Ara Oshagan, Beirut Memory Project #56, 2018-2021

Ara Oshagan Exhibit ‘Disrupted, Borders’ Connects Fragments of Armenian World

501
0

WATERTOWN— A new exhibit of photographs at the Armenian Museum of America tries to weave together  the different strands of Armenian communities around the world. The exhibit, “Ara Oshagan: Disrupted, Borders,” opened on June 7 and will continue through October 29.

The disparate corners of the diaspora and Armenia, coming together as a whole to represent the Armenian nation in its totality, are formed by photos from Los Angeles, Beirut and Shushi. Along the way, Oshagan deploys several dualities among the photos: black and white photos are spliced into and color collages; photographs are inserted into ancient scrolls and Shushi residents’ larger-than-life portraits are superimposed on ancient manuscripts, some by the famed illuminator, Toros Roslin (1210-1270).

Ara Oshagan at the Armenian Museum of America

The result is both beautiful and melancholy, showing images from diasporas that once were powerful or simply existed, but are either decimated or gone altogether.

Interviewed at his home in Los Angeles, Oshagan, who is both a photographer and installation artist, said, “A lot of the series deal with different crossings of different types of borders,” such as “the Shushi portraits, where you have residents who are no longer living on their indigenous lands and Armenian manuscripts in the background. There is a border crossing there by Azerbaijan. It is a physical and real border crossing that has caused them to be refugees.”

The Shushi photos are so large that the viewer feels they are seeing these people face to face. We know that these folks are not in Shushi now and wonder: Just where are they? Have those two young boys with their arms around each other’s shoulders fought in the war? Are they safe? So many questions.

“The two boys, they are cousins. One of the brothers died in the war and the rest of the family has fled to Stepanakert. It is really heartbreaking when you think about it and think about our own history. We connect to it in a very visceral way,” he said.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

He continued, “For the Shushi portraits there is no specific one-to-one relationship between the page [of the manuscript] and the person, in that sense, but there is a general connectivity. They are all residents of Shushi who are now refugees. Those pages come from across the Armenian highland, from Cilicia to Van,” he said. The coupling decisions are made based on aesthetics. “The whole concept is that the two things come together.”

He noted, “The handwriting of the Krapar [classical Armenian] is almost in our DNA,” he said, adding to the heritage of the Shushi portraits.

Ara Oshagan, Shushi portraits #1, 2021

The pictures were taken in 2012 as part of the “Shushi Art Project,” to repopulate the city.

Originally, the Shushi portraits were shown in the city, in a dilapidated building. “I knew I wanted to put these portraits in the windows and doors of this building,” he said. “I asked them [the subjects] to stand and I photographed them full length because that’s the way I wanted to show them and also connect them to the iconography of the area that depicts saints that way, full body, floating in midair,” he said. “When the war happened in 2020, I started thinking about the fate of these men and women and children,” he said. “I wanted to bring portraits and history back together again.”

He said he kept in touch with a few of the people whose portraits are in display.

He added, “In any type of Diasporic work in Los Angeles or Beirut, there is a border crossing where you have left one space and have instead gone into another space and are recreating your life,” he said.

The question of identity and in particular “multiple identities” is a theme. “I like to think of the identities as stacked, in a non-hierarchical way, where all identifies are there commensurate to each other. At any one moment you could be in one identity or another,” he explained.

To bring even more of his Armenian heritage into the exhibit, one wall is painted the crimson color that in nature is from a Cochineal insect, called Vordan Karmir, native to Armenia.

Also prominent in the exhibit is a series of hanging scrolls, “Hmayils,” of which the museum has several examples, in which Oshagan has inserted photos he has taken.

Ara Oshagan, That you May Return #1, 2022

It is, he said, “the medieval form of outsider art,” he said, as people loved them but the church didn’t. “People used to commission them by scribes,” he said. “When church members found these scrolls, they would immediately burn them. These talismanic, magical attempts to ward off evil connect me with the hundreds of years of history,” he said. “I made them contemporary by adding my own images.”

In the medieval times, people would carry them for their travels. “I carry them with me sometimes myself,” he said. He connects it with the “right of return” to Western Armenia and now Shushi.

Beirut and Los Angeles

Beirut is special to Oshagan, as it is his city of birth. He moved from Beirut to Los Angeles with his family at age 10, when the war began. The aftershocks of that war permeated his life.

“We didn’t see war. Right when the war began, my father was able to get visas and we left,” he said. They moved to the US, but not Los Angeles. Instead, they went to Wisconsin and Tennessee first. Eventually, his parents separated.

“This kind of multiple layered moves for me physically, emotionally, familially, was a huge rupture in my life. Going back there and photographing there was dealing with a huge rupture that happened very early in my life. They never go away,” he said. “In fact, they multiply.”

He started going back to Beirut in 2014. “I lived in Bourj Hamoud and walk around in the same area, go to the same places again and again and again” in an effort to “make the camera invisible.”

Ara Oshagan, displaced #36, Nor Marash, 2018

“I did a book, collaborating with my father [poet Vahe Oshagan] titled Fatherland,” he said.

“My LA work or the work in Beirut, are very different,” he said. In Beirut, he said, he focused on Bourj Hamoud and Ainjar. “I had my camera and engaged in the life there … to become part of the way they live.”

Most of the LA and Beirut photos were not posed, but were candids, presenting slices of life there.

“Compositionally it’s really important for me the way I compose the images in that work. A lot of the images are layered and multiple things are happening,” he said. “The compositions of my work have these multiple layers and that all speaks to diasporic identity, and connects to who I am and how I articulate that.”

Spending time there as an adult changed his perception of Beirut. “Before 2014, Beirut was a different place for me. After 2014, after I went there and did this book, it’s a different place for me,” he said.

In one part of the exhibit, he creates new composition of photos which are half from Beirut and half from Los Angeles.

“When you show them together, there is a conversation that happens between them. There is an entanglement between Beirut and LA are connected. Artsakh and Beirut are connected. Medieval manuscripts  and women on a boat on Big Bear Lake are connected. My grandfathers’ handwriting is connected to the medieval scribe Toros Roslin’s handwriting,” he noted.

Ara Oshagan, Traces of Identity, Pool Party, N. Hollywood, Los Angeles, 2002

“There is all this connectivity that happens when you are able to show multiple series together because in my mind they are all connected. Space, time, geographies, borders, entanglements are all really important to me,” he said.

His book of photographs of Beirut, Displaced, is on sale at the museum, as is Fatherland.

The exhibit was originally shown at the Tufenkian Fine Arts Gallery in Glendale, and then at Stockton University in New Jersey. The curator there, Ryan Casey, is also curating it for the Armenian Museum. This current exhibit is an expanded version.

Next for him are projects involving prisons, as well as Central Valley and Korea. The latter is “another border” that you can’t cross. “Korea is the only country divided into two,” he said. “There is a lot of connectivity for me.”

He also plans to go to Turkey, as part of the Diaspora experience, from where his grandparents hailed, and to find Armenians there.

This exhibition has been sponsored by Michele M. Kolligian in memory of Haig Der Manuelian.

To learn more about the exhibit, visit www.armenianmuseum.org. To learn more about Oshagan and his exhibits and books, visit www.araoshagan.net.

 

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: