Some time last week through Groong I came across a newspaper article by English artist Mick Oxley who had spent two weeks in May in the Italian Village of Spitak working with local children. I downloaded the article to my computer, but didn’t get to read it until late last night, because I spent four days in Spitak.
The Italian Village is the quarter of Spitak where I used to live and work as a volunteer and where I still spend most of my time when I am in Spitak, because most of my friends live there. This is the part of Spitak that lies about 6 km to the south of the towncenter along the road to Yerevan, that consists mostly of prefab domiks.
Oxley uses a wheelchair and Armenia is not the most wheelchair friendly country and neither is the attitude towards disabled people very friendly, so you can imagine he had some difficulties to overcome moving around in Armenia. Something as seemingly simple as crossing a road, can become an obstacle (but then again, crossing a road in Yerevan is not simple even for able bodied people):
After breakfast, I sauntered around the city centre. At one point,I got stranded in the middle of the road while on a crossing with a green man flashing. A marshrutka (taxicab) stopped and as I turned to thank him, he was sitting shaking his fists at me!
During his time in Spitak, Oxley worked closely with Arsen Asatryan, a local artist.
“Arsen is in a wheelchair, having broken his back in the earthquake. Also like me, he is trying to establish himself as an artist. Arsen rarely leaves his immediate environment, especially in a wheelchair. The terrain makes life hard and there are stares and comments from some locals.”
I met Arsen and his family three years ago, when I spent an afternoon at their house. He is a very nice person and a good, rather traditional painter. Unfortunately, as Oxley mentions, Arsen hardly ever leaves his house because he is uncomfortable about appearing in public in his wheelchair. Unfortunately, there is a big social stigma on disabled people in this country. Many parents prefer out of shame to keep their disabled child out of sight (either at home or in a home for disabled children or an orphanage) or disabled people themselves, like Arsen, prefer to stay out of sight to avoid stares and remarks.
There are some exceptions. I know a woman in Spitak who has also been confined to a wheelchair since the 1988 earthquake, but she refuses to stay home. She leads a normal life as a much as possible. Last I heard of her, she was planning to set up some business of her own. It probably helps that her family has a car, so they are able and willing to drive her around, bring her to friends etc. I also know a young woman in Yerevan who has a growing disorder and is not more than 1m20 tall/small. She has overcome her shame and refuses to stay at home as well, going out, working, volunteering, studying, traveling abroad. However, for these positive examples, I know at least as many disabled people who prefer to stay out of sight.
Despite the difficulties he faced, Mick Oxley has a good feeling about the trip:
This was a trip I won’t forget. I feel we met our aims. We introduced Arsen and the students to new ways of working. […]I hope being there in a wheelchair might have encouraged Arsen and others to venture out. If by wheeling around Yerevan I changed one person’s view of the disabled, I would be satisfied.
I do hope especially that Arsen has realized that being in a wheelchair doesn’t necessarily mean being confined to home and that he will somehow find the courage to go out more often.
The children, Arsen and Mick Oxley held a two-day exhibition in Artbridge in Yerevan on May 18 and 19. I wish I had known about it. I am sorry I missed it.
Mick Oxley has a website here. When I last checked, he hadn’t uploaded any paintings he made while in Spitak, but hopefully he will put some up in his gallery. His article can be read here.
[edited to delete dead links]