Oshagan’s Exhibit Explores Questions of Immigrant Identity

From family retreats at Big Bear Lake–inmates in state prison in Blythe–and church services in Pasadena–to demonstrations on the streets of East Hollywood–a youth party in Studio City–a drug-rehab center in Palmdale–and a convalescent home in Eagle Rock–Ara Oshagan’s exhibit Traces of Identity: An Insider’s View into LA’s Armenian Community 2000-2004–brings together the stran’s of a diverse and vibrant Armenian presence across the breath of the greater Los Angeles area. Though the works represent four years of work by Oshagan with Armenia’s–they–nevertheless–addresses issues of identity and displacement common to many immigrant communities.

The exhibit runs from September 24–to December 31–at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. The opening reception is slated for September 26–2:00 to 5:00pm.

Documentary in nature–the 40 large-format black-and-white photographs in the exhibit explore questions of immigrant and Armenian identity from a multiplicity of angles–the religious–familial–political–as well as from the fringes of society and alternative lifestyles. Traces of Identity–sponsored by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and partially funded by gran’s from the California Council for the Humanities and the Ignatius Foundation–is the first such photographic project about Armenia’s in Los Angeles to be exhibited publicly.

"Armenia’s are an extremely diverse community in Los Angeles–although they are united in the common tragedy of the 1915 genocide," says project director–Donald E. Miller. "Currently–Los Angeles is the largest concentration of Armenia’s living outside the Republic of Armenia. Traces of Identity captures both the vitality and complexity of this community and powerfully raises the question–’What does it mean to be Armenian in the 21st century?’ "

Oshagan’s photos are images of everyday life with a deep sense of intimacy. "I know almost everyone I photograph–if not personally–then through a familial or community connection," says the Beirut-born photographer. "This allows me a unique portal into their lives and a shared intimacy."

"Everything is about the relationships Ara creates with the people he photographs," says curator Charlie Hachadourian. "In that space–in that tension that he shares with his subjects–is the ungraspable–ever-evolving identity of the Armenia’s in LA. It is always present–that commonality of sharing–the history–those traces that allow us to see ourselves as a community–as a collective. Ara is constantly asking: how do we delineate our identity as Armenia’s–how do we perpetually reinvent ourselves as a unique ethno-specific component of a multifaceted and vast whole."

As an insider to the community he documen’s–Oshagan’s work is ultimately a well-polished mirror–a multi-layered self-reflection used to explore questions of being and identity. Sometimes fluid–sometimes truncated–Oshagan’s photographs carefully balance the questions asked and answered in each image. The answers he offers–finally–are questions: "Who am I? How do we define ourselves as Armenia’s? Where do we stop and the others begin?"

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