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My Mother, Me and the Armenian Genocide

My mother in front of Vahan Rumelian's "On October 29th at 12:35" (2006) (all photos by the author)

Like almost every April 24th I can remember, on Tuesday, the day people around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide, I sought solace in my thoughts and searched for a way to mark the occasion. And while every year I find a way to sit, reflect and ponder, this year I had the added pleasure of my mother’s company, as the day landed in the middle of her Brooklyn visit.

After careful consideration, weighing my options and trying to find something different to do, we made the decision to venture out to Gallery Bergen at Bergen Community College to see Fractured History, Reconstructing Identity: Degrees of Westernization in Armenian Painting and Other Mediums. It seemed like a suitable setting to mark a day that that has been part of my Armenian heritage as long as I can remember.

Strapped into a rental car we drove out to New Jersey until we found the one-room exhibition in a light-filled corner of the third floor of a new building at the school. It was an unusual place to encounter an exhibition such as this but the alien setting only piqued my curiosity.

Walking into the gallery was a little jarring at first as the institutional hallways led to a large room dominated by a central skylight. The walls were lined with art, mostly painting, and an occasional sculpture was placed at various points throughout the space.

Works by Arthur Sarkissian (both on left), Sarkis Hamalbashian (sculpture and painting on right) and Vasken Kalayjian (painting on far right).

My mother walked in a little dazed, like I always remember her doing so at art shows. She appears to enjoy jumping in, though she often denies it, trusting that what she will be seeing is something worth her time. It’s always a treat to see her wade through the layers of art until she gets her bearings and finally decides what she likes and doesn’t.

Detail of Arman Grigorian’s “Sasuntsi Davit, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” (1999)

Almost all the artists in the show were familiar to me. Their work was something I’d seen in other exhibitions, catalogues and occasionally in Armenian museums around the world. The majority of artists were born in Armenia but there were a number of Armenian Americans sprinkled about.

Every artist was given a small corner of the exhibition and the dialogue felt muted in favor of each standing on their own. It was difficult not to walk into a show like this and not see aspects of my identity refracted in the shards of imagery all around. If I were to suggest a title for the show, it would’ve been “Fractured Identity,” since I found the words “history” and “reconstructing” distracting from what really seemed to be at the heart of the best works on display.

Being Armenian, like most identities, is not one thing but an amalgam of many facets — anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves. That fracture is apparent in the way many of the artists combine disparate imagery in an attempt to make something whole. In “Sasuntsi Davit, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” (1999), Arman Grigorian slaps a mythic Armenian figure alongside a complicated American story of the once heroic Sitting Bull, who ended up surrendering to American forces and joining Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. We’re left to wonder if Grigorian is suggesting the Armenian myth has been made into, like the Wild West, some sort of nationalist spectacle. The painting is one of the most dynamic in the show and shies away from the decorative while feeling at once young and energetic.

The works of Sarkis Hamalbashian and Karine Matsakian share Grigorian’s affection for juxtaposition but while the former artist uses his strong line and use of pure color to unify each surface, the latter relies heavily on the lessons of Pop Art.

Assadour’s “Armenia’s Earthquake 7/12/88” (1990) is a symphony of earth tones that turn in sharp angles across the surface. Objects and letters are strewn about and the organization of the painting is disorienting. It is easy to lose yourself in the specks of red, orange and yellow, typical of the tufa rock of Armenia. It reminded me of early 20th C. abstraction — as if Albert Gleizes vacationed in the Caucasus.

Assadour's "Armenia's Earthquake 7/12/88" (1990)

The most thought-provoking works were by two Armenian Americans, Aram Jibilian and Onnig Kardash, who use photographs and words to tell their tales. Jibilian has been working on his Akh Gorky series for years. Taking cues from David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud in New York series, Jibilian — or one of his family members, like his twin brother — dons a mask from one of Arshile Gorky’s seminal self-portraits with his mother and does everyday things, like playing on a swing with a young girl. The mood is somber but the figures look out directly at the viewer seemingly aware of you. You image yourself taking the photo but the mask — and Gorky’s history — gives the scene a tragic tint and creates distance where you want to make a connection.

Onnig Kardash's "Unhate a Turk on This Day of April 24 and Beyond Sorrrow" (1969) and Aram Jibilian's "Child with Gorky (One)" and "Child with Gorky (Two)" (both 2010)

Onnig Kardash’s “Unhate a Turk on This Day of April 24 and Beyond Sorrow” (1969) was the strongest work on display — this was something my mother and I both agreed on. It was a pairing of his important “Unhate a Turk…” performance on April 24, 1969 in front of Manhattan’s Armenian Cathedral with an image of one of his wooden sculptures that represents a divided apple tree. The small piece feels like wall text swiped from a larger display. On the surface we read: “Hatred dulls your brain. Hatred is easy because it thrives on mental sloth. Hatred is dead weight.”

Detail of Arman Grigorian's "Armenican Dream" (1999)

It’s curious Kardash doesn’t include any of the back story for the performance documentation that he integrates into the work. It must feel odd to others, but it felt fitting to me, since personal history often lacks context for others. Who can’t relate to being handed photos from the past and trying to invent narratives to satisfy your curiosity or fill in the gaps. My mother remarked it felt right to stand in front of this work on April 24. It was a reminder that for decades Armenians and others have marked the day in different ways, in different places and for different reasons.

If there was anything that disturbed us in the works all around was the strain of American imagery that popped up again and again in the work of artists from Armenia. It was as if the American dream continued to be idealized to the citizens of that small republic. Arman Grigorian’s “Armenican Dream” (1999) shifts letters and adds an “n” to turn the American dream into something he could more easily relate to. Both my mother and I are Armenian Canadians, so the adulation of American fantasy was confusing. Karine Matsakian’s Pop-inspired “Torso” (1999) was equally peculiar for its stars and stripes — I’m assuming an allusion to Jasper Johns — alongside the bold graphics of Robert Indiana and the comic style of Roy Lichtenstein.

Karine Matsakian's "Torso" (1999) (front right) in front of works by Vartoush Magarian, Vahan Rumelian and others.

When our time at the exhibition was over, we walked back to our car and talked about the work, using it as a way to shift through out thoughts and feelings. One of the pieces that remained with me the most was Vartoush Magarian’s “March to the Desert” (2001), which was comprised of small clay figures of men, women and children in traditional costumes on death marches to nowhere. We don’t see their legs for the most part and they look skyward, perhaps in the hopes of being saved. My mother mentioned she immediately thought of the Terracotta Army of ancient China. I felt the same. We both imagined history being unearthed when we walked in front of that piece. The work captured the mood of the day. Every year, and no matter what I decide to do, April 24 feels like a vast archeological site that never fully reveals its secrets.

Memory makes us human in a way that can feel like a burden but should feel more liberating. This year was no different.

Detail of Vartoush Magarian's "March to the Desert" (2001)

Fractured History, Reconstructing Identity: Degrees of Westernization in Armenian Painting and Other Mediums at Gallery Bergen (Bergen Community College, West Hall, Third Floor, 400 Paramus Road, Paramus, New Jersey) continues until Thursday, April 26. New York Times best-selling author Peter Balakian will be delivering the closing talk today, April 26, 6–8pm (Room A-113, Pitkin Education Center, Bergen Community College).

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