Photo from Bourj Hammoud in displaced

LOS ANGELES — Ara Oshagan was having a busy year and a busy day. It was December 30th, and the year 2022 of our Lord Jesus Christ was just a day away. Oshagan had recently published a book of photography, displaced, about the Armenian ghetto of Bourj Hammoud in Beirut. His first foray into short filmmaking, a short experimental video in Western Armenian called “Resurrection Myth” had screened on several continents at festivals and won an important award. Recently returned from an invitation-only trip to South Korea, he was now scrambling to fill Tufenkian Fine Arts which had offered him their entire gallery space to exhibit his work. All this and Oshagan was still in charge with his wife Anahid of curating @ReflectSpace Gallery at the Glendale Central Library, now an important L.A. venue for socially relevant art.  The multimedia wunderkind and father of four was on a roll.

Shushi Portrait

At 9 A.M. Oshagan was autographing a copy of his latest book displaced for a friend on the East Coast. The black-and-white photographs within chronicle the mythic Armenian ghetto of Bourj Hammoud where an entire people — the Western Armenians of Cilicia — recovered after the Armenian Genocide. The photos form a deeply personal vision of families at dinner; kids hanging out on a street corner; an Easter procession that reproduces the ceremonies, foods and traditions of Cilician Armenians on streets named after their old villages and towns in the Ottoman Empire-Nor Marash, Nor Sis, Nor Adana etc… Says Oshagan: “displaced is perhaps my most personal work to date. Because there is a return to the spaces of my youth and a deep-seated, decades-long longing to see and touch across the dislocation that was my original flight from Beirut. It is a dark book and difficult to wrap my head around, to give it structure, to give it stability…Its complex layering and overlapping sensibilities are important to me, though for the casual reader of the book, they are not easily seen, subterranean.”

Photo from Bourj Hammoud in displaced

The photos in the book are accompanied by a superb text by Krikor Beledian titled “The Bridge,” translated into English by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis. Beledian was born in 1945, Oshagan in 1964 — both in Beirut. Both left their native country and their Armenian upbringing in this almost parallel universe — Beledian came to Paris and Oshagan to Philadelphia and then Los Angeles, where he currently resides. Both have chronicled the lives of exiles — Armenian exiles in this case, an experience that parallels in many ways that of other diasporas — Arab, African, Palestinian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish and more recently Southeast Indian.

In the case of Armenians however, the dispersion has been a forced one, born of tragedy and not a desire for economic gain or personal freedoms; it has been a matter of survival. That makes the end of Beledian’s text all the more poignant: “When a car speeds down the Hill, the traveler can sometimes see in detail the other world that has acquired the status of a remnant; the traveler may even presume to master, penetrate its secret. But what endures on the maze-like net of a map, like the most powerful and recognizable labyrinths of a recollection, is the exile’s unknown station from which all the others begin, branch out across the expanse of world. It has happened — and the event can always be repeated in Australia, Uruguay, China or America — that you will meet someone who is a descendant of the other world, was born in the year that you used to frequent Hayg agha’s house, when you used to eat Miss Lipanouhi’s sweets, and by the world’s most extraordinary coincidence, will be no other than one of Armen’s legitimate daughters, smiling, but a little plaintive, on her lips the only question for which you have no answer.  I searched and searched but could not find. My father had a son, they say with Miss Lipanouhi. Do you know where he is?”

Photo from Bourj Hammoud in displaced

At 12 A.M., Oshagan was entering his short film, “Resurrection Myth,” in the Socially Relevant Film festival run by Nora Armani. In a little over four minutes this short experimental film tells the story of what might happen if Pokr Mher — one of the heroes in the Armenian epic David of Sassoon were to finally escape from Raven’s Rock where he has been locked up for centuries and judge the world, as according to prophecy.

Written By Christopher Atamian in response to the sudden onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, “Resurrection Myth” is a poetic meditation on alienation, dread and the possibility of (un)imagined futures. Weaving darkness and light, in both word and imagery, the film’s foreboding and hypnotic rhythm explores questions of history, current-day societal crises, love of another (man), technology, indigenous rights, good/evil and apocalyptic ends. Amid the sound of sirens and dark light, where are the headed, the mysterious young men walking silently along the highway? What does a post-pandemic world, especially one facing unprecedented violence and environmental disaster, hold for us? Will Pokr Mher bring salvation or doom? This film narrated in Western Armenian loosely parallels the structure of an equally poetic Marguerite Duras short film, “Les Mains Négatives.” Oshagan’s two children acted in “Resurrection Myth:” “As my first foray into directing a film, it was wonderful to collaborate with my kids. And also this was my first film in Western Armenian.  So, there is an element of a transference of an inheritance here–an endangered language being passed on, symbolically, from me (having myself lost my indigenous connection to that language) to the next generation.”

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At 3 P.M. Oshagan was checking up on images from his book that he had sent to the Hye-Phen Magazine to accompany another, shorter essay, “The Ghosts of Bourj Hammoud,” written by another American-Armenian returning to Lebanon where his father was born and finding his roots on Bourj Hammoud in a way a reverse (and parallel) journey from the one that Oshagan and Beledian describe in displaced.

Installations from “How the World Might Be”

At 6 P.M. Oshagan was crazed with excitement at the prospect of his upcoming show “How the World Might Be” at Glendale’s Tufenkian Gallery which had offered him both floors of the space in its entirety — an unhoped-for opportunity for any artist but challenging as well. In the end, Oshagan included a beautiful set of collages with Armenian lettering and manuscripts as a background with images of contemporary Armenians superimposed, along with examples of past work taken from different series spread over three decades: “Tufenkian Gallery brings several seemingly disparate series and works together to speak to a certain inter-connectivity of history across time and space. All the works are connected either through form, content or medium. The exhibition overall speaks to the future. The vast majority of my work looks backwards to make sense of the present. In this exhibition, there an attempt to imagine a future. To develop ideas around ArmenoFuturism, or rather ArmenoDiasporicFututurism.”

At 9 P.M. Oshagan sat down to dinner and reflected on his work as a whole, in particular his collaboration with his wife Anahid, as co-curators. The husband-wife duo together with Mashinka Firunts Hagopian recently curated an important exhibit that looked at issues of history, colonialism and indigeneity, in response to the recent 44-Day War in Artsakh, titled “Sites of Fracture: Diasporic Imaginings of Occupied Artsakh.”

“My wife and I have developed a kind of yin-and-yang process over the years. Whenever I get too esoteric or intellectual, she lets me know. And vice versa…We recently curated, along with a group of librarians, an exhibition about racism in Glendale that reckoned in a honest way with its history as a sundown town.”

Oshagan of course is the son of the modernist poet and essayist Vahe Oshagan and the grandson of the great novelist and critic Hagop Oshagan. These aren’t easy shoes to fill. A winner of the 2015 Global Thinkers Award from Foreign Policy magazine, Ara Oshagan is doing a rather grand job of it, a third-generation creator of rare vision and ability who chronicles the past, records the present and imagines a future of positive coexistence.

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