Portrait of an Artist: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

By Irina Lamp
Heavy traffic in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg gradually dies down at nightfall. Large studio windows reflect an image of a 40-year-old woman, eyes focused on her computer screen. 
It is the year 2005. Silvina prepares to meet with curator Christoph Tannert, who has asked her to take her first artistic pass at the subject of “Istanbul.” Despite her knowledge of Armenian-Ottoman history she has never been to Istanbul herself: suspicion and skepticism had kept her from traveling to Turkey. She launches Google Earth, zooms in on Istanbul and takes a close look at the map.
The imaginary lives of Armenians, which Silivina, a descendent of Armenian Genocide survivors, knows partly from documents kept by her late grandparents and partly from books, unfold before her eyes. “This is the way it could still be today if Armenian life had not been erased by the Ottoman Empire,” she tells herself. She prints the map, takes a picture of an eraser and writes “Made in Turkey” on it. She proceeds to cut holes in the map, demonstrating an absence of Armenian life in present-day Turkey. 
She is pleased with the result. “This is a piece of work at the right time, in the right form and with the right content.” Her work is widely acknowledged by the German press. Thomas Medicus of the Frankfurter Rundschau writes, “Silvina Der-Meguerditchian’s tapestry ‘Made in Turkey II,’ depicting the genocide committed against the Armenian people, succeeds sharp-wittedly in compressing into one piece of art Istanbul’s local and global, past and present.”
In 2014 the German Foreign Ministry awarded Silvina a scholarship, allowing her to spend six months at the Tarabya Academy of Culture in Istanbul.
With her works Silvina inspires the viewers to ponder who they are, their true inner self and the direction they are headed. She has launched underconstructionhome.net to unite artists of Armenian origin worldwide and generate a discussion about Armenian identity. Her work is hosted at the 56th Venice Biennale in “Armenity,” the Armenian pavilion that won the Golden Lion award this year. A continuous thread runs through her artwork – she keeps the memory of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and their extermination alive. Traces of their existence are still visible today.
Silvina’s interest in art, music and literature developed when she was a child.
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The Wish to Belong

The Wish to Belong
“In our house in Claypole in Argentina we had pictures of my grandfather Avedis on the wall. I looked at them very often, trying to imagine what my grandpa’s life in Aleppo must have been like. He was a role model, not only to me. The Tobdjians were refined people and had a deep appreciation of culture. In Córdoba they organized theater performances for the newly established Armenian community.” (Read more about Silvina's family history here).
“I wanted to belong, I wanted to be able to read and write Armenian, but we lived too far away from the Armenian community. The only chance I had was to move to the city.” At the age of ten, she begged her mother to let her go to an Armenian school. Granting her wish was no easy decision for the parents: it meant having to send their children on a bus ride for several hours every day. The ten year-old girl, however, was prepared to cope.

Traditions, Conventions and Yearnings

Traditions, Conventions and Yearnings
“At the age of sixteen I felt confined by the Armenian world in Buenos Aires. There was a certain notion of what an Armenian girl was supposed to be like. I got good grades at school, and high hopes were placed on my career, but I wanted to find my own way, free of social and familial norms. I also looked up to my sister, who studied drama despite my parents’ strong opposition,” Silvina remembers. “I was just 16 when older friends took me to numerous big concerts, exhibitions, garage sales, underground theaters and bars, all of which helped shape my views and my ideology.”
“Unfortunately, I was enrolled at an Armenian school that didn’t offer its graduates journeys to Europe and Armenia. When I turned 16, I started saving up for the journey to Europe and worked part-time in a souvenir shop every day after class.”

Berlin, the City of Freedom, 1987

Berlin, the City of Freedom, 1987
Photo: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Ben/sen, 2010. Paper, wool, Installation view, Gallery BMSUMA, Istanbul. Courtesy of the artist.
Two years later Silvina went on the journey together with her friend. “I was thrilled. None of the other cities impressed me as much as Berlin did. Student life seemed so tempting and so easy that all I wanted was to study in Berlin.” Back in Argentina she realized she needed to quit medical school and return to Berlin to study graphic design. She started learning German at the Goethe Institute, got a scholarship and left Argentina a year later full of hopes for the future.

