© Sara Sukhun
In a cupboard off the side of the kitchen sits a tureen of sturdy white china, decorated with painted purple flowers and gold edging. One handle has broken off, and the swollen belly is stained in places. It comes with a set of dishes in a similar style. Lying prostrate behind another door is a soda shaker of glossy red enamel. Made by Sparklets of England in the 1950s, the brand’s name is embossed in the silver top. It is layered with dust, but forty-year-old soda still rolls around inside. I wonder if it would fizz if I opened it.
Dominating the room is an enormous, ancient beast of a refrigerator. Named the Kelvinator, the promise No Frost swirls jauntily across the freezer. The front is a yellow colour – once canary, now curdled milk. The handles are chrome, covered with dark leather. I could fit inside it.
The sink and work surfaces are cloudy grey marble. The latter are covered with spices and bottles of olive oil. The cupboards above them, lined with thinning paper and pasted with stickers of fruit – ubiquitous in the kitchens of old Beiruti homes – are filled with endless tiny cups for Turkish coffee. One set, of white enamel, features teeny handles patterned with flowers. On a low table by the door to the back balcony are three ceramic dishes shaped like crinkled leaves, in chipped yellow slip. The veins of the leaves are impressed into the bottom, where dust has collected. Miniature bunches of grapes and cherries, and little groups of nuts, are painted round its edges.
I love cooking in our kitchen today: adding olive oil to labneh for breakfast (the oil poured into old water bottles straight from a friend’s press), sprinkling zaatar over a hot cheese manouché, crushing garlic to add to thickly-stirred fava beans and chickpeas to make foul. Such foods are Lebanese staples, and I can’t help but think of their preparation in decades past in much the same way; of friends drinking the same coffee in the same cups, wine from the same glasses. Only perhaps Armenian favourites were also on the menu. My knowledge of Armenian cuisine is limited to outings to restaurants in Bourj Hammoud, but these have included bowls of itch, a kind of tabbouleh; kebab with sour cherries; basterma, cured beef; and – as those of my friends brave enough to try them attest – delicious fried baby sparrows.
The name Irma Guverdjinian continues to niggle at my mind. Google, however, yields absolutely no results for her full name, an apologetic error message appears instead. A search of Guverdjinian on its own, though, produces five. Most of these are irrelevant, but one hints at something fascinating. The first link that emerged from the depths of the internet was to an ancient-looking website called www.onefineart.com. Google had located a profile, in French, of an artist – Georges Guverdjinian, also known as Georges ‘Guv’. Quite lengthy and detailed, the article detailed Guv’s life and work.
Born in 1918 in Adana, Turkey, Georges Guverdjinian arrived in Lebanon in 1923, having only fortuitously escaped death in the massacre of Armenians and Greeks that occurred in Izmir the year before. He attended school in Achrafieh, and eventually studied at the Université de Saint Joseph. Guv was then among the first class at the Academic Libanaise de Beaux-Arts, Lebanon’s main art school, where he studied fine art, specialising in painting. The article goes on to describe his artistic philosophy – characterised by a sensitivity to human suffering – his approach, travel and various exhibitions. He showed his work all over Beirut, as well as in Europe. He received the Prix de Cinquantenaire du Génocide Arménien in 1965 and the Medaille de la Ville de Rome in 1972. He moved to France in the 1980s, where he continued to paint until his death.
I was intrigued. This name – Guverdjinian – utterly without Internet presence, had revealed an artist. And one who seemed fascinating and important. Was he related to Irma, to the family who once lived in my home? The name struck me as uncommon (according to Google it has vanished) so it seemed possible. Why could I find nothing else about the family? I take my search offline, scouring countless books for a mention of Georges Guverdjinian; mining art historical texts and artist dictionaries in Librarie Orientale and Librarie Antoine, in the bookshops of Hamra, and the bookshelves of Dawawine and Ashkal Alwan. Georges ‘Guv’ Guverdjinian seemed so interesting, so vital, and yet he appeared to leave little to history.
I email my friend Sarah at RectoVerso, an art library and research space in Monot, Beirut. I ask whether she knows anything about Georges Guverdjinian. She sends me back camera-phone snaps from an old French Index of Lebanese painters, with a small section on Guv. It reiterated the picture I was building from the article – of a thoughtful artist, a man “who sought to give form to his obsessions: the Armenian tragedy, and the suffering of the modern world”. I was aching to see images of his work.
