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Nottingham Castle

Vergine Gulbenkian

1 February 13 words: James Walker
Armenian storyteller kicks off the Postcolonial Speakers Series


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'Performing There Was And There Was Not' Photo: Jo Baele


The Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at NTU launched the Centre’s new Postcolonial Speakers Series at the New Art Exchange on Thursday 30 January by celebrating the art of storytelling with an hour-long performance from traditional Armenian storyteller Vergine Gulbenkian which was followed by a conversation with Dr Jenni Ramone.

Vergine Gulbenkian gave a mesmerising performance, combining a series of traditional folk stories centred around 'State of Matter': 'a tale about burning, fuelled by a traditional 17th century love-epic Keeram and Asli which was told by Armenian and Turkish bards. She confided that she was unable to give away the ending as it was bad luck and could result in the storyteller being shot – a convenient excuse for writers block, perhaps although for Gulbenkian, the magic of storytelling is down to the interaction of the speaker and the audience. Leaving something to the imagination is all part of the alchemy and enables the audience greater connection with the subject.

Gulbenkian began working on the craft of telling traditional tales in 1991 after studying Drama and from here developed an interest in the Armenian oral tradition. In 1994 she made a documentary video with Richard Eayrs about the ashugh (epic singer) tradition in Armenia. She said “To share a traditional tale so that teller and audience are listening and living it moment by moment is a rare privilege. It is simple, but not easy." Part of her appeal is that she has a quiet voice which lulls you in. There are no sudden movements as she acts out parts of the narrative, instead she calmly stands on a chair or waves her hands. Then finishes her story with an Armenian ballad. If there had been a blanket at hand I would have snuggled up and been out in seconds.  

Jenni Ramone discussed the function of storytelling and the importance of oral culture with Gulbenkian and then opened the floor up to questions. It was an interesting debate until one academic said that the folk tales reinforced gender roles – or something similar. It was like watching someone stamp on a butterfly. It is a completely valid point to make but reducing culture to the same old anomalies is formulaic. Patriarchy is an ugly concept and it’s not too nice on the ears either. Say it out loud ten times and see what I mean. Tradition can be a dangerous form of power but in the context of a culture which has suffered mass genocide, these stories have a more magical function. They keep those people alive. They draw generations together. They lie dormant unless spoken. They should be felt rather than thought. 

It was a great start to the series and refreshing to see a performance as part of academic discussion. This might just be the way to create a more diverse audience at future events and make intellectual debate more accesible - and enjoyable.        

Some books you might like based on this talk

The Tiger’s Wife Téa Obreh. A beautiful layering of mythology and folklore which comes together to tell the history of the Balklands. An Orange prize winner in 2011.

The Pleasure of the Text Roland Barthes. Academic porn for anyone who believes a text's unity is forever being re-established by its composition, etc. 

Finding our Sea Legs: Experience and the Ocean of Stories Will Buckingham. An examination of philosophy and stories that will leave you waving, not drowning. 

Entertaining Strangers Jonathan Taylor  Drinking, philosophy and an eccentric intellectual called Edwin who is obsessed with a great fire, massacre and one girl's drowning in Smyrna, 75 years earlier. Gulbenkian mentioned the great Armenian fire in her stories.  

Out of Sheer Rage Geoff Dyer A work of genius. His comments on deconstructionism are legendary. A copy of this should be carried with you at all times and thrown at any academic  who forgets their humanity. 

You can hear Gulbenkian read an Inuit tale in which Raven is the only one who knows who stole the moon, and how to get it back.This was recorded at the Story Museum.

The Postcolonial Speakers Series is a partnership between NTU's School of Arts and Humanities, the New Art Exchange and Nottingham Contemporary. For more information on forthcoming talks in the series, please see their website.

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