project forward? Did it undergo some changes or unexpected turns?

RM: The book has actually been in making since 2010, but the idea to put together a beautiful and helpful study on classical and modern Armenian calligraphy has become a real necessity now, especially because we don't have anything similar published so far. Its relevance to graphic design and typography is making it more urgent for the growing generation, that has no point of reference and difficulty starting up. Calligraphy is the womb of typography which in its turn is the foundation of most visual culture. Experiment happens on paper and those who know how to do it by hand later on do it much better digitally. The problem is that it requires patience and discipline, deep focus and determination — virtues which are more and more rare in our time. I see that with my students the biggest problem is the ability to focus.

To push the project forward I still need to find an editor and funding for the publication, which I will hopefully get in the near future.  Meanwhile I continue my research trying to find more material, which is scattered all over, remaining mostly uncatalogued.

CA: Were there any challenging aspects during your residency?

RM: The only real challenge was the weather, which is unpredictable. But in that part of Europe one does not match his plans with the weather, so you go ahead and do what you have to.

CA: Tell us about the most memorable incidents during the program.

RM: There are a couple of things worth mentioning. I was interviewed by a Spanish magazine called Openhouse and we had a very stimulating conversation about the art of writing and its connection to individual and collective memory. The interview will be published soon. Another was an event at the Villa Empain — a concert of a Syrian singer and percussionist Khaled Alhafez, dedicated to East-West cultural dialogue. Drums are my favorite instrument and his voice was penetrating and deep, with Sufi influence. I only wish it would last a little bit longer.

CA: You wanted to conduct research on Armenian calligraphic tradition in the libraries and museums of Brussels. Any success with that?

RM: Royal Library of Belgium does have a rich collection of books and manuscripts, but I was already aware of those related to our tradition. Manuscripts are more difficult to have access to and research, but one thing needs to be understood — calligraphy as a discipline had become mainstream only in the late 18th century and most books published were adaptations to European examples. Certainly, Venice and Vienna hold most answers to my questions, but a research trip to one of those cities is yet to come. Since I don't limit myself to Armenian tradition only, I have, of course, a great interest in Latin script which is the written base for most European languages. I spent hours reading books on Rudolf Koch and Hermann Zapf, finally saw the physical copy of Manuale Typographicum (Hermann Zapf, 1954) which I teach in my course at American University of Armenia, and even held in my hands an original work by him. Both Zapf and Koch were typographers with a very strong calligraphic base, something we don't see very often today. 

CA: How are you going to use your experience as East-West Resident and how will you continue your work after returning to Armenia?

RM: I will need some time to merge these impressions into my work. I have learned some new ways to fuse Gothic aesthetic with our own without compromising the readability of the text. A new “Այբ” (Armenian Alpha) was born at the very end of the residency and I am overall very content with the results. As for the immediate future, I am determined that it is time to open a calligraphy school here and will work in that direction. I love letters and I love teaching, which in my opinion is the most important profession today. I call upon all those who have skills and knowledge tested by time and experience to come forward and share it with others. It's the most important thing to do if we want our country to prosper. And I want to thank Creative Armenia for this opportunity to enrich myself aesthetically and to the Boghossian Foundation for their hospitality.

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