LOS ANGELES — Over the course of 21 days, groups of volunteers in Glendale’s Armenian-American community gathered day and night to stamp names onto lengths of crisp, white ribbon. Hand-stamping each name letter by letter, they repeated the process over and over until nearly 4,000 ribbons were inscribed. These ribbons now hang in neat rows from the ceiling of a former bank in Glendale, forming the centerpiece of “Shelter,” a multimedia installation commemorating the 44-day Artsakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia, also known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The conflict began on September 27, 2020 when Azerbaijan launched an offensive on Armenian territory. The thousands of ribbons represent the Armenian soldiers who were killed during the war.
“Shelter,” on view at 250 North Orange Street through January 29, was created by the She Loves Collective, a group of woman artists who work at the intersection of activism, art, and community. (About three-quarters of its members have Armenian roots.) Last Spring, their public installation “My Relic” reflected different aspects of Armenian life, tradition, and family, especially as experienced by those living in the diaspora. “Shelter” focuses more directly on the war itself, moving from trauma and mourning to healing and rebirth.
After receiving a recent grant from the Glendale Arts and Culture Commission through funding from the Urban Art Fund with support from Glendale Library‘s Arts and Culture Department, the members of the collective set to work planning the installation. They sent a letter signed by Glendale Mayor Ardy Kassakhian to the Armenian Ministry of Defense requesting the full list of soldiers killed during the war. (Glendale is home to the world’s largest Armenian diaspora community.)
“We quickly realized that it was a much larger task and we started building little communities of stampers,” collective member Adrineh Baghdassarian told Hyperallergic during a recent tour of the installation. They would gather at the homes of community members, including Melineh Ebrahimian, the volunteer coordinator, who fed volunteers bowls of Armenian harissa, a hearty barley and chicken soup, while they worked.
Once all the names had been stamped, the artists began weaving the ribbons into a military-grade mesh from which they hang. Flowing around the perimeter of the room, the installation conveys the enormity of loss while memorializing each individual fallen soldier. On a separate wall, a series of back ribbons represent those missing in action, while 66 red ribbons stand in for prisoners of war who are still being held by Azerbaijan.
Alongside the visual component, a recording of all 3,906 first names plays on a two-and-a-half-hour loop, read by collective artist Aleen Khachatourian with hypnotic rhythm.
Three additional installations set in small rooms off the main space offer accompanying perspectives on the war and its aftermath. “Bunker” is a stark, black-and-white projection adapted from drone footage of Armenian landscapes by Khachatourian and Liam Hise. Recognizable forms pop out from the high-contrast processed video — monasteries, a statue, animals grazing on a hillside — all devoid of human life.
Next door, color and people return in “Revive,” a slideshow of over 100 photographs taken by She Loves artists Mari Mansourian, Rouzanna Berberian, and Nairi Bandari on their trips to Armenia earlier this year. In contrast to the bleak portrayals of a war-torn region typically shown in the media, these images paint a composite portrait of everyday life that continues despite the disruptions of war. According to Baghdassarian, more photos will be added to the slideshow throughout the exhibition, sourced from community members.
The final room is dedicated to the collective work “Ritual,” in which concentric rings of salt, marble, wheat, lava rock, and mulch are laid out on the floor, conjuring the healing properties of natural elements. Echoing the number of ribbons in the principal installation, 3,906 drops of pomegranate juice, measured out with an eye dropper, fill cups placed in a circle. “I always say no pomegranates,” says Baghdassarian half-jokingly, referring to the symbolic Armenian fruit. “But we made an exception.”
Beginning in January, the space will host 44 “activations,” ranging from poetry readings, to discussions, workshops, and performances, offering collective ways to mourn loss and process grief.
Participating She Loves Collective artists for “Shelter” are Rouzanna Berberian, Nairi Bandari, Mari Mansourian, Liam Hise, Ani Nina Oganyan (producer), Aleen Makarid Khachatourian, Adrineh Baghdassarian (curator), with Melineh Ebrahimian (volunteer coordinator) and Armen Babaian (lighting and technical director).