Artists' work adds depth to symposium on genocide
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Art Critic
On the other side of the world, a mountainous, landlocked country that's not much larger than the state of Maryland is celebrating its 1,700th anniversary as the first Christian nation.
Armenia's King Tiridates I adopted Christianity as a state religion in A.D. 301, about a decade earlier than the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Today the Republic of Armenia, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is bordered on the west by Turkey, the south by Iran, the north by Georgia and the east by Azerbaijan.
To observe this milestone, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is hosting "Indifference: Remembering the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust," which comprises a symposium on Wednesday and an art exhibition that will remain up through Sept. 30.
The exhibiting artists, Alice Lok Cahana and Barsamian, and two scholars, Stephen Charles Feinstein and Richard G. Hovanisian, will speak at the symposium, "Indifference: Holocaust and Genocide: Learning for the Future from the Past."
The Armenians' contention that between 1915 and 1923, Ottoman Turkey killed 1.5 million of their people as an act of "genocidal cleansing" -- vehemently denied by the present-day Turkish government -- has become a hotly debated international issue. And it's one that is turning in favor of the Armenians, according to an overview by Paul Glastris in the March 11 Washington Post.
Samuel Calian, president of the seminary and professor of theology, says, "What's motivating us, at the seminary, is to create an interfaith dialogue and at the same time to celebrate, with Armenians, that they are the first Christian country in the world."
The Armenians and the Jews, he explains, have been persecuted through history, and he felt it would be fruitful to "talk about this common suffering and how it comments on the human condition." In doing so, he hopes to raise a larger consciousness. "The issue of genocide and holocaust is not limited to Armenians and Jews. It's been found on every [populated] continent on the planet Earth."
The aim is to "make commentary on how we dehumanize one another." Co-sponsors include the United Jewish Federation and its Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
Calian wanted to involve artists because people "don't communicate their deepest emotions just through words. Art is a means to speak to our senses ... beyond the written and spoken word." He's quick to point out that his approach is theological, and that he's not trying to convey issues as black and white. He'd as soon separate out the political but understands the impossibility of doing so.
"The crossover between those who are oppressed and those who are oppressors is a thin line. As the power lines shift, people are oppressed when in the minority and then switch when they're in the majority. What we're trying to show is a larger tapestry of human life.
"The Jewish Holocaust is an atrocity that has been given public recognition by the Germans. But there has been no [such] official acknowledgment in Turkey... regarding the Armenians. They have rewritten their history to not acknowledge that, and say they were putting down a rebellion rather than that [the intent was] to purify their country."
Calian, himself of Armenian descent, says the question is "How do you get on with life?" without an acknowledgment and an apology. "It doesn't mean all Armenians are perfect or all Turks are bad. We're imperfect people who make imperfect decisions in an imperfect world. ... I want to create a dialogue more than a debate."
Artist Robert Barsamian, who goes only by his non-Westernized last name, has been an active participant in that dialogue throughout his career, more pointedly in the last decade since he began making installations that derive from Armenian history and traditions.
Born in 1947 in Whitinsville, Mass., he is the son and grandson of survivors of the 1915 genocide and grew up in a close-knit community of Armenian expatriates. He learned much of his ethnic oral tradition at his grandmother's knee, a woman who he says was the person "most important to him."
Barsamian had established a successful career in New York City when he began to question his direction. He and his wife moved to Dallas in 1986, where he "had an epiphany" while he was recovering from the aftermath of a violent crime. He turned away from his more classical painting style to making installations "to reach a wider audience and because there were things I wanted to say using a broader range of materials."
"The most important thing for me was to make things, with my hands and my mind and my heart."
His installation, "Ashfall -- A Sacred Space," is an evocative, chapel-like space that is filled with imagery from his grandmother's survival stories. "I gear it very theatrically, because I want people to be seduced," he acknowledges, with dim lighting, texture and the smell of incense. But most haunting are the portraits that stare out, derived from vintage photographs and transformed into drawings on lace, a reference to the lace tablecloths and curtains that his grandmother and her peers made.
Some of the references are not so pretty, such as the cast bronze thumbs that remind of the Turkish soldiers' "sport" of cutting off the anointing thumbs of Armenian priests to halt the creation of more Christians, or the bowl of ashes that represents the remains of Armenian women who were ordered to strip and dance for the Turks before they were thrown into a fire to die in front of their children.
Because Barsamian has been so visually outspoken, his exhibitions have been picketed, he's been interrupted during lectures, he's received death threats, and Turkish newspapers in this country and Turkey have denounced him as a liar.
"I'm not an authority," he acknowledges, but "these are things my grandmother told me, and why would [she] lie about this?"
The other artist showing is Cahana, a Budapest-born survivor of Auschwitz who now lives in Houston and has shared exhibition space with Barsamian in the past. She was featured in the 1999 Academy Award-winning documentary "The Last Days." Her at times pensive, at times joyous mixed-media works in "From Ashes To The Rainbow" rise from the historic and the personal.
Hovanisian is professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he's been since 1962. The author of several books on Armenian history and Near Eastern society and culture, his many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship. He will speak on "The Armenian Genocide: Indignation, Amnesia, Remembrance."
Feinstein is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, where he's been on the faculty since 1987. He's written about and curated exhibitions of Holocaust art. He will speak on "When Images Tell a Lot: Art as a Witness, Art as Memory to the Holocaust and Genocide."
Picture: Barsamian, an artist of Armenian heritage, built a room at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to hold his installation for its program on the Armenian genocide. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
Registration is required for Wednesday's symposium. Admission is $25 or $10 for seniors and students and includes lunch. An artists' reception, from 4 to 6 p.m., is free. Both are in the Hicks Memorial Chapel of the Seminary, 616 Highland Ave., East Liberty. The exhibition will be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information, call 412-362-5610, Ext. 2196.
The Internet offers another arena of discourse for those interested in
exploring the political complexities further. The Armenian National
Institute may be visited at www.armenian-genocide.org and the Republic of
Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs at www.mfa.gov.tr/grupa/ad/adf/massacre.htm
Armenian, Assyrian and Hellenic Genocide News Archives