From Dutch Camps to Armenia: Return of the Tapestry Master

“I went from camp to camp, lived in ruthless conditions, but with the help of many compassionate people I was able to create." Alexan Balayan

In the small studio of Alexan Balayan, a 55-year-old tapestry master from Vanadzor, colors are everywhere. He points at a tapestry picturing a joyous face of a woman and says he is about to finish it. 

“This is the portrait of the Queen of the Netherlands. When I started working on this, they came here all the way from Amsterdam to film the creation of the portrait. Her name is Maxima,” said the artist and tapestry master.

Balayan’s artistic journey was far from easy. The path he has passed was full of challenges and difficulties.

When several years ago, at the Art Expo 2013, Alexan Balayan was recognized as the best tapestry master in Armenia, receiving a diploma and award from the Minister of Culture, he started negotiating with Samvel Darbinyan, the then mayor of Vanadzor, hoping to secure an area where he could open the much-awaited tapestry school.

The former mayor, however, ignored Balayan’s request. The talks about opening a special tapestry school in Vanadzor ended in a row, and the disappointed master decided to leave Armenia.

“I ran away from that government. And many people like me left the country. Some of them went away for good,” he said.

In 2014, Balayan moved to the Netherlands. His wife and two daughters remained in Vanadzor. Balayan missed his family, and when the revolution took place in Armenia in 2018 giving rise to hopes for a real change, Balayan started thinking about returning home. Just like many others, who had left Armenia in despair, he came back in summer 2019.

Despite hardships that the tapestry master had to face at refugee camps, he had accomplishments too. During the five years spent abroad, Alexan Balayan was able to present Armenian tapestry art in the Dutch environment, organized exhibitions and returned to Armenia with four award certificates received in Holland.

“I went from camp to camp, lived in ruthless conditions, but with the help of many compassionate people I was able to create. I set up exhibitions and was able to sell my work. People were crying when I left, they didn't want me to go back to Armenia,” says the 55-year-old tapestry artist.

The longing for his family and the hope of fulfilling his dreams under new circumstances brought the artist back to homeland.

“True, I lived there, but it wasn’t a full life. I want to teach tapestry to the new generation, I want to work, and I couldn't do all that there,” said the artist.

Balayan has maintained his ties with the Netherlands after coming back and has recently sent several works for sale and display there.

“I met a walking legend back in Holland, Henk Helmantel. He is a well-known and talented artist. I would very much want him to visit Armenia and get acquainted with our country,” said Balayan, adding that he planned to invite the Dutch artist to Armenia as soon as he had put aside enough money.

He said there were still many problems in Armenia pointing to the fact, that despite the revolution, many institutions still held on to the old staff which continued working with the “old approach”, making large changes impossible.

The tapestry artist said he was grateful to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for the help and support that gave him a start in life.

“They helped me a lot, provided funding for me to get established, to integrate, to be able to create something,” he says.

“I have rented a studio and I am working, but there are still problems with organizing the training for the Vanadzor children. I still cannot bring myself to speak to the mayor, the prospect of negative response is holding me back, but I hope one day we will have a real change in Vanadzor.”