Marsha Nouritza Odabashian in front of one of her abstract paintings (photo Will Howcroft)

Stockton University Gallery Exhibit Reflects on the Armenian Genocide through the World of Art

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By Margarita Ivanova

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Everyone processes trauma in a different way, whether by suppressing it, or by speaking out to the world. Ryann Casey, an adjunct professor of art at Stockton University, is an advocate of the latter approach, and as such, has spent the past two years as guest curator preparing “Before, After: Reflections on the Armenian Genocide.” The show opened on September 7 and is set to display in Stockton University’s Art Gallery until October 17, both in person and virtually.

“The things that are hardest to talk about are the things we should be facing head on,” said Casey in an interview with the Mirror-Spectator. “Don’t allow it to hide behind you in the shadows affecting your work. Confront it because silence is the worst part about trauma.”

The exhibit consists of the works of 11 Armenian artists, each one possessing a unique Armenian cultural history within their families. Casey talked about her approach to curation, in which she emphasized that storytelling should always be in the voice of the people who represent the community.

“I look to make sure that it’s not someone who’s just helicoptering themselves into a community to take a photograph and then leave, because that’s sensationalization and exploitation in most cases,” she said.

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Providing artists and creators with a safe space allows them to tell their stories in more personal ways than the average person would. Casey says that communities should be represented in their voices as much as possible.

“It’s the idea of passing the microphone, whether that is through words or pictures. We should be trying to pass the mike [microphone] to the best of our ability. I don’t want to tell someone else’s story. I want to hear it from them.”

“Project 1915” by Jackie Kazarian (photo James Prinz)

Casey’s initial connection to Armenian history came from exploring different art that stemmed from loss — specifically seeing how the artist responded to loss on a community and individual level.

“The whole goal of the show was to talk about grief in a more personalized way. It’s about moving outward and seeing how we look at the grief over generations and through a community,” Casey said.

Casey has been a photographer for most of her life, as well as a freelance art curator for the past 10 years. She has spent the last five years focusing on lost trauma and memory throughout her exhibits, in hopes of creating a safe, encouraging atmosphere.

She spends years researching and reaching out to a variety of artists before putting a show together. Jackie Kazarian and Marsha Odabashian are two of the talented creators that Casey happened to encounter.

Kazarian is a Chicago-based visual artist who primarily works with painting and video. Her Armenian background shapes her work, which uses a combination of abstraction and realism to capture sentimental Armenian images, referencing churches, landscapes, and symbols.

“I believe that abstraction and overt configuration can live together in the same piece,” she said.

Her most famous piece, “Project 1915,” encapsulates all of these unique features, including symbols living within the landscape. The 11.5 x 26 foot painting was made to honor the victims of the Armenian Genocide, and promote awareness to the culture and tragedy.

The piece shares a common theme with all of her other work — unifying different motifs to create a story. Kazarian’s work depicts a series of ancient churches, including some reference to ancient Armenian maps. The names of villages targeted during the genocide are written phonetically in Western Armenian. At the bottom of the painting, you can see two hands gesturing outwards in reference to her grandmother’s gesture when she was praying.

“She was an evangelical Christian, and growing up she took care of us [her and her siblings]. We always had to keep silent when we saw her praying gesture,” Kazarian said. “I thought of that being sort of a gesture of resignation; a gesture of receiving grace, and trying to receive acceptance.”

Encapsulating personal experience and family history in paintings has allowed Kazarian to connect with her audience on a much more emotional level.

Vahagan Ghukasyan’s “Sounds of Shadows”

“When I present these large pieces, I enjoy when they’re looking for the names of their families in the different villages of their ancestors. These are villages that no longer exist,” Kazarian said. “It surprises me a lot. Everyone has different associations that they identify with, whether it’s a color or a feeling.”

Marsha Odabashian, whose work is found in Ryann Casey’s exhibit, has also generated many connections with her family’s heritage and the audience. Her most famous art technique itself dates back to an Armenian tradition that is hundreds of years old — using red onion skins as dye.

It wasn’t until after art school that Odabashian truly got to explore her Armenian roots within the world of art. “I went through a very Western approach at art school. We weren’t taught to experiment with cultural heritage at all.”

The technique originally stemmed from brainstorming more natural, less expensive ways to use paint throughout her work.

“I started the technique in graduate school and a large part of it started by thinking of ways to use less paint. I was a painting major so I wanted to save the money and resources,” said Odabashian.

It reminded her of her childhood. Memories soon came flooding back as she conquered the canvas with the revolutionary vegetable.

“This was a period when I was becoming more interested in Armenian themes. I had always been fascinated by the onion skin dye since I was a child because my mother used to dye Easter eggs with it,” Odabashian said.

The dual cultured artist used several sets of painting techniques that transformed her art into a mix of modernist abstraction and realism. This gave her the opportunity to create narratives centered around anthropomorphic creatures, something exhibited in Casey’s show. Odabashian said that the abstract fantasies originally started because she began using the areas of the paint that seemed like they wanted a narrative.

“It seemed like something was missing,” Odabashian said. “It all pulled together with the onion skins because I started dropping them right onto the canvas, and looking at the stains, and developing the narratives happening within them. They were like little interactions between these anthropomorphic creatures.”

The history behind these creatures appears in Armenian manuscripts and some of the stone sculptures that depicted famous Armenian myths and folktales.

Much like these myths and stories, Odabashian’s four grandparents who lived through the genocide, play a vital part in her work. When asked what she would do if she had the chance to see them again, she said this: “I would like to know more about their background because one of my grandmothers always said she would tell me more when I was older. Unfortunately, she died when I was 19 and that was not old enough. I would want to ask them about their experience in the genocide. My one grandmother who came from Istanbul during the genocide also definitely has some interesting stories about her role in helping other Armenians.”

The lost time, history, and generational trauma has had an impact on every Armenian family to this day. The art works created by Armenians like those mentioned above may resonate in their lives and perhaps strengthen a sense of community and solidarity.

Casey’s exhibit, “Before, After,” brings together the works of 10 artists. It has the potential not only to impact Armenians’ lives but to educate and spread awareness in the general population through beautiful art which tells personal stories. This exhibit is a display of sacred voices through a visual language. It includes talks among artists on October 4 and 14.

To learn more about the show and future exhibitions, go to https://stockton.edu/art-gallery/index.html.

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