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jerusalem post: ceramic blues

Neshan Balian Jr. Hebronite craftsmen bought trade secrets from his workers, he charges.
Photo: Ariel Jerozlimski

By LAUREN GELFOND

The souvenir shop was nearly silent as the owner polished his dusty wares amid the sounds of cars swooshing back and forth outside.

“Oh, don’t buy that,” he said suddenly, with a wink.

The surprised shopper raised her eyebrows. She was a regular customer, and had seen the central Jerusalem shop go from busy to idle during the long days of the uprising.

“It’s not real Armenian ceramics,” he explained, as she handled a blue-and-white bowl. “If you want to send something as a gift you should get the real stuff.”

“Real?” she asked.

Across the country, untold numbers of souvenir shops run by Jews and Arabs market their ceramics as Armenian. Though their wares fill the homes of Israelis, Palestinians, and tourists, the vast majority of the ceramics are actually imitations from Hebron, according to Armenians and art historians who specialize in Armenian art.

“In Hebron, since 1969, they took a lot of designs from Balian and Karakashian,” says Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, a professor of medieval art history and former dean of the arts faculty at Tel Aviv University, referring to two of the founding families of the Armenian ceramics industry in Jerusalem.

“The designs of Hebron are mass-produced, simplified, and unsophisticated. When you see the two side by side, you would die – it’s like a Vermeer next to a Vermeer copy. I collect Hebron ceramics to teach students how to spot a copy from an original,” she says.

While the popular blue-and-white ceramics made in Hebron have been around for the last three decades or so, the Armenian families who came to Jerusalem and introduced the style have been in business for generations. Prior to landing in Jerusalem in 1919 and influencing the art, architecture, and crafts of the area, the families were part of the artistic flourishing in what was then Ottoman Turkey. (See boxes.)

Prior to their arrival in Jerusalem, there was no tradition of ceramic work on dishes or tiles here; today, the influences of these families can be seen on building facades, murals and wall hangings, and in churches, graveyards, museums, hotels, hospitals, and private homes throughout the country.

A champion of these Armenian families and concerned about fading awareness of their art, Kenaan-Kedar published The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem (originally in Hebrew by Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and Eretz Israel Museum, and recently reissued in English) to explain the motifs, inspirations, and histories of these creations.

“It was precisely these members of a Christian minority who introduced an art form that had not previously existed in the city, and turned their products into a hallmark of local, Jerusalem art,” she writes, charging that serious study of their work has been neglected.

Kenaan-Kedar recently turned to the Postal Authority to convince it of her premise. It was persuaded: In September 2003, the Israel Philatelic Service issued three stamps commemorating the Karakashian and Balian families and Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem. Reminiscent of plates, they are the first round stamps in Israel’s history.

Despite the publicity, the families have reason to worry about the future of the industry. While once sought after as the ceramic masters of the region, their studios have faded from bustling to quiet.

ON NABLUS Road, where the Balian and Karakashian families set up shop in 1922, and where the Balians exclusively work since the Karakashian family moved to the Via Dolorosa in 1964, history permeates the villa-turned-studio.

Through a wrought-iron gate and down a long hallway covered with ceramic murals, the sweet smokey smell confirms that pottery has recently been fired in the old kiln.

Sitting at the desk where his grandfather used to work, Neshan Balian Jr., a US-trained ceramic and mechanical engineer, remembers growing up covered in clay.

“My father used to travel around the West Bank to get a truckload, then clean, sieve, and mill it to grind,” he says. “We didn’t have tax this and tax that and big electricity bills and minimum wage for workers then so we could afford to produce. I used to fall in the clay pools sometimes and get a scolding from my late father and a shower from my mom.”

A 1932 gold medal in handicrafts signed by Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff to Karakashian and Balian adorns a studio wall. The workshop houses a small museum, a kiln, pottery wheels, and a painting studio. It is the only Armenian studio in Israel today where all the pottery is handmade.

Balian, like his competitors, charges that Hebronites have always been skilled artisans in glassmaking, but that they only expanded into ceramic glazing when they saw the success of the Armenians.

“They already had the kilns and technology… My father told me that Hebron workers before 1967 used to stand by the gate when some workers came out and offer them money to learn how to make the glazes, color, clay – it was a trade secret. Now they call it Armenian pottery. So do a lot of Israeli sites. Consumers don’t know the difference,” he says.

“I know some Hebron workers; they are nice guys, just trying to make a living. But I ask them to use the [Armenian] name as little as possible.”

Ceramic pottery marketed as Armenian can also be widely found in Israeli stores and even on Judaica or Israeli Holy Land memorabilia Web sites.

“I have nothing against anyone who makes pottery, but the Israeli public and tourists are deceived into thinking this is Armenian pottery. The only real place Armenian pottery is sold is here and the Via Dolorosa,” Balian says.

