BY VANI HANAMIRIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
WATERTOWN, Mass.—The Armenian Museum of America held an opening reception last Wednesday, June 7, for its newest exhibit, “Ara Oshagan: Disrupted, Borders.”
Oshagan expressed deep appreciation for the turnout. “It was wonderful to have such a large number of people, which also was a very diverse group and… artists coming from different places is really special,” he told the Weekly in an interview the following day.
As people filled the museum throughout the evening, it was clear that they shared a common understanding of displacement as they gazed at the pieces.
“Disrupted, Borders entangles the past, present and future and considers the afterlives of visible and invisible borders across space and time,” Oshagan said in describing the exhibit. He uses photography, film and collage to represent his diasporic process and “the visible and invisible crossing of physical, cultural and linguistic borders.”
The gallery is divided into six sections: Traces of Identity the Armenian Diaspora in Los Angeles (2000-2010), Displaced (2013-2018), The Beirut Memory Project (2018-2021), Gather (2021), Shushi Portraits (2021) and That You May Return (2023).
Each section represents a different aspect of Oshagan’s life and his journey to where he is today. “It’s about Los Angeles, Beirut and Armenia itself. It’s also about family, afterlives of dislocation, colonization memory and then the community collective history,” he explained to the crowd at the exhibit opening. “My relationships to various sites and histories is complex, having inherited legacies of removal, of violence from genocide and then displaced from Beirut personally. Perhaps many of you have also been displaced similarly from other places,” he continued.
His words clearly resonated with guests. A woman who became emotional as Oshagan spoke was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and his work moved her as she thought of her family’s experiences.
One of Oshagan’s missions through his work is to connect with others on their own terms through the artwork. “If somebody spends time and then really looks closely, they can see there’s this web of connectivity between different places, different works or different geographies, different times,” he told the Weekly. “It speaks to you, but it also speaks to everyone that comes in in a different way.”
Guests, who spanned ages and generations, lingered around different images, staring at the complexity and relating through their own lives.
One man pointed out that he recognized a storefront in an image in The Beirut Memory Project. It was one he had remembered from his time in Beirut, and seeing it at the gallery brought him joy.
In his remarks, museum executive director Jason Sohigian pointed out the thorough and thoughtful detail that went into the exhibit and gallery space. Oshagan worked on every aspect of designing this exhibit, including the layout of the art and the colors on the wall. For example, he, working with exhibit curator Ryann Casey, chose to paint one wall in the museum a deep red, the red of the Armenian cochineal, (“Porphyrophora hamelii”), an insect indigenous to Armenia that was used to produce a dye used in Armenian rug-making. He decided to display the color on a wall of his exhibit because it “comes from that insect that’s indigenous to Armenia and very much part of the history of the space. What’s sad is that it is now endangered in Armenia.”
Oshagan spoke to the crowd about two specific sections of the gallery: The Shushi Portraits and The Beirut Memory Project.
Oshagan took the Shushi portraits in 2012 after being invited with several other artists to work on projects in Shushi, currently occupied by Azerbaijan following the 2020 Artsakh War. The first Artsakh war, in the early 90’s, brought Shushi under Armenian control but over the 20 years of peace, the city was only partially repopulated. As he walked in the city, Oshagan noticed a dilapidated building that had been abandoned since the first war.
“I installed these images in the windows and doors of that building. I repopulated it with these portraits, but with their natural background, without the manuscript,” he explained. “So, the original project spoke about a lack of will—political, social, financial—to repopulated Armenian territories. Why was this building still abandoned?”
His goal with these pieces was to “imagine a future where the deracinated person, indigenous Armenian displaced from their indigenous lands, can come back together with that history to imagine a future like that.”
For the exhibit, Oshagan placed the images of the residents over ancient Armenian manuscripts from across Armenia. They hang in the gallery as large prints that cover the windows. Oshagan specifically designed these pieces for the gallery after he saw the windows and decided to optimize the space in the museum.
Many people lingered by these large portraits, and questions arose about the manuscripts and the people in the images. Oshagan told the Weekly that he has kept in contact with some of his subjects. Some had fled Shushi, and others had lost family in the war.
Oshagan then spoke about The Beirut Memory Project. He was born in Beirut and fled the country in 1975 with his family as they sped away from gunfire. The Lebanese Civil War displaced Oshagan and his family. He returned 40 years later to photograph his childhood city. The Beirut Memory Project is a collection of photographs he took on his recent trip to Beirut, collaged and overlaid with pre-war family photos.
“I made a trip to Beirut because I decided I would go back to that space where I was born, where I would face issues of displacement and multi-generational trauma, and other issues, including recent wars and economic collapse and loss,” Oshagan recounted. “Then, I also bring my own history of displacement back to that space.”
Members of the audience nodded as he spoke about this, including non-Armenians who could relate to the message of loss and displacement.
Oshagan intentionally placed a three-minute, three-channel film that can be viewed at the entryway of the gallery. As guests enter the gallery, they first see this video that shows Armenians in Beirut speaking Western Armenian. Almost all of the guests stopped by this video before entering the gallery.
Oshagan created the video because “the sound of Western Armenian, which I grew up with, really resonated with me when I was there, because they speak a very specific type of really beautiful Western Armenian.”
The theme continued into the gallery as there was an overlapping sound of Armenian being spoken amongst the guests. The connections between gallery attendees could be heard from outside the room, as familiar and unfamiliar faces gathered to celebrate the exhibit opening.
As the evening concluded, guests slowly made their way out of the gallery, but not before taking photos with Oshagan and the artwork. People were seen asking others to take their photo in front of various works, including the ‘That You May Return’ series.
“It was wonderful, and it was nice to see many people from the general public walking in, to see the work and talk to me. It was really, really special,” Oshagan told the Weekly about the exhibit opening.
“Ara Oshagan: Disrupted, Borders” will be on display at the Armenian Museum of America until October 29.
Vani Hanamirian is a student from the Philadelphia area. She is currently enrolled at Emerson College with a major in journalism and a minor in marketing. She works primarily in freelance journalism, having been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Moorestown Sun. Vani also works at her school newspaper, the Berkeley Beacon. She is a member of the ACYOA at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cheltanham, PA.