An Armenian craftsman reviving a long-forgotten Ottoman art

Hrach Arslanyan is an artist and instructor of Armenian descent who is engaged in reviving “murassa,” a traditional Ottoman art that was forgotten for almost five centuries, Today’s Zaman reports. 

Murassa is an art which involves the decoration of metal objects with precious stones. Arslanyan focuses on the work which goldsmiths used to produce for palaces in the Ottoman era, and is attracting an increasing level of interest in his projects. Hraç Arslanyan relates that he was mischievous as a child, but was sent by his parents as an apprentice to master craftsman Hagop Usta in the Grand Bazaar in İstanbul, and ended up teaching murassa himself. He once began studying economics at university, but his love for murassa for such that he dropped out after only six months to pursue his passion.

In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Arslanyan reminisces about his mentor, Hagop Arslanyan, and ponders the nature of the relationship between mentor and student. “The master and mentor relationship is pretty important. If your master is good… you will become like him. You are influenced by your mentor more than you are by your father. Don’t get me wrong; I have endless respect for my father. But with your mentor, you start a lifelong learning process. It is not just about art lessons. You try to understand a life cycle, you learn how to win and how to lose. If your mentor is a man of integrity, you will become just like him. Similarly, you can see the impact of mentors who have good skills but a bad personality. My mentor was well-trained, even though he had only completed elementary school. He was an intellectual who taught me how to read a book deeply. I realized that I was an illiterate, so I read a lot to address my state of illiteracy.”

Realizing by the age of 18 that his master did not teach him everything, Arslanyan asked his master why this was, and was greatly influenced by the response. “Look, my son,” his mentor replied, “I taught you the basics and the main principles of this art. If I teach you more, you will become Hagop Arslanyan, not Hraç Arslanyan. I am teaching you the basics. The rest is yours to cope with.” It dawned on Arslanyan that no one but himself could define his career and artistic path.

Arslanyan remembers that he also took part in the construction of a school, during his time as head of the jewelry training commission at the İstanbul Chamber of Jewelry. Noting that this school was more organized and beautiful than its counterparts in Italy, the UK, France and Germany, Arslanyan said that he expended considerable effort to combine the culture of the Grand Bazaar and the technology and discipline needed in his profession. The craftsman is also known for having created a unique synthesis in murassa by focusing on tiles from Iznik in western Anatolia. “Please do not take this as if I am belittling the other styles of murassa,” Arslanyan says; “I simply tried to promote the precious tiles of Anatolia. In a way, I tried to both complete and enrich the style.”

The art of murassa, Arslanyan bemoans, has been neglected for centuries. “Economic concerns and technological considerations play a role in every profession. Many arts now prioritize industrial outcome and output. The logic of getting more from less investment has become widespread. This is also the case with our art. Economic conditions force people to devote their time to less expensive ornaments and works. Murassa, however, requires a big investment of time. And the masters of this art become disappointed when they realize that the imitated versions of their works attract greater attention, despite all the effort they have put into their works. As a result, the arts which require time and hard labor tend to disappear.”

Asked whether he is in contact with other artists involved in making murassa art, he says: “Not very much. I am a little bit sensitive on this matter. This is a peculiarity of craftsmen like me. We cannot see much around because we have one soul. We have an ideal. If we pay attention to what is happening around a lot, we lose that spirit. And we will also lose our artistic roadmap. For this reason, I do not know any other artists focusing on murassa.”

The works made by the murassa goldsmiths during the Ottoman era differ to those Arslanyan makes today, he says, because his works reflects his own artistic style. He stresses that it is not good to make comparisons between historical works and contemporary artists’ output, adding that he does his job for the sake of both the art and the public: “I am trying to go beyond my capabilities and talents in order to excel in my profession; but I am also trying, for the sake of the general public, to make sure that this art survives and will be preserved forever.”

The experienced craftsman narrates the story of his works by reference to the relationship between East and West: “We, the Armenian people, are dispersed in different countries. For this reason, I traveled to Europe in 1985. What I saw and observed during my stay in Europe made me realize certain things. My horizon was broadened by what I observed there. But beyond this, İstanbul has been a combination and harmonization of the East and the West for centuries. Take a look at the architecture or lifestyle; it is partly Western and partly Eastern. Therefore, I attempted to extract these things.”

Arslanyan says that he does not take part in fairs and exhibitions because he is too idealistic. He explains: “Don’t get me wrong — I don’t want to be misunderstood here — but similarly to how there is intellectual deadlock in every profession, unfortunately, there is some sort of contamination in murassa due to the growing number of people who did not receive proper training. These people degrade Murassa art. In other words, economic concerns outweigh other artistic considerations. Those who know me already know me; but unfortunately, I am more popular abroad. My art is better known abroad and attracts greater attention there. It was Japan who first discovered me. I find found that very interesting.”

Mahrec Art House was launched by Arslanyan to offer training to those who wish to improve in murassa. “Now let me first make this assessment. We offer basic training in our school. In general, the training is focused on ornaments. The average age of the participants is around 30. However, it is impossible for a person to become a proper murassa artist without spending much more time in workshops. I am not saying that I am a grand master of Murassa art. I do not want to give such an impression. But that is the nature of this job and art.”

Some of his students have the potential to become masters because they have spent a considerable amount of time in training, Arslanyan says, recalling that he has students who can preserve the art after him. Arslanyan also says: “Students who set their hearts on murassa will someday develop a distinctive style and could create excellent works, because they will have a unique perspective and angle. Economic concerns have become central. For this reason, the number of high quality works is pretty small. As long as a society achieves level of prosperity in terms of economic progress as well as cultural advance, we craftsmen and artists rely on this. On what terms? They are fed by appreciation and they are fed by economic support. I am not pessimistic about the future of the murassa art. And by nature, I am not pessimistic at all because I am one of those who argue that good things will happen if you wish for the good all the time. I hope that the murassa art will become more popular in the future.”

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