Teddy Kollek, when he was mayor of Jerusalem, used to keep both workshops busy, buying gifts and bringing dignitaries to visit the studios as cultural landmarks.

One day Kollek stopped by the Nablus Road shop with artist Marc Chagall. According to family folklore, the artist sat down in the back room of the studio, where young women were painting on tiles and plates, and he picked up a blank tile for himself.

“He started drawing an abstract pattern on it,” says Balian. “My mother was very excited, and when he was finished putting orange as the sun, mom said, ‘Master, don’t you think it would be better putting brown here instead?’ There was a huge silence and Kollek almost fainted. Then Chagall looks at mom. And at the tile. And says: ‘You are right, madam.'”

The next day Chagall’s limousine came to pick up the fired tile – with the brown sun.

Balian’s mother, Marie Balian, who studied art in France, had a major impact on the motifs used in Armenian ceramics, when she added her own stylized touch to the traditional designs. Today her work, including dozens of murals, and even a tombstone to her late husband Setrak in Jerusalem’s Armenian Cemetery, is considered a style of art unto itself. In 1992, The Smithsonian Institute in Washington lauded her with a one-woman show.

The more traditional designs, created by the joint Balian-Karakashian workshop, and influenced by the motifs of Kutahya and Izmir (ceramics centers in what is today Turkey), Armenian-illustrated manuscripts, and ancient Christian mosaics found around Israel – can be seen still in the works of both families.

But dignitaries and the public don’t come like they used to.

PAST DOZENS of souvenir vendors in Jerusalem’s Old City, down the cobbled Via Dolorosa, across from the Sixth Station of the Cross, in a tiny cave-like shop, Stepan Karakashian, the second-generation Armenian potter, taps a key on a ceramic bowl.

“It rings nice,” he says, trying to explain how to spot quality ceramics from their imitations.

On the bottom, it says “Jerusalem” in English and has his signature in Armenian. The copies likely won’t have Armenian inscriptions, and any writing will usually be done in felt pen that washes off, he says. “In better days, tourists would buy the cheap stuff as gifts but the good stuff for themselves.” Surrounded by shopkeepers for the past three decades who sell mass-produced facsimiles at a third of the cost, there has long been competition.

“All of it in the Old City is not Armenian,” he says. “In 1967 Israelis started to buy our pottery. The Hebron people were quick to copy our work because they found a popular item. Now they do it by machine and it’s mass-produced. It doesn’t have a real artistic sense but it’s known as Armenian.”

Since the most recent uprising started, the competition has gotten worse, as few tourists or Israelis will venture into the heart of the Arab souk to find him.

“The intifada caused us a lot of problems. Two years ago I closed the workshop and let the workers go,” he says. “Sometimes there is only one customer a day; often there is nobody. It’s a pity. We had admirers and they would bring their friends. We are one of the minorities in the Old City – but in the last years people don’t come to the Old City.”

Silent for a moment, he remembers his childhood.

“In the evenings when I was a child there was no TV or radio, but they would tell and retell stories about how they came to Jerusalem and didn’t want to go back,” he said. Today, he and his brother Berge share stories with Stepan’s son Hagop.

“The future depends on the political situation that keeps tourists away,” says Stepan. “[Business] is very poor. I wish the old days would come back. The future is rather obscure.”

A walk through Israeli souvenir stores and scores of shops in the Arab markets confirms that Hebron ceramics do flood the market, and are similar to Armenian ceramics – but only at first glance.

A random sample of Palestinian shopkeepers agreed that the vast majority of all the blue-and-white ceramic plates in Israel come from Hebron, not Armenian vendors.

Down the souk’s winding aisle from Jaffa Gate, one shopkeeper explains that “most tourists love to buy the Armenian plates,” as he pointed at the blue-and-white ceramics that appeared to be from Hebron. Workers may not even know the difference.

“In Hebron and in the Arab sector of Jerusalem they imitated the Armenians,” says Prof. Nira Stone, a Hebrew University lecturer on Armenian art. “The stuff in the souk is for tourists. I know people who have bought sets of plates that were sold to them as Armenian, but they are not.”

THERE IS not only an unspoken turf war between the Armenian and Hebronite artisans, but also between some of the Armenian artisans themselves.

In Jerusalem’s shrinking Armenian community that today numbers around 2,000 residents, according to the Armenian Patriarchate, there are only six Armenian ceramic workshops.

And from the point of view of Kenaan-Kedar, and Balian and Karakashian – the other four, like the Hebronites, are not “authentic.” “Besides me I think Karakashian is the other authentic family – it stops there. Anybody else is just copying our style. In the late Eighties-early Nineties, the ceramics of both families started to become famous, and anybody of slight Armenian origin and some artistic talent set up Armenian businesses, to try to make a living from the reputation of the two families. It’s the truth, so help me God,” says Balian.

