Soviet Apartments & Sex in Armenia: Mher Kafalian Confronts Shame

 

The past couple of months we have featured several Georgian artists challenging common societal views on sexuality, LGBT issues, and gender. Of course, this artistic movement is not restricted to just one country. As we noticed before, creativity and change is in the air in Yerevan as well, and it was introduced to us by photographer and artist Mher Kafalian.

Mher, who was born in Lebanon but grew up in Yerevan, has taken up photography 6 years ago. He has seen his style and influences change throughout these years, he tells, and it has been an “interesting journey”. Whereas in the beginning he mostly focused on improving the technical quality of his work, he now simply aims to express his emotions through his art. And his emotions are, judging by his work, mostly dominated by topics such as sexuality, repression, and gender.

Even though he spent the majority of his life in Armenia, his Lebanese roots have affected him in his artistic development. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until recently he actually realized that. “I must admit that my creative horizons were opened in Armenia, but now I can feel some Middle Eastern vibe in my creations”, he says. But as he needs more time to develop his style, “more serious projects are yet to come.”

Despite the fact that his art started in, and was inspired by, the Armenian capital, freedom of art is the first thing he mentions when asked what is lacking in Yerevan’s creative scene. “In a way, my latest two projects were showing the hidden sexual desires in our daily lives. But in post-Soviet Armenia nudity and sexuality are shameful,” he explains, thus clarifying why he doesn’t show the faces of his nude models in the final product. However, the worst obstacles are found in oneself, Mher tells. Regardless, he does not believe in self-censorship, as his work is “first of all for me, then for the society”.

One of those aforementioned projects is Shame“In my society you can undress someone inside your imagination”, he explains, “but it is a shame expressing it in your own way”. The shots show us a naked female body in a typical non-descript flat somewhere in the former USSR. No face, sometimes with the nipples covered, other times proudly showing them – including their piercings. We see a woman confident with her body and her sexuality, stuck in a place which discourages and shames nudity and sex.

In his second project, Leftovers of Soviet, nudity with a thin line of sexism, he links to early communist sexual freedom as well as to “post-Soviet sexual backwardness”. Showing the grey outsides of anonymous Soviet-style housing blocks, we can only assume what is going on inside those buildings. Mher shows us, and it is not very different from a peek inside a flat in any other location somewhere in the world. It is the shame surrounding it that makes it ‘unsuitable’ to take this confidence outside your own private space. And, as Mher noted, this shame is prevalent in the Armenia of today.

Mher’s rejection of self-censorship, however, does not mean he is totally ruthless about his content. Admittedly, he does “adjust” his work from time to time. “If I want to share it with the public, I have to make it more convincing”, he explains, followed by “I guess”.

This does come with some mixed feelings. As he considers art primarily to serve as an expression of true feelings, “you achieve the best result when you are honest to yourself.” This honesty also surfaces in his other creative works. Apart from photography, Mher also paints, writes poetry in Armenian, heavily influenced by depression triggered by emptiness, love, and sex, and has started making video art, too.

We admire Mher’s bravery for allowing us to share his first controversial video, Number 0, of which he wasn’t sure whether Armenia would be ready to face it or not. “In my naive perspective, they will not understand it as art, but more a subject concerning LGBT. Which is totally wrong,” he explains. Still, even though it targets many different topics, for us this re-conceptualization and debate of gender and space is a brave, provoking piece of work – just don’t forget to pay special attention to the music!

Evidently, receipt of art and social taboos are subject to time and attitude. In Yerevan, with its “unique, artistic energy”, these are changing, Mher notes. “The creative scene in Yerevan is developing: it is really nice to see lots of new artists, and sometimes even being influenced by them.”

Surely it won’t take long before Mher himself is the influencer. You can follow him here on Instagram.