Maps of Velvet

by Suzana Poghosyan 

Image stills from  Armenian Diaspora , courtesy of Araz Farra.

Image stills from Armenian Diaspora, courtesy of Araz Farra.

In this interview, Suzana Poghosyan, co-curator of Roadmaps, an exhibition focusing on contemporary Armenian identity, and Araz Farra, one of the visual artists showcased, discuss her creative process, their  similar relationships to home, and diaspora privilege.

When I moved to New York, I began identifying as Glendale-Armenian. I found that the nomenclature creates space for discourse and meaning, especially for the intangible characteristics of ethnic identity. I believe place is significant and I am deeply interested in how it shapes art and visual culture. 

Roadmaps began as a collaboration with Artesson’s Tereza Davtyan to create a space for dialogue between contemporary international artists of Armenian descent with those living in the country. While reviewing submissions, however, the Velvet Revolution erupted in Yerevan—suddenly, identity and independence were at the forefront of the national conversation in Armenia too. While the events of April 2018 didn’t completely redefine Armenian culture, they resulted in a visual expression of the decades-long revolutionary sentiment percolating in the Armenian consciousness. Artists from all walks of life submitted work and began an inclusive conversation about the future of our shared humanity.

Araz Farra’s submission, Armenian Diaspora, is a mixed-media video installation featuring three speakers who discussed their experience with the Armenian diaspora, paired with Farra’s own moving paintings. The recordings dive into Aleppo’s multiculturalism, interactions within Armenian social groups, and ways some Armenians feel comfortable exploring their heritage from outside. Farra herself was born and raised in London to Armenian parents. As a college student, she spent her summers visiting Armenia, where her father studied as an undergraduate student. In our conversation, Farra and I spoke about the way the capital, Yerevan, has transformed and about our shared anxieties on relating to the city.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Suzana Poghosyan: In the context of Roadmaps, I thought your work helped to tie all of these different experiences by speaking to the intersectionality of the Armenian identity in the diaspora and its dependence on geography. Even though we think we have this unifying attribute, all experiences are vastly different.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 1.16.07 PM.png

It’s asking people, “Why we are where we are?” It’s reminding us all that we each have a story; something that we should keep alive. We still don’t have recognition [for the Armenian Genocide]. We have never been given what we think we deserve, and I think that every Armenian carries that—it’s something we’re very passionate about. And I think this is a reminder that, no matter where we are, we still have that common goal, a fight on our hands.

Each one of us has a story, which makes our lack of recognition even more insane. Every Armenian you speak to will give a story about their grandparents having to flee—every single one. Without a doubt, 80% of the diasporic Armenians I talk to will tell me a story about their grandparent, which is something I want to work with. I want to get people talking about their grandparents’ stories because it’s interesting to hear their stories coming from our generations’ mouths.

I get why you would record the grandchildren. It’s a second-hand account, and those stories affected their here and now. Do you want to tell me about where you see yourself within the intersection of your Armenian identity and your Syrian and British identity?

I think of myself as very much Armenian. I naturally have influences from Syria because my parents were born there. I’m very lucky to have this other side, it’s a different connection to have with your family, and Armenian friends. I also feel as Armenian as I do British.

It’s very lucky that in your lifetime you get to experience two, three, or four cultures. It gives you a wider perspective and a lot of homes. I can go to Belgium to an Armenian camp and that’s another home. There are positives to the diaspora meaning that I can find a home in every country I go to if there is an Armenian.

I don’t think anyone should see something like being a part of two cultures as negative. A lot of the time, the negative idea could be, “I don’t know where I belong,” which is valid—but I think it’s such a great thing. I [am] Armenian-British. Even if it comes with its struggles, I don’t think I would change it at all.

Was your impression of Armenia different this summer after the Velvet Revolution?

It’s really weird, because when you go as a tourist, you’re not really going to be a citizen; you won’t realize what has changed as much as someone who lives there. For example, when me and my friends go, we’re always looking around like, “Look at the vibe! The vibe is great here and you won’t get this kind of thing in London.” And then, you remember this is just people’s lives, and we’re treating it like it’s a marvelous holiday destination place. But in reality, people are striving to get a better life. But you don’t see it, because you’re not really there.

I think every Diaspora Armenia carries this guilt because you want to help out so much. And there are a lot of people who say: But we are helping out the economy by being here and spending our money. And I always think, “This is not how we should be thinking. We’re not really helping anything.”

I’m with you, in some ways we’re just reinforcing a structure that keeps people working service jobs. This makes me think of the last speaker in your video who says that, “While repatriating back to Armenia might have been a goal for my grandparents, I like the life I’ve built in America.”

Many older generations of Armenians who watched the video and heard that bit were like, “No, we’re not sure about the last one.” The whole point of the film was to get different Armenian perspectives, because that’s the Armenian diaspora: we’re so different even though we have one major thing in common.  And while we can all go to Armenia, enjoy it, and have it be a big part of our lives, the way everyone thinks is completely different. What everyone ends up saying in their bits is that they’re comfortable where they are now.

Do you think it’s because they’ve built a home?

I guess in a way some people feel like their families spent so long rebuilding a life that to then to take it all back… Even if, at the time, the thought was they would go back and it was temporary that they had to live [in their new country] but [Armenia is] home.  It’s just kind of sad, but what can you do? There are too many of us now. There are more of us in the diaspora than in Armenia.

My grandfather’s family ended up in Syria after the genocide, and his mother and father were the first people to live there, so his ‘Syrianness’ was still vis-a-vis being in an Armenian family. But I imagine that his experience is not dissimilar to what Syrians are going through now after being so violently displaced in trying to keep their culture while going on with their lives. Over the next couple of decades, we’re going to see what it looks like where Syrians rebuild their lives and reestablish ties with their home.

There are a lot of Syrian-Armenians I met in Armenia who want to go back to Syria. For them, everything is so different. You’ve got kids who’ve had to adjust their dialects. You have to have people who’ve moved their whole lives. It’s hard. It’s hard to live in Armenia when you’ve got no choice.

That was one of the biggest things: when you don’t have a choice in where you’re living.

It’s the guilt again. You get in the taxi and they ask you where you’re from and you don’t want to say. So then you just say it and you have to give the, “Oh it’s not that good, it’s much better here.”

I’ve resorted to just saying, “It’s just different. We have our own problems.”

In a way, there are so many appealing things about Armenia; it’s a very relaxed life, it’s very easy going in terms of your day today, you can see whoever you want whenever you want. In our culture it’s like, “Yes, I’m free two weeks from now, at 3 p.m.”   

Suzana Poghosyan (b. 1990, Yerevan, Armenia) is a New York based coordinator and curator specializing in contemporary art. In January of 2018 she founded The Honey Pump (Honey Pump Gallery) as a dynamic platform for nomadic exhibition models. The following summer she produced and co-curated, Roadmaps, an international exhibition in Yerevan, Armenia, featuring work by 23 international artists. Professionally, Poghosyan has worked as a studio manager for Leo Villareal, and acted as the production manager for Villareal’s exhibitions with Pace Gallery New York and Pace Gallery Hong Kong.