A breakthrough came one day when searching for Georges Guverdjinian on Facebook. A fanpage exists, for an artist called GUV, whose introduction confirms this is the same man. The page also yields crucial information: ‘Guverdjinian’ can also be spelled ‘Koukerjinian’. This detail feels like finding treasure. Whereas Irma Guverdjinian had no web presence, the name Irma Koukerjinian gets hundreds of hits, and I begin to plunder the web for mention of others in the family.
The original article about Guv mentioned children – Francois, Arlette and Roger – so these I seek, along with Robert and Irma. I find reference them all, and begin to piece together a shaky family tree from the surface of the Internet – they are certainly related to Georges Guv. It seems that most of the family live abroad now, in the US and France predominantly. According to public census information Robert moved his family to California (corroborated by those tax forms), and then to Virginia. Irma is now a grown woman, whose profile picture on Facebook shows her smiling with flowers behind large sunglasses in Summer.
I begin to get in touch. What would their memories be of this space? Why did they change their name? Why did they leave Beirut? Can they tell me more about Guv?
Placing some stuff in a storage cupboard above the bathroom one day, I find a bag full of old children’s toys – an eerie remnant of past play. I pull out a 4×4 truck covered in small stickers, with orange headlights and large rear tyres. Inside a driver with a racing helmet sits behind the wheel. The words WILD WILLY are emblazoned on the back bumper. Though the toy is old, the brand still exists – there is a toyshop in Hamra with the same name. A doll with blonde straw for hair, and creepy soft-lashed eyes, appears stiff-limbed in a red dress and apron. A bedraggled bear with ears whose fur has rubbed away follows her. Such toys, which must sit, near-identical, in the attics of most families the world over, recall again the children who once played in the house – a memory reinforced by the ancient decals affixed to my bedroom window, of teddy bears catching butterflies in swinging nets.
I’m sitting on my bed, head resting against the same window, when my Facebook email pings. I had messaged the inbox associated with the GUV Facebook fanpage, and have just received a reply – from Arlette Koukerjinian, Guv’s daughter! In polite and effusive French, she tells me how thrilled she is to hear from someone interested in the work of her father, and is happy to answer my questions.
So begins our correspondence. Arlette explains that when the family translated their name from Arabic into French, the spelling shifted to Koukerjinian. She had moved to France to escape the Lebanese civil war, and her parents followed in 1982, remaining in Paris until Guv’s death in 1990. She also tells me that after Guv’s death his work was distributed among members of the family, and I finally access some images on the Facebook page. They are all simple photographs snapped shakily on a little camera, and presumably only of those pieces to which Arlette has access. The variety is striking: half are figurative, semi-surreal images in pen, of willowy lack-limbed female forms standing, inert, in ambiguous landscape. The other half are vibrant colour-fields, near-psychadelic in intensity, concerned with the physicality of paint.
One of the former drawings shows an elongated female nude, an armless Modigliani, half-obscured from us by the spindly, bare tendrils of a tree. Our gaze follows hers, turned towards the sun. Or is it the moon? The scene is built up by tiny pen-pricks, growing in density towards areas of dusky depth, spare and flickered in the light. The orb she gazes at appears bright and sun-like, but is formed from the negative space of the page. Like an optical illusion, the mind flicks the shape from sun to moon, day to night, while the ambiguous landscape gives nothing else away – writhing forms indicate the flora of hillside, but of ultimately unscaleable distance.
Such long female subjects appear to haunt Guv’s paintings too, which plunge these spindly forms into liquid seas of paint. In one, the rich expanse of deep purple background is broken by bubbling yellow semi-figures that rise up at the surface, a stark forest of stripped trees through which one might wade. The thick oil paint has blistered and cracked, forming welts on the canvas. Another, this time in gouache, wraps its spindly human forms in layers of thin slip, colour bleeding into the spaces between Guv’s pen. The figures, always multiple, though never connected, appear to loom from the watery surface.
I have almost no information about these images, uploaded naked to Facebook. I don’t know their titles or their dates, the context of their creation. Something about them tells me they are sketches, experiments, the in-betweens on the way to finished pieces. My desire to see some complete ones, shiny and framed, dissipates. I realise that these works resonate, somehow, with the stuff of the flat; the books and the toys, the souvenirs and old letters: the intimate, liminal stuff that sits between the things you discard and the things you take with you. These images, fuzzy and distorted, seem suddenly to reflect this whole endeavour. My attempts to know Guv can only ever be partial, in the same manner I meet these images – filtered through decades, passed through the Internet, flattened by pixels.