Essays

Remembering Curator Neery Melkonian, Champion of Diasporic Politics and Aesthetics

Portrait of Neery Melkonian by G. Reggio (painting from Neery Melkonian archives, photo by G. Reggio)
Portrait of Neery Melkonian by G. Reggio (painting from Neery Melkonian archives, photo by G. Reggio)

In September of 2009, Neery Melkonian and I went on a ghost chase. I had proposed the idea on a visit to her cozy studio apartment on the Lower East Side. Over Armenian coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes, with her arms and ashes flailing, we talked about the artist Arshile Gorky and his ghost, which reportedly still haunts the house in Sherman, Connecticut, where he lived and died. We wondered how we might forge some sort of “collaboration” with his spirit. “There is something about that house,” I said. She nodded her head continuously like a devoted fan at a rock concert, and her hand conducted my brain and mouth, scooping at the air saying “continue, go on, you’re onto something, more, more …”

This was Neery’s way. Among other things, she was a renegade miner. She would circumvent more obvious paths of thought and action, and instead create her own authentic tunnel that would aim for the heart of issues, whereas others were just satisfied with the skin. She often chose to fight when staying silent would have been the easy way to move ahead. She was powerful, outspoken, chaotic at times, but equally thoughtful, genuine, and kind. To me, she was a mentor, a muse, an advocate, and a beloved friend. Her interest in contemporary art, artists, and writers was never to showcase talent or celebrate personalities, but to excavate, preserve, reveal, and connect. To this end, she had an archivist’s mind — consumed with our artistic inheritance and how best to steward the art and scholarship for the next generation of artists and activists.

Neery Melkonian delivering an illustrated lecture, "The Importance of Place vs Space Displacement, Art, and the (Re) Imagining of the Armenian Diaspora" at the CUNY Grad Center in January 2016. (photo by Patrick Kajirian)
Neery Melkonian delivering an illustrated lecture, “The Importance of Place vs Space Displacement, Art, and the (Re) Imagining of the Armenian Diaspora” at the CUNY Grad Center in January 2016. (photo by Patrick Kajirian)

I met Neery 13 years ago at my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn. A friend of theirs had brought her along to meet all of us. People sometimes say the art world is small, but the group of Armenians in the arts is even smaller. Two of my works hung in the hallway, and Neery enthusiastically posed questions about them, which I attempted to answer just as enthusiastically. Neery wanted to hear your ideas, but more importantly, she wanted you to hear your own ideas — urging you to break away from the rehearsed drudgery of explanation that often accompanies questions like, “What is your work about?” She would nudge you through a mental peregrination, as she remained supportively behind you, in front of you, beside you — joyfully jumping along.

At the time I met her, I had recently returned from a trip to Armenia and its neighboring region, Nagorno-Karabakh, where Neery had established a nonprofit organization, NK Arts, in 1999. Neery was a longtime leader in making and curating art about global diasporas, particularly those with ties to the Middle East and the Ottoman world. She was born and raised in the Middle East and studied in the US against a backdrop of radical feminism, African American, Native American, and Chicano studies, and was tapped into the social movements to end apartheid and US imperialism. She completed five years of graduate study at UCLA with a deep understanding of diasporic politics and aesthetic, adopting a lens that viewed diasporas as intersectional and coalitional rather than in nationalist terms. Her mission was to break down walls with brutal honesty and intelligent inquiry. This work did not make her popular nor did it yield the rewards often bestowed on those who maintained the status quo. Her interest in certain Palestinian artists in the 1990s led many to abandon her, limiting her opportunities. After completing her studies, Neery continued her practice at the Center for Contemporary Art in New Mexico, where she published scholarship and curated in alternative venues. She then moved on to the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, establishing programming for diasporan art with a focus on the Middle East.

Neery Melkonian portrait by Aram Jibilian (2007) (courtesy the author)
Neery Melkonian portrait by Aram Jibilian (2007) (courtesy the author)

Our first collaboration was in 2007, when Neery requested that I create an image to illustrate an article in which she explored potential reasons why the work of Armenian artists had not achieved the type of recognition received by the American-Armenian artist Gorky. She hypothesized that perhaps it was because Gorky had masked his subjective experience of being a genocide survivor and refugee in exchange for being able to explore progressive aesthetic vocabularies. It made me think about Gorky’s iconic painting, “The Artist and His Mother,” and how he used abstract techniques to communicate an almost hyperrealist sense of loss and grief over the trauma of genocide and the subsequent death of his mother. I recreated the photo upon which the painting is based, with Neery as the mother in a series of maternal poses — the Pietà, the goddess, the martyr. We prepared for the shoot with Prosecco and cigarettes, listening to the Egyptian icon Om Kalsoum’s searing, endless ballad, “Enta Omri.” Neery gasped as she listened to the music, spinning around with her arms spread wide, snapping her fingers with eyes closed and head tilted back.

