Mad Artist of Sisian: The life and “death” of Ashot Avagyan

Mad Artist of Sisian: The life and “death” of Ashot Avagyan

Photo courtesy Ashot Avagyan / Photo by German Avagyan

Avagyan’s tomb stone with an inscription (at Karahunj): “And he will be born with everybody who is born, and he will die with everybody who dies, and every birth will be the repetition of the first birth, and every death will be the repetition of the first death, I tell the truth, the truth…”

Painter Ashot Avagyan has visited the same gravestone in Sisian (Syunik Province) for the past seven years.

His.

The 51-year-old artist visits the grave and reads on the marker words he wrote about himself:

“And he will be born with everybody who is born, and he will die with everybody who dies, and every birth will be the repetition of the first birth, and every death will be the repetition of the first death, I tell the truth, the truth…”

Avagyan is, to put it mildly, is an unusual person. Maybe globally different, for that matter.

Seven years ago Avagyan organized his own ‘funeral’. People were so convinced, even telegrams of condolence were received from Yerevan.

“A huge funeral service was held with a funeral procession, a memorial service. People were crying. My friend painter Azat Sargsyan was lying in the coffin,” Avagyan tells. “This way we tried to prove that there is no death, one is the continuation of the other one, and it is still not known whether those who are alive live or those who live are dead.”

Every Armenian attends his own funeral. But Avagyan may be the only person to ever attend his own “karasunk” – the memorial 40 days after death. Or “death” in this case.

Residents of Sisian (population 16,700, about 220 kilometers south of Yerevan) say Avagyan is crazy. But in a good way.

The artist is known to take visitors on tours of the cultural and historic sites of Sisian – including Karahunj, Armenia’s “Stonehenge” – free of charge. He is an organizer of cultural events (though perhaps none as extreme as his 2002 “funeral”).

Avagyan believes in the natural-spiritual unity of humanity and the elements, as did his ancestors, who did such things a put up that mysterious rock formation (Karahunj) centuries ago.

He organizes rituals to illustrate such beliefs. For example, burning a coffin in a stony circle symbolizing water, Avagyan wants to disperse the remains of the burnt coffin in the ether, into the water and on the slopes, establishing the permanent presence of existence in the universe.

Avagyan tied ribbons on the stones at Karahundj to emphasize the cult worship of the air. He hung his paintings of Armenia’s famous petroglyphs on the ribbons. He drew the symbol of the Sun on the stones in water, meaning to present the meeting of the Sun and water.

“Listening to the stories told by the elders and reading world famous story-tellers’ works, one understands that people always worshipped water. There is a well-known fairy-tale, where a dragon closes the spring depriving people of water, and it demands a sacrifice for it, and a hero appears who sets the beauty free, kills the dragon, and opens the spring,” Avagyan tells.

Avagyan’s daughter and son live in Yerevan, and he lives alone in Sisian. He teaches at Sisian’s Art School after Zakhar Khachatryan.

Every now and then he holds rituals to worship the four elements having chosen Sisian as the most suitable place for them. Here, he says, on every step one can come across the layers of ancient culture serving as evidence that this area was inhabited by humans yet thousands of years ago.

It was about 10 years ago when the artist first got interested in these ideas and has been guided by them ever since. Before he was simply a painter, then took part in the Karabakh War, was a deputy regiment commander and a Dashnak. After the war he started painting again, but this time he was doing only rock-paintings, which he first saw during the war.

“It was a full moon night, and it was my turn to bring water. On my way someone told me to sit on a stone to have a rest, because there was no shooting. I touched the stone, it felt funny, so I decided to come back the next morning and study the stone in the daylight, and that was when I discovered the petroglyphs I had only read about in books but never actually seen,” Avagyan says.

Now he has more than a hundred rock-paintings and uses them in teaching dozens of Sisian children at art school each year.

His students smile when hear Avagyan’s name, remembering his humor, and crazy deeds. Avagyan’s student Nare Philiposyan, 15, loves drawing, especially when her teacher turns on Artur Meschyan, Deep Purple or Queen.

“I saw him by chance for the first time. “Ah, there you are, Grish? [he often addresses people with odd names] he turned to me and so we started talking,” she recalls. “It was so interesting that I did not want to leave him. I returned home and told my father that I wanted to learn how to paint. He told me I could choose anyone except Ashot as a teacher since he is a weirdo.”

The artist himself agrees.