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The story of survival has unfortunately become a popular leitmotif of modern biographies and communities. The violence of social upheavals during the modern era has generated an endless stream of refugees and migrants, the result of the whims and machinations of empires and nation states. A new series by Artyom Tonoyan asks the descendants of the Armenian Genocide to reveal their precious keepsakes that were saved from the fires of calamity. The photos that he captured offer an emotional face to an event that precipitated the first international humanitarian effort.
In the series, Treasures of Memory and Hope, the Minneapolis-based academic and photographer convinced 18 Minnesota- and North Dakota-area Armenian Americans — many of whom are the second or third generation descendants of families who escaped the Genocide — to share those family keepsakes. The resulting images are intimate records of lives that continue to hold onto items from a place that rejects them to this day.
Tonoyan sees the project as particularly important since Minnesota is one of many place that Armenian Genocide survivors settled but is also part of a growing list of places that no longer are homes to a living survivor, almost all of whom are gone. Just this week, Asdghig “Starrie” Alemian passed away at the age of 109 in Massachusetts.
“Our community, as you know, no longer has survivors among us,” Tonoyan said.
What we have are descendants of survivors and items and photographs from the era. And these items serve as a sort of memory anchors and bridges connecting descendants with their survivor ancestors who saw these items as valuable enough to keep with them through the years and in many cases through death marches.
There is growing concern in the global Armenian community that genocide recognition by the perpetrators, namely the Turkish state, which continues to deny the facts, will not occur before the last survivor dies in the coming years.
Tonoyan’s photo project raises questions about what is saved and what it is about these objects that their owners felt compelled to protect. While some of the items come as no surprise (photographs, papers, etc.), some items, like a comb, are more curious. I asked Tonoyan his thoughts on the keepsakes.
“The most surprising item was the family Bible of John Desteian. It was literally a surprise,” he said.
We just had spent about one to one and a half hours in his house photographing and interviewing him for the project. He had shown some items, photos and a very distinct walking cane that I believe his grandfather had used and had brought with him from Constantinople and I had photographed those. And then as we are about to leave his wife says “John, did you show them the Bible?” He was just as surprised as us asking what Bible? The Bible turned out to be this 1890s almost pristine Armenian-language Bible printed in Constantinople, bookmarked at the Book of Job, which is one of my favorite pieces of literature and probably very apt and relevant to the exhibit project. So I had him pose with the Bible for a couple of shots then he rested it on his sofa and put his hand on it to carry on the conversation. And I snapped him with his hand on without any direction. And that photo is actually one of my favorites in the entire collection because it was so unrehearsed and “unintentional” so to speak.
The exhibition, which has been designed for churches and other less conventional art spaces, was premiered at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to the Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, and will open at the Roman Catholic Basilica of Saint Mary, also in the Twin Cities, with additional venues planned for 2020.
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