We began to shoot the postures I had in mind, but her poses slowly morphed into a decidedly more stalwart figure. Her performance crystallized into a mother who was no longer a silent, seated, forgotten victim, but one who stands and demands answers. Neery’s image became the embodiment of the observing ego with eyes that see through the bullshit — as she would emphatically call it. With this one posture, Neery made visual her lifelong impulse of destroying patriarchal views of femininity and masculinity, of suffering and victory.

Contact sheet from first Gorky shoot with Neery Melkonian (2007) (courtesy the author)
Contact sheet from first Gorky shoot with Neery Melkonian (2007) (courtesy the author) (click to enlarge)

Once we decided which image to submit for the article, Neery suggested the title based on a famous Armenian proverb that translates as: “Go die, come back, I’ll love you.” During her illness, just weeks before her death last weekend, I was with Neery when she experienced a very sharp spell of pain in her abdomen. Unafraid to call out the irony of the situation, she quipped, “I should never have posed for that fucking photo. The mother always dies.” She let out a sharp laugh as the joke hung in the air.

Aram Jibilian, "Go die, come back, I'll love you" (2007) (courtesy the author)
Aram Jibilian, “Go die, come back, I’ll love you” (2007) (courtesy the author) (click to enlarge)

It frustrated Neery that the bulk of Gorky’s popularity among Armenians was based on a nationalist impulse to celebrate artists accepted by the mainstream. Neery was a fierce advocate for the work of artists who defied dominant systems, like Queering Yerevan, a collective based in Yerevan, Armenia, founded by feminist, queer, progressive artists. Neery identified with their mission to use gender, sexuality, and language to subvert the way art is curated and presented within mainstream Armenian discourse, which is often based on nationalist politics, boundaries, and imperialism. Another ongoing frustration was what she saw as the Armenian diaspora’s myopic view of its experience, and a nationalist obsession with genocide recognition. Though she was a descendant of genocide survivors, she believed this stifled the progress and growth of Armenians in their individual, collective, and cultural consciousness. Perhaps to fight against this trend, Neery was driven to alter the landscape of Armenian art and thought. She organized a symposium at Columbia University entitled Beyond Living Room Walls that aimed to begin a discourse that might decipher long-held myths and stereotypes about the Armenian diaspora. The project embodied one of Neery’s gifts: bringing people together with deep intentionality.

Neery Melkonian with Defne Ayas and Blind Dates Project artists at Pratt Manhattan Gallery in November 2010 (courtesy Blind Dates Project)
Neery Melkonian with Defne Ayas and Blind Dates Project artists at Pratt Manhattan Gallery in November 2010 (courtesy Blind Dates Project) (click to enlarge)

Our visit to Gorky’s house and talks of communing with his ghost were part of Neery’s provocative curatorial endeavor, Blind Dates Project. Neery and fellow curator Defne Ayas played “matchmaker” between artists who were descendants of the “distanced or perceived others of the post Ottoman geography,” as they put it on the project’s website. The goal was to bring together unlikely pairs of artists (for example, an Armenian artist and a Turkish artist) to explore and excavate lingering effects caused by the historical rupture on contemporary life. It was of course unusual (and somewhat controversial) to pair these artists. My participation in the project began once I pitched the idea of finding Gorky’s house to Neery; it is an understatement to say she was completely onboard. On a hot day in September 2009, Neery and I, along with Defne, and my partner at the time, Aaron Mattocks, went to find the house and see if we might be granted entrance by its owner, well known New York City-based choreographer Martha Clarke. In fantastically synchronistic fashion, Martha was driving up to the house just as we discovered it. She was gracious and warm and, after hearing Neery’s poetic explanation of the reason for our “pilgrimage,” granted us entry.

