LOS ANGELES — Step inside the storefront at 117 North Artsakh Avenue in Glendale, California, and you’ll find a quaint domestic setting. A dining table and chairs, set up for a meal, occupy the center of the room, while a jacket and hat rest on a coat rack to the left of the door, as if the occupant has just returned home. To the right, family portraits hang on the wall above a comfy-looking couch and coffee table. The only thing indicating that this is not, in fact, an actual family’s living space is that every object in the room, including wine glasses, lamps, and pillows, is painstakingly covered with over 100 pounds of lavash, an Armenian flatbread. It is a symbol of the food, the rituals, the traditions that figuratively bind Armenians together, wherever they live, across generations and oceans.
Titled “Breaking Bread,” the installation is one of three rooms that comprise My Relic, a public artwork created by the female artist group She Loves Collective. It was made possible by funding from the Glendale Arts and Culture Commission through its Urban Art Program, in recognition of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Month, anchored on Saturday, April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. (Significantly, President Biden has indicated that he will formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, making him the first US president to do so.) The three spaces offer complementary views on Armenian culture, through the lens of female Armenian artists living in the diaspora (Glendale is home to one of the largest Armenian communities outside Armenia). Through different interpretations of relics — cultural objects that connect generations — the show illuminates the power of tradition in allowing one to survive, heal, and move forward from trauma. “A relic is what is left of us, sometimes it’s just a faint memory, or the story of the object, almost like a dream,” exhibition curator Adrineh Baghdassarian told Hyperallergic. “This is who we are, not just one specific, generic item.”
The second room, titled “Relics,” is filled with 50 hanging banners printed with images of Armenian relics sourced from museums, churches, and family collections. They range from liturgical objects and jewelry, to family photos, rugs, and household items, and even a blanket brought to the United States by an orphan. The images provide a dynamic portrait of what Armenians have valued, what they decided to take with them when they left their homeland. One particularly striking banner is by photographer Armineh Hovanesian, who superimposed a self-portrait over an image of her grandmother Maryam. “She might not have a physical relic, but her genetics, her DNA is her relic,” explained collective member Ani Nina Oganyan.
One of Oganyan’s contributions to “Relics” is a family photo from roughly 1910, taken in Artsakh, the long-contested majority Armenian republic that was the site of a bloody 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan last fall — My Relic is dedicated to the Armenian people of Artsakh and the soldiers who lost their lives defending it. The photo depicts her maternal great-great-grandfather, who lived in Artsakh, holding her great-grandfather, Yervand Martirosyan, on his lap. Surrounding him are other members of his family as well as a neighboring Turkish family, a reminder of the bonds of common humanity that would be shattered a few years later with the start of the Armenian Genocide. “There was a time when they were neighbors,” Oganyan said wistfully.
The final room, titled “Reclamation,” is a hopeful finale that looks to the future. The floor is covered with mounds of dirt, from which spring forget-me-nots, symbols of the Armenian Genocide centennial. Pairs of white shoes sit on the earth, pointing towards a screen depicting Mount Ararat, a deeply significant site for Armenians that represents the dream of self-determination alongside the pain of territorial loss, having been located in Turkey for a century. The phrase “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” flickers across the screen. Instead of characters from the Latin alphabet, the words are composed using letters from the Armenian alphabet.
While grounded in Armenian history, My Relic speaks to the larger experiences of displacement, trauma, and resilience. “So many non-Armenian community members can relate to the ‘Reclamation’ room. We’ve had African-American community members say, ‘this piece speaks to me, it reminds me of our struggles,’” recalled Oganyan. She shared that another visitor with a Native American background came up to her crying after leaving the room. “‘This is exactly the history we have and we continue to live on American soil,’” she told her.
“I have seen 30 people come out of those doors with tears streaming down their faces,” said Baghdassarian. “As an artist and a curator, when I know we’re successful is when I can make people feel.”
My Relic, by She Loves Collective and curated by Adrineh Baghdassarian, continues at 117 North Artsakh Avenue (Glendale, California) through May 2.