One of Diana Apcar’s dresses with Executive Director Jennifer Munson of the Armenian Museum of America (photo: Aram Arkun)

Story of Two Women through Art and History at Armenian Museum

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WATERTOWN — The Armenian Museum of America unveiled a new exhibit on April 24 called “In the Shadow of Branches.”

The exhibit, in the Adele and Haig Der Manuelian galleries, presents the work of two women, a diplomat and an artist. The diplomat, Diana Agabeg Apcar (1859-1937) helped save the life of the artist, Berjouhi Kailian (1914-2014), when the latter was a child refugee from the Armenian Genocide. The aftereffects of genocide continued to reverberate in Kailian’s life and art for decades. The motto for the Armenian Museum exhibit is that “individuals who take a stand can impact history exponentially.”

Jennifer Liston Munson, executive director of the museum, provided a press briefing during the morning, while the exhibit opened that evening to the public. Michele Kolligian, president of the museum’s board, welcomed guests at the formal event and Munson spoke about the preparatory work for the exhibit. Questions were then taken from the audience.

Chronology of the exhibit, with Executive Director Jennifer Munson of the Armenian Museum of America (photo: Aram Arkun)

Visitors to the newly refurbished and bright third floor galleries of the museum first encounter a display on Apcar, including juxtaposed timelines of events in her life, Kailian’s life, and major international turning points. A projection on a pedestal of the trailer of “The Stateless Diplomat: Diana Apcar’s Heroic Life,” a film being prepared by Apcar’s great-granddaughter Mimi Malayan, makes scenes from Apcar’s life come alive (see it at https://dianaapcar.org/).

A projection on a pedestal of a scene from the trailer of “The Stateless Diplomat: Diana Apcar’s Heroic Life” (photo: Aram Arkun)

Apcar, born in Rangoon, Burma, grew up in Calcutta, India and moved to Yokohama, Japan in 1891 with her husband, who died unexpectedly in 1906, leaving her to run the family trading and shipping business. The museum exhibit showcases a number of her personal effects on loan from the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) in Arlington, Mass., including her watch, fountain pen, cup, card box, letter box, makeup box, and bud vases, as well as a kimono and dress. Her modest Edwardian-style dress and a kimono strikingly point to two of the cultures Apcar managed to bridge.

Several of her official documents on loan from ACF are framed. They include the July 22, 1920 letter from Foreign Minister Hamazasp Ohanjanian appointing Apcar honorary consul, her diplomatic credentials, diplomatic passport, her draft letter to a Japanese governor, and a copy of her baptismal certificate. There are also some photographs of Apcar and her family loaned by Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives for this exhibit.

Letter from Armenian Foreign Minister Ohandjanian appointing Diana Apcar honorary consul (photo: Aram Arkun)

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Apcar became a voice for the oppressed Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and began to write in various journals. By 1920, she had published nine books, many of which dealt with the Armenian question politically, including On the Cross of Europe’s Imperialism: Armenia Crucified (1918), and thanks largely to her efforts, Japan recognized the independence of the first Republic of Armenia in 1920. In turn, the new republic appointed her as its honorary consul in Japan. She thus became the first female Armenian diplomat (during the same year that the US finally gave women the right to vote), though she lost this post in a few years with the Sovietization of Armenia.

Tea Ceremony, Diana Apcar, photographer unknown, c. 1889
Diana Agabeg Apcar in a long gown, about 1915 (Photo by Farsari. Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives. Courtesy of Katherine Apcar Berberian)

Prior to receiving this distinction, Apcar helped Armenian refugees make their way to safety, including many who came via Siberia to Japan in order to emigrate to the United States. She vouched personally for them and helped them obtain travel papers. This is where the connection with Berjouhi Kailian begins, for Kailian, born with the last name Siroonian in Kghi in the Ottoman Empire, fled the genocide as a child on her mother Alem’s back to Yerevan. Her siblings were lost on the way, but her mother then took her via the Trans-Siberian railroad to a refugee camp in Vladivostok, Russia. Apcar helped bring the two to Yokohama and then arranged for them to take a ship, the “Mexico Maru,” to Seattle, Washington.

