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Armenian-American Artists Reflect the Diaspora Experience

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zareh
Untitled, 1991, by Zareh, oil on paper, 24 x 32 inches; image courtesy of the artist

"I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia." -Pulitzer-prize winning writer William Saroyan (1908-81)

On April 24, 1915 in Constantinople, what is now the city of Istanbul in Turkey, Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested and executed about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, beginning what has become known widely as the Armenian Genocide, when as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottomans. In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, major events are being held to commemorate the tragedy. Many of the survivors of this genocide and their descendants now live in Southern California. The Greater Los Angeles area is home to a huge Armenian population, (166,498 people identified themselves as Armenian in the 2000 census), roughly 40 percent of all Armenian-Americans. The City of Glendale, in particular, is considered the center of Armenian American culture, and is holding a variety of cultural and political events this year to commemorate the centennial, including exhibitions of works by local Armenian artists.

"Even if you didn't live through it, it still affects you," explains Armenian artist Zareh, who has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1986. Born in Syria and then raised in Lebanon, where he personally experienced the terror of intense bomb attacks in Beirut as a young man, Zareh also remembers hearing about his grandfather who was shot in the head and thrown in a pit with other Armenians during the genocide. He survived the shot and remained in the pit for three days until he managed to escape. Though not physically scarred by these events, Zareh is aware that they have marked him in some way emotionally, and he is deeply sensitive to the circumstances of his people. "We lost our land and our money, women were raped and churches were burned. I am part of the continued life of the survivors. It's like I am not complete. I'm missing some of the ingredients that make my cultural identity."

Untitled, by Zareh, 1998, graphite on canvas | Image Courtesy of the artist
Untitled, by Zareh, 1998, graphite on canvas | Image Courtesy of the artist

Zareh is one of the artists whose work is featured in the landmark exhibition "life100" held at the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale until May 1, 2015. The two-part exhibition showcases the works of over 30 modern Armenian artists, including Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Minas Avetisyan (1928-1975), John Altoon (1925-1969), Jean Jansem (1920-2013) and Hagop Hagopian (1923-2013), and 27 contemporary Armenian artists from the Los Angeles area. The modern artists lived in over 15 different countries, including Russia, France, Lebanon and the United States, and as members of the Armenian diaspora, they not only contributed to the cultural life of the cultures they adopted, but their creativity and resilience helped re-establish the cultural identity and bolster the spirits of millions of displaced Armenians all over the world.

"Raven for PN" (detail), by Joanne Julian, 2010, graphite and ink on Arches paper, 42x30" | Image courtesy of the artist
"Raven for PN" (detail), by Joanne Julian, 2010, graphite and ink on Arches paper, 42x30" | Image courtesy of the artist

The 27 local Armenian artists selected have chosen many approaches to expressing their relationship with their culture, its fragmentation and determination to survive. Joanne Julian's delicately detailed black raven seemingly refuses to be blotted out by an angry black calligraphic brushstroke, perhaps a reference to the will of the Armenian people to survive and thrive after the attempted extinction of their race. Levon Parian's "The Burden of Christ" -- a tiny painting of the face and hands of an elderly Armenian woman, framed and mounted on a rough wooden cross -- is a poignant reminder that it was for their belief in Christ that these people were targeted. Although these artists were not asked specifically to contribute works relating to the genocide, many of them chose works that speak to some aspect of their culture's loss.

"The Burden of Christ" by Levon Parian, 1989, photo emulsion on brass; driftwood
"The Burden of Christ" by Levon Parian, 1989, photo emulsion on brass; driftwood

Zareh's contribution to this exhibition is an almost therapeutic contemplation of this devastating cultural experience, repetitive markings in graphite building up over the surface of the canvas to form a narrative of the journey of Armenians as they were forced from their homes and into the dessert. Simple lines construct the rooftops and birds of a townscape, accompanied by the words, "There are no pigeons on the roof" to suggest the eerie unrest of cities and towns under attack. Close by, figures of a woman holding a child morphs into stick figures that appear to trudge wearily forward with other smaller figures, probably children. Below them a row of simple lines forms a fence marking the border of the desert into which they are undoubtedly walking. Around them, more rows of simple lines stretch across the surface, like tally marks counting up all the dead and crosses marking graves.

Untitled by Zareh, 2006, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 inches | Image courtesy of the artist
Untitled by Zareh, 2006, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 inches | Image courtesy of the artist

Repetitive markings characterize much of Zareh's works, many of which feature rhythmic scratchings or swirls in graphite that build into faces, inanimate objects, figures dancing. "Life continues through repetition," he explains. "Like the boom, boom, boom of the heart beat, or repetition when we walk, left foot, then right foot, then left foot." To Zareh, his art is an honest expression of his feelings, sometimes dark and tormented, sometimes playful and joyous -- often a combination of both. About his 2006 drawing of a head, Zareh explains that the image begins with swirling lines in a circular motion, "which shows uninterrupted motion and energy which turns around something, like an idea, or a nucleus." The two big eyes represent a strong visual ability. "The eyes look like two fishes or torpedoes positioned against each other, a physical and mental complex situation showing pain, anger, danger, defense and tension beside other things. The eyelashes around the curve of the eyes remind us of the rays of the sun or light." He adds, "The repeated rows of things below are teeth or nails which show a tense situation, the struggle in a difficult situation in life."

As his pencil plays over the paper or canvas, forming eye-shaped fish, v-shaped birds, and rows of lines representing fences, tallies or facial stubble, we can imagine that Zareh is processing a complex range of emotions. At the same time, however, this rhythmic repetition also has a calming, soothing effect, like the rocking of a baby or the raking of a Zen sand garden. To Armenian artists like Zareh, whose lives and cultural identity is tied to one of the most brutal tragedies of modern times, their work allows them to explore and rebuild their personal selves and their connection to their culture. In the meditative works of Zareh, we can sense the vital rhythm of his people, whose hearts continue to beat vibrantly and determinedly, despite the tragedy they suffered 100 years ago.

Another art happening relating to the Armenian genocide is currently on view in Downtown Los Angeles. iwitness is a large-scale public art installation by artists Ara Oshagan and Levon Parian on three levels at the Music Center and Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. It is composed of an inter-connected network of towering asymmetrical photographic sculptures wrapped with massive portraits of eyewitness survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The installation is on view until May 31, 2015.

Untitled, 1998, by Zareh
Untitled, 1998, by Zareh

Zareh's work can be seen on his Facebook page.


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