DEARBORN, Michigan — Reparations of the Heart, Chicago-based artist Kristin Anahit Cass’s exhibition at the Stamelos Gallery Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, features more than 100 photographs that prompt the question: Where would diaspora Armenians and other Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) communities be if the Armenian Genocide had never happened? Cass’s images, which position people in both traditional and futuristic environments, build an imagined world of inclusivity through self-determined and alternative narratives. These narratives re-present ancient indigenous lands and their people — whose ancestors endured the trauma of genocide and displacement — as healed bodies and spaces.
Cass’s work depicts the story of Armenian families who, in the late 19th and early 20th century, were systematically massacred and deported from their ancient lands of Armenian Cilicia, and forced to migrate and settle across a number of Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) lands and communities. A descendant of genocide survivors, the artist’s work collectively acknowledges the generational trauma living in the bodies of the descendant generations, but also sees this generation as the conduit through which the reparations of both heart and body can become actualized.
For example, in one photograph, two women sit across from each other drinking coffee, a backgammon board set on the table between them. They seem to be outside a village home, under the shade of a tree — the highlands in the backdrop. Both wear black and white, but a striking royal blue dominates one of the women’s traditional garments. These two women symbolize a hopeful present and future in a place they can no longer claim as their own. At the same time, the scene paints a picture of synergy between one woman in traditional dress who has stayed on that land, and the other, who seems to be imported from the present day. The indigenous land is untouched by war and genocide. One woman remained, and the other returned. They both embrace their culture, merging the past, present, and future into a new moment captured by the light of this photograph.
In these ways, Cass’s work collectively functions like a reparation — each photograph, set side by side, reaffirms the desire for amends of the past and draws from indigenous geography to project a healed global community. People are aligned and within a SWANA futurity. Some images are set in space, on the moon, or on mythical mountaintops. What becomes apparent in the work is also the artist’s critique of the exclusion of SWANA communities in science fiction, technology, and mainstream media as she forges images that move away from Western European conventions and toward a range of scenarios and phenomena where cultural traditions are celebrated across their own space and time. Through these interjections, this exhibition is in dialogue with the lived experiences of other Indigenous communities around the world, who have faced similar experiences of genocide, colonialism, and displacement.
In Cass’s world, peace and harmony dominate. Women and members of the LGBTQ+ community are active contributors. As one of the photographs inscribes, “Our space is destroyed but we are not.” Each photograph recognizes the lived experience of trauma, yet owns the ability of humans to individually and collectively reframe that experience in their hearts to make way for reparations.
Reparations of the Heart: Recent Work by Kristin Anahit Cass continues at the Stamelos Gallery Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (First Floor, Mardigian Library, UM-Dearborn, 4901 Evergreen Road, Dearborn, Michigan) through June 25. The exhibition was curated by Laura Cotton, Stamelos Gallery curator and manager, and Kristin Anahit Cass.