Artist hopes to draw attention to Armenian genocide through exhibit


Associated Press Newswires

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - It wasn't what Robert Barsamian's Armenian grandmother told him about his heritage that inspired his art. It was the secrets she kept about her homeland.

Growing up in an Armenian enclave in Whitinsville, Mass., none of Barsamian's elders talked of the genocide that claimed 1.5 million lives in the years before World War I. They took great pride in their culture and traditions, but didn't dare speak of lost family members or raids on villages that left many dead.

His grandmother was a gentle woman who spoke to him in Armenian because she wanted him to have a connection to his heritage. He was already a grown man in college when a report of an earthquake in Turkey came across the airwaves as he sat on his grandmother's porch having tea. 

"I remember my grandmother turning around to me and saying in a beautiful, poetic way - and this is with no formal education - she wished she had the wings of a bird so she could fly over there and see all the dead bodies." Barsamian said. "She had all this hate and anger. She felt it would be justice."

Now, the grandson wants others to learn of the history that prompted that visceral reaction.

Last month at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, the Dallas-based artist opened Sacred Spaces, an exhibit that reflects images from the slaughter and serves as a tribute to his grandmother and others who survived.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 27, is meant to give people a glimpse into the genocide that was carried out from 915 to  1923 and is the reason many Armenian families immigrated to the United States. 

Viewers travel through the exhibit's five rooms, some of them comforting as his grandmother's living room and others as shocking as a death march. Visitors hear a tape of an Armenian story teller and see symbols from Orthodox Christian Church.

His depiction's of Armenian people are painted on hand-woven lace with pattern reminiscent of the curtains that hung in his grandmother's house. The images are faint and ghostlike, or strong and clear depending on the angle from which they are viewed.

"It's very hard to break away from someone looking at you," he said. "These could be anybody's grandmothers or cousins our aunts. They just have this feeling they belong to a lot of people."

In one room, visitors are invited to sit on a simple bench, set on an antique Armenian rug from the era of the genocide. According to historical accounts, after the Armenians were killed, their homes were looted for valuable possessions including rugs.

"Who knows whose hands it has passed," he said of the rug. "But it's in Armenian hands now."  Barsamian, 53, is hoping that those touched by his art work will instigate discussion about a time in history that many do not know existed and others don't want to acknowledge.  "I know there needs to be some healing going on that isn't going on because there is still denial," he said.  

In the final years of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians, about half the population, were massacred by the government. The succeeding Turkish government attempted to bring some of those responsible for the genocide to trial, but in later years the official Turkish account became that the genocide did not take place at all.

That denial kept many Armenian immigrants in the U.S. from ever discussing the genocide again because they didn't think they would be believed, Barsamian said.

Both Barsamian's maternal and paternal grandparents survived.

His maternal grandmother, whose own father had been killed,  escaped Adana, which is now southern Turkey, in her late teens. Her husband had escaped earlier to join the French army and used an assumed name to smuggle his family out of Armenia in the early 1920s.  His grandparents and parents have since passed away.

Barsamian said it took an attack on his life for him to truly identify with them, he said.

In 1988, Barsamian moved to Dallas from New York where he had built a successful career as an artist but was looking for a change. Just three months after he moved there, he was shot in a bay at a self-serve car wash.  Barsamian said he pleaded for his life as the robber shot him once and then stood over him threatening to shoot him again until Barsamian gave him his wallet. The man was never arrested and Barsamian spent the next six months recuperating.

"It made me understand a smidgen of what it was like to be innocently victimized," he said.  It also gave him time to delve into whatever writings he could find that detailed the genocide. In 1990, on the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the slaughter, he opened his first show on the topic at the Conduit Gallery in Dallas.

The exhibit drew protests from Turkish people who felt maligned by his work. He even received some death threats.

"I felt like my grandmother, I felt like everyone else who had gone through this," he said. "It gave me even more reason to keep doing this."

-- On the Net: