They are both evocative and provocative, equally likely to make you smile at a joyful memory or shed a tear for an upsetting one.
No matter the emotion, the three pop-up art installations that have sprouted along storefronts on North Artsakh Avenue this month are likely to catch your attention and strike a thought or two. The installations have gradually evolved at the hands of their artists this month, changing within a dedicated framework of considering Armenian culture and history, perhaps through a different lens.
In this way, the “My Relic” installations are “looking at the same thing but in a new narrative,” explained Adrineh Baghdassarian, the curator of the project through her female communal art group SheLoves Collective. As explained on the collective’s website, the pop-up explores “a contemporary view on the Armenian culture, the trials and tribulations of the Armenian people, their ability to survive and thrive amongst adversaries.”
A simple summary of the installation could be that the creators aim to provoke a conversation about being in the Armenian diaspora without necessarily arriving at the genocide that targeted their families.
“She (Baghdassarian) really wants our community to start thinking and experiencing things differently,” explained Mari Mansourian, who is among the 14 artists involved in the installations. “We were victims, obviously, and we want justice and recognition, definitely, but we need to think and present ourselves differently to the world.”
Mansourian, who works for the city, contributed primarily to “Breaking Bread,” in which an entire room, its furniture and accoutrements have been plastered with lavash, the traditional Armenian flatbread. It’s more complex than your mind is likely picturing — a coat rack with a jacket are delicately coated in the bread, as is a laptop computer, telephone and even a dozen or so imported pomegranates in a bowl on a table.
To hear Mansourian describe it, “We are lavash, and we are everything in the room covered in lavash.” Across the diverse diaspora of Armenians, lavash has been a constant.
“We each grew up in different places, with this different take,” said Taline Olmessekian, another artist on the lavash exhibit, “but the common denominator is our bread.”
“Lavash is that glue, that dough, that keeps Armenians together,” Mansourian added. “Breaking bread in general is a way of bringing people together. In our culture, if we invite you into our home and share food with you — especially bread — you’re already our friend. We wanted to create an atmosphere of belonging, an atmosphere of home. Bread is such a comforting food.”
The exhibit is inside a storefront, and a small partition — covered in a lavash print — allows viewers to step inside, close the door and immerse themselves into the world. A projector sends a loop video of people making the bread from scratch against the backdrop, which is cloth with a lavash pattern.
The artists used glue and water to mold the bread around all of the objects in the room — “Very therapeutic!” Olmessekian called out from behind the backdrop — while using the cloth almost as curtains to drape the walls, as they could not modify the physical site. Lest they risk heresy by putting the precious bread on the floor, salt was used to outline an ornate rug in the entrance. One of the artists, Rouzanna Berberian, actually printed old photos of women — “Freedom fighters, revolutionary women throughout Armenian history,” she said — on entire pieces of the bread to recreate framed and mounted pictures.
The salt, Berberian added, pays homage to an Armenian custom — or, perhaps, superstition — in which salt is used to “cleanse” a person or home of evil spirits. She used it to shape a variety of designs into the carpet, which is an Armenian cultural staple — especially in Shushi, in the Artsakh region.
“Carpet is very traditional — very unique in Armenia,” Berberian said.
“While making it, we didn’t feel much about the items,” Olmessekian admitted, “but once completed, we stood outside and looked at it and thought we would never feel this moment again: it was like home. It’s like grandma’s home.”
Olmessekian, a 12-year Glendale resident whose accent reflects growing up in a family of diplomats, said they added a few subtleties to the exhibit, things slightly hidden that seem out of place to some but quite familiar to, say, a young person caught doing something they maybe shouldn’t. This touch was a small tribute to growing up in socially conservative homes, she said, and they move the objects periodically to keep viewers surprised.
They don’t advertise this detail, and you’ll have to find the objects yourself to know what they are.
“Whoever notices, they ask and we explain,” Olmessekian said wryly.
In “Relics,” the artists have tracked down and collected a variety of images, which have been replicated on fabric banners at 50% ink to give them a faded appearance and festooned throughout the space, almost creating a dreamlike sequence of exploring memories.
A speaker plays traditional Armenian music in the background, while the open door accommodates an airflow that moves the banners around. The floor is also covered in the reproduced images, which includes historical photos of artifacts and personal photos of peoples’ families, collected from museums and private collections alike.
“A relic is what is left of you,” Baghdassarian said. “What is left of you is a trace of something, and sometimes it is a full-blown memory.”
The installation’s description explains that the room brings together “plurality of memory objects that reflect loss and belonging from around the globe into a single space — a movement from dispersion to an imagined possibility and moment of unity.” The images include an orphan child’s blanket, a lock of a woman’s hair, various jewelry and crafts and a weaving spindle.
One image showcases one of Armenia’s famed rugs, but has been altered: after it was printed, the artists used black ink to illustrate a rough, ragged looking assault rifle atop the image — perhaps suggestive of how the nation has been forced to fight for its very existence.
That addition was clearly made in the storefront: there remains an arching splatter of black paint on the front window.
