It was my usual Thursday afternoon. I was at work about to go home when I received a text message from my sister inviting me to attend Vahe Berberian’s one-man show titled ‘Sաgաyn’. At this point I knew very little about Berberian; just the occasional YouTube clip promoting one of his plays or a friend mentioning his name in passing. In spite of this, I decided to attend the show and see what all the excitement was about. At the show, I was blown away with his hilarious monologue. His fresh and unique perspective on society, life, and the Armenian community captivated the sold-out audience and filled the venue with laughter.
After the show, my curiosity led me to find out more about Vahe and his work. Thirty seconds and a Google search later, I discovered the diverse artistic talents of Vahe Berberian. To my amazement, his monologues are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the diverse mediums that he expresses himself in. He is also an accomplished painter, writer, director, and actor. His paintings have been displayed in international art exhibitions, he has directed and produced numerous plays, published several books, written screenplays, acted in movies, and performed in theatre. Berberian’s paintings are sought after by notable collectors in the art community. In addition, his art has been featured in blockbuster Hollywood films such as: I Am Legend, Oceans 13, and Spiderman.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Vahe grew up in the coastal Mediterranean city and spent the majority of his childhood and teenage years reading books. “The love of books is a major facet in the formation of my character,” says Berberian. “I was very lucky to grow up in a house that was full of books. We literally had thousands of books in our home.”
While growing up in Lebanon, Berberian began to participate in the local theater and became the youngest member of the theater company. “Everything that I loved: I loved painting, I loved writing, I loved acting, I loved music, and everything else that I loved about art I found in the theater.”
He continued to hone his talents while living in Lebanon. However, with the politically sensitive environment of the Lebanese Civil War, he also became interested in politics and was an active member of the AYF. “I was very involved in the Armenian community in Lebanon,” remembers Berberian. “In hindsight you might see a duality in this because how can one be a ‘flower child’ and care so deeply about politics. However, there was not dichotomy there. I was a hippy, but I was very much interested with the politics of it all.”
Reflecting upon his activities as a youth, Berberian elaborates, “I was writing songs, I was painting, but at the same time was very much involved in politics—especially leftist politics. I was a devout socialist. I had read a lot of socialist literature, and also I would read literature regarding Armenian politics and the Armenian armed resistance.”
At the age of 17, Vahe left Lebanon and travelled among communities in Europe. “I think in a lot of ways I discovered myself while I was traveling,” he explains. “It’s funny how you discover your identity when you are away from your immediate surroundings.” After briefly returning to Lebanon, however, due to the Civil War, he decided to move to Canada and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he reunited with his theater colleagues and continued his education.
I had the opportunity to personally meet with Berberian at his studio to acquire a firsthand knowledge about his life and work. While I was in the studio, I was overwhelmed by the setting. Surrounded by paintings, art supplies, musical instruments, books, and murals, the space had a very enchanting atmosphere. As I absorbed all the art that was around me, I began to wonder where Berberian’s inspiration comes from.
“My inspiration comes from three things,” he replied. “First of all, people; interesting and lucid people inspire me. Second is my surrounding. I feel very much attached to my lifestyle and the way I live. For me, my immediate surroundings are almost part of my art. Finally, art itself—as in literature, music, and good theatre. All these things have a profound influence on my art.”
Berberian went on to comment that as a result of being an active member of the Armenian community, his Armenian heritage has had a heavy influence on his art. He insists that, “The source of all evil and wrongdoing can be traced back to insecurity. Therefore, being secure with your national identity is a tremendously important part of who you are as an artist.”
Although Berberian creates art in many different mediums, he does not prefer one over the other. “At certain times I prefer one thing and at other times I prefer something else,” he explains. “It all depends on timing. It is almost like I have all these children that I love equally. However, if asked which one you like most, I answer the one that behaves.”
I could not help but notice certain common motifs in Berberian’s art. For example, several of his paintings feature fish and wheels. I wondered if these motifs represented a certain message that he was trying to project through his art. However, I learned that this was not the case. Berberian’s use of different motifs in his art is based on aesthetics.
“As far as my painting goes, I do not use symbolism at all,” said Berberian. “Whatever I use in my painting, I use it as a form by itself. Even when I use letters and words, I use them for their shape and not so much what they mean. If I wanted to say something specific, I would write it or use it in one of my monologues. The reason why I paint is because there are certain layers in my insight that cannot be expressed in any other way other than painting.”
Berberian’s art has gone through multiple stages. Initially, he started his career with an abstract style. He then transitioned to more figurative work, though, gradually transitioned back into the world of abstract art. Today, he considers himself as more of a minimalist and has been able to sustain a living as a full-time artist—a feat that is rarely accomplished in the art world.
“I consider myself very lucky for two reasons,” he points out. “The number one reason is the fact that I can live off my art. And number two, which is very important, when I was growing up, I thought of a successful artist as someone who would paint these incredible paintings and die of starvation. People would then discover his amazing work and say wow he was good, we have starved another one. I had a very romantic notion of a successful artist. I could never really imagine that an artist could become successful and actually enjoy the fruits of his labor.”
Reflecting upon his current career, however, he notes, “Now, with acknowledgment—I don’t like the word success—but with acknowledgment comes a sense of security. And with this security, your work as an artist becomes more raw and more honest because you are no longer worried about selling your work or making it more presentable. Therefore, your work becomes more real and that is very, very important to me and how I approach my work.”
For more information about Vahe Berberian and his art, visit his official website: vaheberberian.com
Vahe Berberian “Sky” photo by Lilly Dong.
“Barekam” Painting photo by Mher Vahakn.
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the Summer 2009 issue of Haytoug, a quarterly publication by the Armenian Youth Federation. The upcoming issue will focus on the theme of solidarity between peoples and causes. Visit the AYF Booth at the Navasartian Games (July 2-5) to pick up a free copy. It will also be available at community centers, schools and local Armenian book stores. You can also download it in PDF today and visit the website to sign up for a free subscription.