A Cold Shoulder in Germany

A Cold Shoulder in Germany
Germany showed Silvina its cold side when she arrived in Berlin in January 1988 – temperatures had dropped to -15 degrees Celsius. Initial excitement gave way to worry. Neither was Silvina able to get into a university nor did she have the means to sustain herself. She finally found a job as an Armenian language teacher, and an Armenian family offered her work at their kiosk at the Rehberge subway station. “Every Sunday I left at four in the morning to arrive just in time in Wedding. The kiosk was open from five in the morning to three in the afternoon. For ten marks an hour, it helped me make ends meet.”
“There were two things I wasn’t ready for – that it would be so hard to meet the application requirements of the university and that 600 applicants would compete for 30 places. When I wasn’t admitted to the Berlin art school (Hochschule der Künste), I was very disappointed. After regaining my composure I gave it another try.”
“While trying to get into art school I met my first love. He was ten years my senior and the owner of a carpenter’s workshop in Munich. I was so in love that I left for Munich because my second attempt to study graphic design failed too. But how was I to know that our love would only last three months? Shortly after I was destitute, rejected by art school, stranded in Munich and asking myself, ‘What now?’”
In Munich, Silvina signed up sign up for a two-semester preparatory course for subsequent academic studies and renwed her student visa, thus avoiding having to return to Argentina a failure. By working several student jobs and living off a scholarship she was able to make ends meet.

Meeting Her Future Husband

Meeting Her Future Husband
At a party in Tarifa, the southernmost town in Spain, Silvina met a Berliner named Oliver. They hit it off. “It was a match made in heaven. He was from my favorite city and studied architecture.” She rented an apartment in Berlin’s Moabit district and found work at an optometrist shop. “This time my application had to go through. I took classes with an established artist, who helped me to build up my portfolio. One day he said to me, ‘Silvina, you’re an artist, why do want to study graphic design?’” She applied anyway and was rejected a third time.
A short time after Silvina applied to Humboldt University of Berlin to become a translator and interpreter and graduated swiftly at the age of 28. During her student days she worked as a tutor and later as a guest lecturer at her university, but she never gave up on art. In 1997, after her graduation, she rented a studio. “By that time I knew that I was serious about art.”

Struggle and Success

Struggle and Success
Photo: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Treasures, 2015. Manuscript, collages, digital images and small glass bottles. Variable dimensions. Installation view in "Armenity,” Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. © Piero Demo.
What the Berlin art school was to other artists, her fellow artists and the zeitgeist of the city were to Silvina. “All my artist friends were generous and shared their knowledge with me, inspired and supported me,” she says.
In a symbolic act the August Bebel Institute opened this year’s series of events with the exhibition “Aferim Yavrum – Little Gestures of Cooperation.” Further exhibitions showing Silvina’s works are to follow in Vienna, Venice and Istanbul later this year.
“You know, I’m trying to overcome my fears, make peace with the Turkish people and history, but the hostile statements that have been made by [Turkish president] Erdogan and the direction that official discourse in Turkey has taken don’t make things easier for me,” she laments. “Yet I will be organizing an exhibition called ‘Grandchildren’ in Istanbul in September. We will be talking about the future as well as our past, about justice and the rights of minorities. If life has taught me a thing or two, it’s getting up when you fall, not succumbing to wrongs and having a vision. What’s that saying again? ‘It’s not realists who change the world, it’s the dreamers.’”
Header image: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, “Made in Turkey II” (detail) 2,40 x 3,40 m, at the exhibition Fokus Istanbul, Martin Gropius Bau | Berlin | 2005. Courtesy of the artist.
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"It’s not realists who change the world, it’s the dreamers"