But, counter the other Armenian artisans, they are certainly not the first, but neither are they inauthentic – just a new generation advancing a traditional style.

“I can’t say this is ‘my’ work. I’ve created thousands of designs, but the beauty is a continuation of a very old tradition, like Judaica, that belongs to whoever produces it,” says Arman Darian, a Soviet Armenian emigr who in 1990 set up what is today the only Armenian ceramics studio in west Jerusalem.

Darian has faced some isolation from the Armenian arts community, not only because he is physically separated from his east Jerusalem neighbors, but because some of the others question if the art only belongs to the Orthodox (Armenian) Jerusalem families, says one of his competitors.

The Armenian community, he explains, sometimes looks at emigr s from Soviet Armenia as “foreigners” and question if they are Armenian Orthodox or “mixed.” But Darian, the only one born in Armenia, says that the art belongs to all Armenians and anyone who cares to create it.

“I’m not trying to hide anything: I teach my workers everything, they are Russians, Armenians, Arabs. In Russia [Soviet Armenia] there was no difference between communities. I’m not a communist, but it was good – I’m not used to [the segregation].”

The shop seems unaffected by any real or perceived segregation. On his central corner, a slow but steady stream of customers buy the hand-drawn, hand-painted wares, and order furniture and interior designs.

Down the block and up the hill in the Old City, where there is far less passage of Israelis and tourists, the other three “new generation” Armenian ceramists are hard at work: Hagop Antreassian near Zion Gate, and two on Armenian Patriarchate Road.

Sandrouni Ceramics, across from the Armenian Convent, opened shop in 1983.

“Why? I liked it, the Armenian tradition,” says Garo Sandrouni. “We did research for five years and got involved. Most of our designs are very old typical designs because we went back to the 13th and 14th centuries and adopted a lot of motifs.”

As for talk of who is authentic Armenian and who is not, Sandrouni says he doesn’t really care.

“Wherever you see ceramics everyone claims his stuff is Armenian, so in a sense it’s positive: tourists think we have 20,000-30,000 Armenians living in Jerusalem. Some sellers don’t only sell, they say they themselves are Armenian. It only bothers me when an Armenian sells non-Armenian ceramics and says it is Armenian. They should say ‘Armenian-style.’ Armenian ceramics is not just a business – for me ceramics means Armenian culture, religion, history.”

CLOSER TO Jaffa Gate, Vic Lepejian has been in business since 1983, but painting since the age of three.

In addition to his traditional works, Lepejian points out his hand-painted ceramics with modern images, some featuring bold colors, and some all in black and white. A popular item, he says, is a mosaic of broken hand-painted mugs, called “Broken Jerusalem.” The piece, he says, can be explained in one word: “Intifada.” Though the stores around him in east and west Jerusalem do sell thousands of ceramic objects that most shoppers think are Armenian, there is no facsimile of “Broken Jerusalem” to be found.

“I have no competition with my work, it’s totally different even from the other Armenians. I’m an artist. I don’t try to stick to traditional,” he says.

“The others have a big competition between themselves to sell. And Hebron [markets] keep getting bigger and bigger. All of it in the souk is made in Hebron unless you go to an Armenian store,” he says.

But for now, most Armenian ceramists have less business than ever, and the two original storefronts – Palestinian Pottery on Nablus Road and Jerusalem Pottery on the Via Dolorosa – remain for the time being richer in history and memories than in clients.

“They didn’t know about copyrighting their images, which are worth gold,” says Kenaan-Kedar. “It may be a disappearing art – but I’m a historian, I know about the past, not the future. There could be a revival.”

Birth of a tradition

It was 1917 and the legendary ceramic tiles on the Dome of the Rock reflected the neglect that pervaded the Old City of Jerusalem. Under four centuries of Ottoman rule, the 16th-century Persian handiwork on the Muslim shrine had become cracked, dislodged, and tarnished.

The disrepair of the city and its monuments troubled the British. When they conquered the Holy Land from the Ottomans, the newly appointed leaders put the so-called “restoration” of Jerusalem high on its to-do list. But they weren’t really dreaming of returning the city to its precise historical face. Instead, architects, town planners, and connoisseurs of culture imported from the European traditions and working in the Middle East intended to meld old- and new-world traditions. They set to work to renovate the entire city infrastructure.

But despite a hardy cadre of workers, nowhere could the Pro-Jerusalem Society, charged with the redesign, find just the right artisans to tackle the 45,000 fragmented tiles glistening over the city. At the time there was no tradition of creating or using glazed tiles for interior or exterior design in or near Jerusalem, and the shrine was one structure they didn’t want to change.

They looked east: Word had it that the city of Kutahya in Anatolia had become the ceramics center of the Ottoman Empire. But the industry, like the empire, was in decline. Scores of skilled Armenian artisans who were considered the ceramics masters of the empire joined fellow Armenians in trying to flee from what the Armenians describe as a genocide, in which 1.5 million of them perished.

