“I grew up in a house with a garden in Claypole, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. We lived in my paternal grandparents’ house. My grandmother was a survivor of Sebastia/Sivas and my grandfather came from Marash, although he had already died by the time I was born.”
These words from the Berlin-based Armenian artist Silvina Der-Meguerditchian transport us to her childhood, spent shadowed by the tragedy that befell her grandparents back in the Ottoman homeland during the First World War. With her family located outside of Buenos Aires, she lived a very sheltered life, her best friends being “plants and insects,” and she longed to be part of an Armenian community. By the time she had reached her formative years, her dream came true: the weight of the Armenian genocide at home was now to be balanced out by immersing herself in the beauty of a diaspora culture, learning traditional Armenian dances, making ethnic foods, and attending church.
Though she finally felt a sense of belonging, Der-Meguerditchian left Argentina for Berlin to begin again. Within a few years of her arrival, the city itself would encounter a new beginning when the Berlin Wall fell. With its collapse, untold stories of the past would be revealed, even as others would remain hidden. In this dynamic environment, she found her place as a young artist who was able to locate her Armenian identity but refused to be placed in a neat-fitting box.
The next border she would cross was not geographical but psychological: establishing bonds within the city’s Turkish community that would later lead to collaborations with Turkish artists. According to Der-Meguerditchian, “There [in Berlin] began a new journey to understand the complexity of the Armenian-Turkish relationship and how this entanglement was part of my own being. I challenged my fears and prejudices and tried to recreate this broken link through art.” This emotional leap eventually brought her to Istanbul, where we first met more than a decade ago.
Istanbul in the early 2000s was an exciting place to be. Following the economic crisis of 2001 and the 2002 elections that ushered in the rise of then-prime minister, now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the conservative Muslim AKP party, the country saw an expansion of civil liberties. During these years, a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question seemed to be within reach and Istanbul’s LGBTQ+ community was able to march in an annual June Pride parade. The city became a magnet for international artists and academics; Istanbul was the up-and-coming hotspot, not just in terms of tourism, but also culture.
As the new government challenged secular taboos of the past, others began to challenge narratives of Turkey’s history. The Armenian genocide was being debated for the first time in the public sphere, though it remained controversial. In 2007, Hrant Dink, the editor of the Turkish Armenian newspaper Agos, spoke too loudly and was assassinated. His was another in a long list of unsolved assassinations going back to the 1970s. It was at the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop that I first met Der-Meguerditchian, whose smile and stature captured the attention of even the most disinterested guest. Since then, her work has provided me the opportunity to better understand Turkey’s Armenian and non-Muslim past and present.
A good way to enter into Der-Meguerditchian’s work on memory, migration, and the Armenian past is by reading her monograph, Fruitful Threads, released in 2021. In the first section, titled “Quilts,” she weaves historical photographs and official documents into wall-sized quilts that illustrate the diversity of life for Ottoman Armenians. Photographs of women working in fields, children studying in schools, and men in workshops, as well as postcards of Armenian buildings, reveal glimpses of a once thriving and diverse community
In her 2015 installation “Treasures,” recurring themes of her work appear in unison: history, language, threads, nature, and objects. The artwork is based on a family heirloom, “a handwritten notebook of 350 folk health remedies, written in Armenian script in the Turkish language” that belonged to her maternal great-grandmother, Hripsime. For her installation, Der-Meguerditchian turned it into an artist book, written in a mix of Armenian, Turkish, and Spanish, and featuring photos that delineate the herbal medicines as well as crocheted flowers.
The beauty and depth of this work offer a key into a world from the past that we may long for in our present. According to Der-Meguerditchian, “healing through the archive, recreating broken ties and new, unexpected bonds, are the main topic of this installation; like a spiderweb, the installation touches many themes from the past and the present, with the gaze on the future.”
Though her work focuses on Armenians, it showcases ways that other ethnically cleansed groups in the region — Muslims from Greece, Greeks from Anatolia, Jews from Iraq, and Palestinians from what would become Israel — can rewrite their past into the current realities of these countries. We see in the many threads that run through her work the multi-ethnic realities that were destroyed with the killing and forced removals of the various ethnic groups. Der-Meguerditchian notes that solidarity among those who have been ruthlessly uprooted may create mutual emotions that “can help us to understand each other’s pain.” However, she stresses, this in no way clears the state of responsibility because the “perpetrator has to acknowledge the crime and the pain he or she caused the victim, ask for forgiveness, and bear the consequences. You can’t lump everything together; that would be relativizing and it would be very unfair.”
Short films and exhibitions have made Der-Meguerditchian’s art well known within Turkey’s art circles. However, she and other artists are facing headwinds. Efforts in Turkey to promote cooperation with Armenia and to recognize Turkey’s Armenian history are no longer as prominent as they were in the first decade of the 2000s. Civil organizations are under attack, resulting in convictions and even life imprisonment of some activists, including philanthropist Osman Kavala, a major supporter of Turkish-Armenian dialogue. In a video that appears on a webpage of artists calling for Kavala’s release before he was sentenced, Der-Meguerditchian thanks the philanthropist for “creating a space where [she] was able to have a voice in Turkey” and names five of her projects that he supported.
Kavala’s arrest, and Turkey’s continued opposition to recognizing the genocide, make the work of artists like Der-Meguerditchian even more difficult to exhibit there. Nonetheless, she has charted a new path, reaching places many could never have imagined for a young Armenian girl from Argentina. With clampdowns on freedoms in Turkey becoming the norm, her work is once again mostly being exhibited in Europe.
Earlier this year, she participated in an exhibition in her home city of Berlin, entitled Twister, which “explores both political whirlwinds and the absurdity of nationalistic claims to geography and nature.” To her, the tornado is “applied figuratively here to [represent the] recent upswing in nationalistic aggression and authoritarian tendencies on and beyond Europe’s eastern margins.” This has led to a new group of artists, including Turkish ones, making Berlin their home in exile. For her installation “Silence of Stones,” “long strands of red wool emerging from rocks and spilling across the floor of the exhibition space recall the never-ending bloodshed resulting from conflicts based on ethnic and religious hostilities and the destruction of cultural heritage.”
Currently her work “Wüste” (Desert) is on view at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in Germany, as part of the Semantic field series. Here she joins other artists in an exhibition entitled Nature and State (through October 16), which grapples with the role of the state in global ecological crises. With this work, Der-Meguerditchian shows that her art is continuing to break barriers as she takes on new challenges. It also stands as a testament to how art exhibited in the present provides an important key to the forgotten and erased histories of the past.
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