Ultimately, the Kailians traveled to Weymouth, Mass., to join Berj’s mother’s two brothers. Berjouhi graduated from Weymouth High School and then the Vesper George School of Art in Boston in 1936. After marrying, she lived in Paris with her husband Vahan Kailian and attended the Julien School of Fine Arts. When she returned to the US, she ran an art gallery in Hingham, Mass. and after selling her store, went back to school again at the age of 65 to study art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and then Tufts University, where she obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1984. She kept on creating art throughout her life.

Munson pointed out that Apcar and Kailian’s lives only briefly intersected in 1919 and they never saw one another again. Kailian’s descendants were not even aware of Apcar and her key role in helping their ancestors. However, Kailian’s paintings and prints, many of which were donated to the Armenian Museum by Kailian and her family, often deal with the events of her early life. Munson suggests that the earth tones Kailian uses might have some connection with her father’s fate. He was forced to dig his own grave and was buried alive.

Untitled, Mixed media on Masonite, by Berj Kailian, c. 1970, 20 x 12

A painting with many arches may reflect Kailian’s experience as a child of getting lost and being found again in St. Sarkis Church in Yerevan. Kailian only visited Armenia again much later in life, three times.

Untitled, Mixed media on Masonite, by Berj Kailian, c. 1970, 13 ¼ x 12

Munson paired quotes from Kailian’s interviews with her art works to try to give viewers greater insight into Kailian’s world view. In some way, Kailian at one point had implied, her approach of gouging and scratching might be a way for her to get out the pain of her childhood.

Untitled, Mixed media on Masonite, by Berj Kailian, c. 1970, 12 x 16

Most of her works displayed are mixed media on Masonite, and have complex colors, either very bright or earth tones. Munson finds they are similar to other works of Abstract Expressionism of the 1970s. However, many symbols and shapes are connected to meanings for Kailian.

Her son once said that the starbursts in his mother’s work were associated with the genesis of the creation, like thunderbolts of divine spiritual light. An artist friend of Kailian, on the other hand, said that the starburst was a symbol of never forgetting tragedy.

Untitled, Mixed media on Masonite, by Berj Kailian, c. 1970, 15 x 12

Kailian, Munson said, does not want to overly describe her work, her history and her past. She wants you to look for yourself. Munson said, “The idea of art work and the creative impulse which works against the destructive impulse is central for her work…the idea that she needs to make these things in order to make sense of her own story, her sense of history, and to deal with the darkness that she has.”

Kailian was an artist-in-residence at the museum in the 1980s and also volunteered there. Jackie Abramian interviewed Kailian in her book, Conversations with Contemporary Armenian Artists (Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1990). She also has been interviewed by her on video as part of the Artists at War multimedia project (see http://www.artistsatwar.net/berj-kailian.html)

After her experience as a refugee, Kailian goes on to have a family and make many art works, and lives to one hundred, and yet, Munson said, was only one of the results of Apcar’s work. Her great-granddaughter Malayan documented over 600 people that Apcar helped get passage to the United States.

Berj Kailian in her studio (photo: Jackie Abramian)

The title of the Armenian Museum’s show, “In the Shadow of Branches,” refers to a quote from a letter Apcar wrote to US President Taft in 1910, prior to the Armenian Genocide, comparing the United States of America with the sheltering branches of a tree which she hopes will protect the Armenians. Apcar herself, Munson said, extended those branches over many Armenian refugees. The show makes clearer the implications of that shelter for at least one family, the Kailians.

The family was in evidence not only through Berjouhi’s art works. The artist’s cousin came to the opening night event and the Kailian family sponsored the reception afterwards.

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