“It wasn’t intended,” Baghdassarian said, “but in the performance, it happened, so we decided to let it be.”
Ani Carla Kalafian, who lives in Tujunga and whose family is of the Iranian wing of the diaspora, procured many of the images for the display. She called the installation “an ode to honor the ancestors” with their possessions and totems — relics, indeed.
“By showcasing them in this way, the public — Armenian and non-Armenian, too — can really view their ancestors here,” she said. “I love that the images are blown up, because we can really see the details, the artistry and the feelings that they had while using or crafting them.”
Kalafian said working on the exhibit was a “spiritual experience,” full of serendipitous moments as she contacted fellow members of her nation throughout the globe.
“It really showed how generous and hospitable our people are,” she said. “It was no question” to lend to the exhibit.
Along the way, Kalafian said she came upon an image of a statue of Arubani, the goddess of art and fertility in the ancient Urartian nation, which preceded Armenia in the region. It is also her daughter’s middle name.
“In this, I found that connection,” Kalafian said. “I knew I was in the right place and doing the right thing.”
By comparison, at first glance the “Reclamation” installation is haunting.
The room is filled with loose soil, unevenly strewn about as though an artillery barrage struck the area. To complete that image, pieces of chicken wire, stone and rebar are added into the mix.
Crucially, atop the dirt or partially buried are dozens of white shoes, boots and heels, left as though abandoned in a rush or lain to rest along with their owners. It’s an image that resembles the jarring Holocaust photos of shoes piled up at concentration camps, or perhaps boots left from where a body once lay at the Titanic’s shipwreck site.
But this is not the only takeaway.
“They tried to bury us,” said one of “Reclamation’s” creators, Anaeis, “but they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Anaeis, who only uses her artist name, was quoting the adage, which she also had displayed in a stylized font projected onto the installation’s backdrop, which was a massive print of Mt. Ararat. As the shoes approach the backdrop, the dirt gets greener — there are moss and sprouts of lentils, wheat and grass planted in the dirt and also in the shoes, and they’re more grown the further back in.
The initial idea, explained Ani Nina Oganyan, another creator, was to portray souls — soles? — returning to the valley of the mountain and reclaiming it. Mt. Ararat is a signature symbol in Armenian culture, it being the resting place of Noah’s Ark and a sacred portion of the Armenian highlands seized during the Turkish-Armenian war in 1920.
“A reclamation does not ask permission,” the installation description reads. “It does not give the state the power, endlessly pleading with it to give us that right or acknowledgement. Instead, facing Ararat, we claim it back for and by ourselves, asking no one for permission to move it beyond its pain, beyond its sorrow; to move us beyond those borders.”
“In this piece specifically, we really wanted to look at intergenerational trauma and moving beyond that and healing from that,” Anaeis explained, with Baghdassarian chiming in: “Healing is definitely a part of change.”
Anaeis, whose Iranian-Armenian family immigrated here when she was young, said she has gradually added greens to the exhibit and funnily enough, have unexpectedly propagated throughout. The dirt itself strongly smells of fertilizer, which adds an edge to the positive growth intent behind the work.
“For me, it’s not only for Armenians,” Anaeis added, “but for any community that’s been through any hardships. It’s meant to be hopeful. Emotionally, I’m kind of hoping the audience feels that sadness, but looks forward to the future.”
The three-part installation — located at 117, 123 and 127 N. Artsakh Ave. — was initially scheduled to run through Sunday, just a day after the Armenian genocide remembrance date, but the city this week extended it to run through May 2. The displays were funded through the Urban Art Program by the Glendale Arts and Culture Commission. After the grant was awarded, the collective had nine days to come together and produce their work.
“After a year of living in COVID, it was nice to come together as artists, in our spaces, and be creative,” Mansourian said.
In an unfortunate coincidence, right after the displays went up on April 11, Azerbaijan’s government unveiled an outdoor museum in its capital, Baku, which invites people to tour, among other things, a gallery of helmets from Armenian soldiers killed in last year’s war to retake Artsakh. The site includes wax statues of caricaturized Armenian soldiers being overwhelmed by Azerbaijani forces, and was widely condemned worldwide as grotesque.
“What we’ve done is so much more powerful, because of its purpose,” said Oganyan, who grew up in Glendale after emigrating from Armenia. “They go low, we go high.”
Each day, a group of the artists wait outside of the installations, on the promenade, to make various tweaks and interact with viewers — those interviewed happened to be there on a Tuesday. They have relished all reactions, positive and negative.
“It’s been super impactful to the community,” Baghdassarian said. “We’ve had people walk by laughing and crying. People have been bringing their families by.”
“It’s heavy,” Mansourian stated simply. “There’s so much pain in our history and culture, and we’re not going to forget it, but we have to move forward from it. We have to get out of the ‘victim role.’ We want to, especially as female artists, say what we are, but in a different way.”
For more information about the free My Relic art installations and their artists, visit the website shelovescollective.com. The installations have their doors open from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. daily, but can be viewed through their windows at all hours.