Barsamian’s Art Exhibit: 20 Years of Searching for Answers



By Betty Apigian Kessel


DETROIT — The reasons were many and varied for attending the Thursday, March 31, opening of what Dallas-based artist Robert Barsamian called “20 Years- Searching for the Answer,” sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills and Armenian benefactors in a collaboration with the Holocaust Center and United Michigan Armenian Committee.

It had been a longtime dream of recentlydeceased community leader and philanthropist businessman, Edgar Hagopian, to establish ties with the Memorial Center and in some way to have their acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide. Barsamian’s art depicting the tragedy of those years is hopefully just the beginning of a new and important alliance.

Hagopian passed away on March 27 and his Dan Gark prayer service was being held the evening of March 31. It is ironic that Robert Barsamian’s exhibit of Genocide art was being launched simultaneously while prayers for Hagopian were being recited.

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Hundreds of Armenians were greeted by Holocaust Museum Director Stephen Goldman as they streamed into the magnificent facility to tour the exhibit gallery based on the tragic events of 1915. It was also an opportunity to view the vast exhibits pertaining to the Jewish Holocaust. It posed the question, “Can art help in understanding the history, the memory and the trauma?”

Many of those who attended the art exhibit had paid their respect earlier in the day at the Echmiadzin St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Southfield, where Hagopian was lying in state. It was his wish that as a show of appreciation, there should be an impressive attendance at the museum’s art exhibit of Barsamian. Hagopian would have been pleased his dream was realized with such success. The formal portion of the evening began on a Hye note when Goldman opened with “Welcome to the first completely Kosher Armenian event.” Then he said, “Ian, yan, ouni name endings are here with the stein, berg and man (endings). Experiences of our grandparents are the same. I hope Edgar is honored by seeing everyone tonight, smiling down and saying ‘good job.’”

Robert Barsamian was born in 1947 in the close-knit Armenian community of Whitinsville, Mass. Both his grandmother and mother were Genocide survivors and the stories they told him reverberated in his mind and developed into art.

As a professionally trained artist Barsamian has lived and worked in Boston, New York City and Dallas. His works have been exhibited in a variety of museums and venues including The Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Holocaust Museum in Florida and the Asilah Museum, Morocco.

Another factor in this venture into Armenian Genocide art came as a result of a personal assault on Barsamian getting shot in a mugging. At that point with the avid support of his wife he gave up a lucrative commercial art career to begin to use his talent to develop genocide art.

This is the artist’s statement: “As a survivor of a violent armed robbery, I began to identify with the victimization of my Armenian ancestors. Luco, my grandmother, spoke often of Armenia, the life she had there, and her story of survival. My mother was also a survivor. These two women are the storytellers in my life and their stories have formed my art. I use symbolic images to represent the Turks, the Armenians, the atrocities and the hope and strength of the culture.”

Barsamian played a video for the audience called “I remember,” inviting all to a meditation with his grandmother saying “I want you to join.”

Observing the art amidst extended generations of fellow Armenians born of genocide survivors was both heart wrenching and emotionally stirring.

Somber faces broke out into smiles only upon the encountering of a friend. Photos of Enver, Jemal and Talaat, executors of the genocide prompted one person to say, “Too bad they (Turks) could only be killed one time,” such was the height of emotion.

Goldman extended a warm and cordial greeting to all. He is a gregarious man full of good humor and humanity. He said, “We either learn to survive together or we will die together. Speaking about the Armenian Genocide in a Holocaust Museum is a necessary and important part of teaching and

learning about the Holocaust.” He referred to the Armenian Genocide as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”

Goldman is a man who knows the history of genocide, be it of the Native Americans, Darfur, Rwanda or the Armenians. He is a man one must respect. As a humanist, the museum has picked a winner in him.

Thousands of area students tour the museum yearly as part of the their school curriculum to learn about man’s inhumanity to man and hopefully as a preventive measure for future genocides.

The United Michigan Armenian Committee is dedicated to “making a difference.” One of their projects is to create awareness of the Armenian Genocide through education in collaboration with Facing History and Ourselves. The Detroit Chapter of the Knights of Vartan lends valuable support to accomplish these goals.

Educator workshops are held annually offering an introduction to the Armenian Genocide by providing instructional materials. An essay contest is held each spring designed by Edgar Hagopian offering cash awards to student and teachers alike. It is an incentive to Michigan students to promote interest in the Genocide.

Barsamian’s art is thought-provoking. One shows a pile of Armenian skulls with Hitler’s quote “Who after all remembers the Armenians.” Another shows naked bodies nailed to crosses. Others are a series of faces.

The standout portrait that for many demonstrated the height of evil, depravation and savagery of the Turks was the one called “Slave Girl.” It was a somber faced beautiful Armenian woman cloaked in black with long dark hair and a horizontal line of tattoos on her chin, neck and then more tattoos vertically passing her breast bone depicting the number of times she had been sold into slavery.

There is nothing but sadness in the Jewish Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide. The only identifiable positives were the straggle of pitiful survivors. The lesson to be learned is that one or a handful of maniacs can cause such an epidemic of hate that they can incite others to slaughter millions of innocent men,women and children without a bit of conscience and in the case of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government remains adamant in their denial of guilt.

Does the human race have the capability to really mean “Never again?”

Perhaps artists like Robert Barsamian can get the message out through his meaningful art.

We are immensely grateful to museum director Stephen Goldman of the Holocaust Memorial Center, The United Michigan Armenian Committee and all those who made the evening a huge success. Refreshments followed for attending guests.

This exhibit was also made possible through the generosity of the following: Alex and Marie Manoogian Foundation, Masco Foundation, Knights and Daughters of Vartan, Darakjian Jewelers, Lisa Karamedjian Meer and Brian Meer, The Ajemian Foundation, Hagopian world of Rugs, and printing of exhibit guide by Katherine Snedeker.

The exhibit continues to July 10. Shalom and Sdesetioun.

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