"Visiting Gorky’s Glass House, Sherman, Connecticut” (2009) (photo courtesy the author)
“Visiting Gorky’s Glass House, Sherman, Connecticut” (2009) (photo courtesy the author)

During the visit, Martha brought out an obsidian arrowhead that she had found on the property, which most likely once belonged to a native person of Algonquin lineage who, like Gorky, would have eventually been driven from their homeland. We took turns holding the ossified black stone in our hands. When the arrowhead finally came to Neery, she closed her eyes and hung tightly onto the stone — this arrowhead on Gorky’s property that predated him, passed through his time, and now passed through her. She breathed in deeply, saying later that she had felt the energy inside this beautiful object. To her, this was not just a fossil or relic, but a living thing. Neery fought against notions of ossification — she did not want things to just settle and be satisfied; preserving the old was not about petrification but growth, a point from which the next generation could find inspiration and momentum.

The spate of international exhibitions in 2015 marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and prominently featuring Armenian artists incited questions from Neery as to what would come next. Though Neery acknowledged that these shows “marked a paradigm shift in the way contemporary Armenian diaspora artistic practices are contextualized and exhibited globally,” she wondered whether the shows were an extended memorial honoring the centennial of the genocide, or represented a true sea change?* Her extraordinary contribution to the catalogue for Armenity, the National Pavilion for the Republic of Armenia at the Venice Biennale (which won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation), was titled “Undoing Denial: Mapping a Curatorial Terrain.” As one of the artists whose work was presented in the exhibition, I was moved by Neery’s poignant articulation of the thread that connected all the artists’ works. She was often able to remain critical while still infusing a certain sensuality into her writing. Referring to the artists’ works, she wrote:

The hybridity of their inspirational sources motivate these artists to investigate a multiplex of particularities and to translate them into singular aesthetic languages. But these are not narratives of proof and externality; rather they are intimate expressions of the silences that give us pause from the weight of the unspeakable. They are like a collection of love poems that no longer long to belong — they belong.

Neery Melkonian and the author at the 2015 opening of 'Armenity' on San Lazzaro, with selected works from the 'Gorky and the Glass House' series (photo courtesy the author)
Neery Melkonian and the author at the 2015 opening of ‘Armenity’ on San Lazzaro, with selected works from the ‘Gorky and the Glass House’ series (photo courtesy the author)

My final outing with Neery was a visit to the Met Breuer to see the exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible on Mother’s Day. My boyfriend, Giorgio, and I greeted her taxi as it pulled up to the Madison Avenue awning. Neery emerged from the car with her signature red lipstick and hair pulled back to reveal her consistently striking eyes. Neery sat in a wheelchair as we rolled with her through the museum, gazing at paintings that were sublime in their unfinished state. Near the end of the exhibition, we reached the corner pile of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s multicolored candies dedicated to his lover, who died of AIDS. Neery smiled at the work and then asked Giorgio to grab a few pieces for us. Neery unwrapped one, popped it in her mouth, and then threw the rest back in the pile as she announced: “You don’t want to eat these — they always taste awful!” Neery could love and appreciate a thing, while unabashedly subverting its sanctity by not turning a blind eye to its flaws. This balance of incisive probing and intense empathy made it a ravishing experience to work with her and to simply be with her.

Announcement for Neery Melkonian's 'Accented Feminism' project
Announcement for Neery Melkonian’s ‘Accented Feminism’ project (click to enlarge)

Neery’s life, in many ways, was unfinished. She had begun an ambitious project entitled Accented Feminism: Armenian Women Artists from Representation to Self-Representation, which she insisted would not be a survey exhibition (or “talent show”, as she would call it), but instead a critical, research-based exploration to locate “the contribution of Armenian women artists across time and geography, while mapping their dis/similar histories,” as she wrote in her proposal. She had also begun to plant the seeds of a long-term project that would have established a center that, among other goals, would focus on archiving works by Armenian artists for future generations to mine. She taught me that good work was a living, breathing thing that connected the artist or writer to a progressive stream of thought that was larger than the work. Good art remains in a sort of unfinished, un-ossified state, and alive enough to become a starting point to collectively break down old boundaries and barriers and explore the new.

The space that Neery left in the lives of those of us who loved her, those whom she inspired and supported, will never be filled. Many of us are compelled to continue the work she began, perhaps to pick up where she left off. So, how do you collaborate with a ghost? What I learned from Neery is that you listen, you stay open, you grasp, you touch, you remember, you connect, you bear witness, you inhabit, you let go, and you give to another. You courageously follow the impulse to dig tunnels. You explore. You discover. And then you explore some more.

Neery Melkonian in an outtake from the first Gorky shoot (2007) (courtesy the author)
Neery Melkonian in an outtake from the first Gorky shoot (2007) (courtesy the author)
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