An Armenian Triptych Retraces the Past — a Nostalgic Look at the Genocide and Family History (A Critical Exclusive)

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NEW YORK  —  This second experimental video collaboration among artists Aram Bajakian, Kevork Mourad and Alan Semerdjian comprises a poem by Semerdjian titled “Writing about It Again” about his grandfather, while Mourad deftly sketches in pencil drawings about the Armenian past, set to an original haunting musical composition by Bajakian.

All three parts of this triptych were composed independently and meant to carry equal weight.

As Semerdjian narrates his poem, the video shows Mourad creating scenes that are erased and recreated in order to illustrate the history of the Armenian Genocide, which affected the families of all three artists.

The trio first collaborated in 2020 on another historically-based work titled “Grandchildren of Genocide,” a composition by Semerdjian and Bajakian, titled “The Serpent and The Crane” and cover art by Mourad.

Alan Semerdjian (Photo by Luke DeLalio)

A once-in-a-lifetime event ensued as the album and video garnered hundreds of thousands of views/plays when Kim Kardashian and Serj Tankian both tweeted about it to their fans. Here in this second, ten-minute work, family history and personal biography intersect in both obvious and subtle ways.

There’s talent here in droves, mind you. Bajakian is a guitarist and composer who has toured with the likes of Lou Reed and Diana Krall. Mourad is a performance/visual artist and member of the famed The Silk Road Ensemble, while Semerdjian is an award-winning writer, musician, and educator. The present collaboration is inspired in equal parts by German writer Heinrich Boll’s notion that “the artist carries death with him like a good priest his breviary,” by Armenian Genocide recognition, and by 2020’s Forty-Four Day War in Artsakh. This work seems somehow more personal than its predecessor, describing both the general memory and erasure of the genocide and its many orphans/victims, and more specifically Semerdjian’s family. Topics include the historical towns that the poet has not yet visited, marches that he imagines but cannot quite fathom, as well as the long process of cataloguing his grandfather’s many paintings. At one point, the narrator says “I know it seems old-fashioned”: and indeed this is well-trod territory. But the approach here is different. Mourad’s delicate pencils and Bajakian’s sensitive slightly off-key musical composition combine to create an oddly compelling and highly artful piece. Close your eyes for a bit and simply listen, and the mesmerizing quality of the composition and Semerdjian’s deeply felt verse sinks into you. For Semerdjian truth — or the lack of it — is the central issue to understanding past and present both: “Sorry, indecipherable code. Oh truth, where is your hide? Why must we seek you in the debris?” The poem decries the past while describing one man’s longing to understand what his grandparents experienced in 1915 during the deportations — and how his grandfather in particular was able to recover from such a tragedy. Meanwhile Mourad sketches an original, historical Armenian door, which serves as an entry point into Semerdjan’s memory of his grandfather, as well as into Armenian memory in general. An Armenian manuscript — a traditional symbol of the culture is included as a symbol that crosses time and place both.

Aram Bajakian by Emma Joelle

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Like many works that deal with the issues at hand, An Armenian Triptych is almost by necessity nostalgic. As the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym has pointed out nostalgia involves a relationship between personal memory and collective history. One might argue that the Armenian gaze itself is inherently nostalgic — it not only takes in the genocidal event (and attendant intergenerational trauma), but also looks back to an imagined past or Golden Age of Armenian existence. In its most acute (nationalistic) form it dreams of a new “restored” Greater Armenia. In its more benign form it wallows in the longing for this past — the diasporan in Glendale or Paris who recreates a culture that is a kind of projected common phantasm or dream. “Restorative nostalgia,” writes Boym “stresses nóstos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in álgos, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming — wistfully, ironically, desperately. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity (while) restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, just as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment, or critical reflection.”

Kevork Mourad by Sterling Batson

I would argue that “An Armenian Triptych” represents a most compelling version of reflective nostalgia. It posits both a deep love and reverence for Armenian culture, while realizing from the start in the poem title that this respect for the artists’ shared Armenian past is inherently nostalgic. Or as Aleksandr Stevic concludes in his essay Intimations of the Holocaust from the Recollections of Early Childhood: “Nostalgia, in other words, serves not only as a mechanism for working through traumatic memories, but as a catalyst for a critical examination of the past.” A critical examination of the past and here, one that also open new avenues — artistic or otherwise — for others to follow.

Armenian Mirror-Spectator readers can view the video for free until August 31, 2021 at: https://vimeo.com/407827624 and listen to a discussion of a private screening with the artists through The Armenian Institute of London at https://www.armenianinstitute.org.uk/news-text/armenian-triptych.

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