According to legend, Armenian artisan and businessman David Ohanessian fled persecution in Ottoman Turkey to Aleppo, Syria, and while traveling in a caravan, ran into Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office. The diplomat, having long admired his work, soon enlisted Ohanessian to oversee the Dome of the Rock restoration tender. Ohanessian would track down Kutayha’s best to assist him: master designer Mgerdich Karakashian, and master potter Neshan Balian.

Nobody realized at the time that the rootless wandering of the surviving Armenians and the artistic hunger of the European connoisseurs at the time would form a match that would lead to the launch of a ceramics industry in Jerusalem, that would achieve fame around the world.

In Jerusalem, however, things didn’t go according to plan. The team had to recreate the clay, the glazes, and the firing temperatures. They set up a studio called Dome of the Rock Tiles in the Old City, but because of problems with funding and raw materials, the tender was never completed at the time.

Despite the unfinished job, the Armenians had found a nice home in Jerusalem. A small community had been there since at least the fifth century, and so they found neighbors who spoke their language, a church where they could worship, and a larger community that was relatively tolerant of foreigners. All three families decided to stay.

The rest is now history – enshrined on the streets, landmarks, and homes of Jerusalem.

A diaspora’s legacy

Though there is an ancient pottery tradition in Armenia, the ceramic painting known today as Armenian descends not from Armenia, but from the Armenian artisans who were working in Kutahya, in Ottoman Turkey, where they were influenced by local Muslim and Turkish motifs in addition to designs with origins in China and Persia.

Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, in her book The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem, is the first historian to explore the transformation of the ceramic motifs of Armenian artists as they traveled from their host Muslim country to Jerusalem, where they were influenced by local Christian imagery in art and architecture, Armenian illustrated manuscripts, and more religious and artistic freedom.

In Jerusalem, Armenians were especially influenced by the sixth-century mosaic near Damascus Gate depicting birds within a vine scroll, as it has an Armenian inscription in memory of forgotten soldiers, she says.

“Their iconography became Christian. They identified with the city and by adopting local motifs they became Jerusalemites.”

Many motifs are common to ancient Armenian, Byzantine, Greek, and Jewish regional artifacts, says Prof. Nira Stone, a Hebrew University lecturer on Armenian art.

“The only authentic Armenian motifs are from Armenian illustrated manuscripts,” she says.

Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem reflect the journeys of Armenians from Armenia through the Ottoman Empire and to Jerusalem. Because of Diaspora wanderings, their combination of influences is unique. Yet they retain some similarity to the ceramics of Turkey – more so than anything found today in Armenia, or even in Israeli and Palestinian stores and marketed as Armenian.

Stuck in the middle

The most authentic Armenian work in the souk may be the street signs. In the mid-1950s, the Jerusalem municipality asked the Balian-Karakashian workshops to design the Old City signs, which to this day remain embedded on the gates and walls. In 1967, the municipality returned with another request: to add Hebrew to the Arabic and English inscriptions.

The Armenians have always tried to be a neutral community, but even in the world of ceramics they sometimes get stuck in the middle.

Their handcrafted street signs have become a symbol of political protest in recent years. During both intifadas some street signs have become damaged, as Arab Quarter residents periodically aimed stones at the Hebrew parts of the inscriptions or covered them over with posters.

The Balian family workshop also took a beating. In the first intifada, Jewish settlers saw the sign “Palestinian Pottery” and demolished the place in protest, Neshan Balian says, explaining the studio was named during the Palestine Mandate period. The municipality paid for the damage, except for a priceless vase created by Balian’s grandfather.

In an effort to maintain good relations with all communities, the studio now has two Web sites, one called palestinianpottery.com and another called armenianceramics.com. Even so, Balian estimates that 25-30 percent of his former clients stay away because they are afraid to travel to east Jerusalem. As a result, they spend more energy wooing clients from the wealthy Gulf States.

“In Europe and the US, companies have long-term plans. In this country, in this situation, we can plan six months to a year. One day, it’s negotiations; the next day, intifada. I would honestly say that if it wasn’t for the tradition and history of my grandfather, who used to sit in this same chair 60-70 years ago, that we would have closed long ago [and moved] to Europe or the US,” he says.

“As Armenians, we consider ourselves as guests in the city, even though we have a very deep and long history. We have Israeli and Palestinian friends, and promote coexistence. I know these are clich words but it’s really what we are trying to do.”

Karakashian doesn’t use the word coexistence on his Web site www.jerusalempottery.biz, as Barian does, but he does use the site to make a plea: “It is important to represent all three monotheistic religions, languages, writing, and symbols on these hand-painted tiles for the sake of better understanding and tolerance among people, in these globally difficult times.”

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