The Power Plant

Politics, History, Strategy: Playing Chess with Anna Boghiguian

NOV 22 2023
by Samantha Lance

“Anna Boghiguian does not have an archive. Her archive is the whole world.”

Anna Boghiguian, The Chess Game, 2022-23.Courtesy the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Anna Boghiguian, The Chess Game, 2022-23.Courtesy the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Through artmaking, Anna Boghiguian—an Egyptian artist with Armenian roots—surfaces both traumatic and triumphant histories to bear on the present. Born in 1946 in Heliopolis, an area built in the middle of the desert just outside of Cairo at the beginning of the twentieth century, the country’s shifting social, political, and economic climates would deeply impact her life and work. During her childhood, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 (involving the exile of King Farouk I and the appointment of President Gamal Abdel Nasser) transformed Egypt from a monarchy to a republic, fundamentally reshaping the nation.

During this period of intense upheaval, Boghiguian first began drawing, learning from the painter and sculptor Onnig Avedissian while attending the Armenian Nubarian School. She went on to study at the American College for Girls and, from 1964–1969, pursued further education in political science at the American University in Cairo. There, Boghiguian immersed herself in the writings of ancient philosophers and utopian theorists, which continue to drive her practice. At the age of 20, she began travelling the world and recording her reflections in various notebooks through drawing, painting, and writing. Taking on a nomadic lifestyle, the artist notes that it was crucial “to go somewhere and to figure out how it relates globally to the other places, and how everything interacts together.” Like a detective, Boghiguian continues to revisit the past in order to investigate how one’s actions can create a global impact—whether it be for better or for worse. “I am trying to understand,” she explains, “the place I am in.”

Portrait of Anna Boghiguian. Courtesy The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Photo by Daria Sposobna

Portrait of Anna Boghiguian. Courtesy The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Photo by Daria Sposobna

Boghiguian’s sculptural installation, The Chess Game, 2022–23, exemplifies her interest in the historical and political. For the monumental work, she painted a collection of historical figures on paper and placed them in a confrontation on a massive black-and-white reflective chessboard to explore how their stories were interconnected.

She highlighted many changemakers, Noble Peace Prize winners, and revolutionists such as Josephine Baker, Bertha Van Suttner, and Leo Tolstoy. Though it was important for the artist to pay tribute to the lives and contributions of individuals who have been underrepresented by the history books, she also created tension by including problematic and dangerous figures on the gameboard—those who left unforgettable scars in the twentieth century. In one dynamic face-off, Boghiguian depicted the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip with his gun aimed towards Franz Ferdinand, the man who would have become the next Emperor of Austria-Hungary. As the assassination instigated the global conflict of the First World War, Boghiguian froze the moment for viewers to consider alternative scenarios. What if history had played out differently?

Anna Boghiguian, The Chess Game, 2022-23. Courtesy the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Anna Boghiguian, The Chess Game, 2022-23. Courtesy the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

As one’s actions can have disastrous consequences, the artist also included Aribert Heim, a Nazi medical doctor who committed countless atrocities against Jewish prisoners within concentration camps in Germany and Austria. Following the war and the subsequent trial in 1962, he escaped capture and was able to live out his days under a new identity. In 2002, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization, launched Operation Last Chance to track down the last remaining Nazi war criminals who had connivingly evaded capture. By February 2009, after checking more than 240 leads, they discovered that Heim may have lived in Egypt until his death in 1992 at age 78. Boghiguian found the fact that the country of her birth was also the ground harbouring a war criminal to be shocking.

By bringing these difficult truths to the forefront, arranged in relation to a larger chain of events exemplified by the various actors, Boghiguian invites us to reflect on alternative or speculative histories: What would the lives of European Jews have been like if the Nazi Party had never come to power? How was the ascension of the Third Reich connected to the events and fallout of the First World War? What if neither had happened? What, then, would our global game of chess look like?

Anna Boghiguian, Time of Change, 2022. Series of 96 drawings. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy 	 the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Henry Chan.

Anna Boghiguian, Time of Change, 2022. Series of 96 drawings. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy the artist. Installation view: Time of Change, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Henry Chan.

Furthermore, Boghiguian mapped additional chain reactions of violence across a series of 96 mixed-media drawings in Time of Change, 2022. Here, a chronological narrative comprised of bold colours and gestural strokes unfolds, tracing the histories of the French, Russian, and Haitian revolutions as well as other significant events. Among her handwritten inscriptions, the words EQUALITY and LIBERTY stand out, overlapping with scenes of people coming together in great numbers. As Boghiguian indicates that “revolutions are made by the intellects and intellectuals,” the chaos erupting within these drawings suggests that freedom and independence always come at a cost.

Anna Boghiguian, Time of Change, 2023. Installation view: The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Anna Boghiguian, Time of Change, 2023. Installation view: The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

As we collectively witness a world torn by continuous acts of violence, war, and instability, the messages embedded within Boghiguian’s work profoundly resound. Instead of revelling in our powerlessness within this endless cycle, she offers us glimpses of hope. By revealing individuals who uplifted in the midst of devastation, while simultaneously unearthing many tragedies and injustices, Boghiguian reminds us that humanity still carries potential for good—it’s all a matter of one’s position in a greater game of chess. In doing so, her work brings to light the complex political webs that have informed the present as a means to—if only momentarily—provide a salve. “I think that the purpose of art is to heal,” she says. "It is the healing process of life. If taken with a positive attitude, culture and art are phenomena that heal the world. And without culture and art, the world can become quite sick.”

Bibliography

Anna Boghiguian. Edited by Marianna Vecellio and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2017.

Kunsthaus Bregenz. “Exhibition film: KUB 2022.04 Anna Boghiguian.” YouTube. November 9, 2022.

Mekennet, Souad and Nicholas Kulish. “Uncovering Lost Path of the Most Wanted Nazi.” The New York Times. February 4, 2009

“Nazi War Criminal Aribert Heim Declared Dead.” Spiegel International. September 21, 2012

Tate. “Anna Boghiguian – Understanding Places | Tate.” YouTube. February 27, 2019