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Gendered Narratives of Loss and Survival through Art Practice

Récits genrés de la perte et de la survie à travers la pratique artistique
Helin Anahit
p. 273-291

Résumés

Ce texte de l’artiste visuelle Helin Anahit explore les thématiques de la perte, de la survivance et de la mémoire à partir de l’analyse de ses premières œuvres. Se fondant sur l’héritage de son aïeule comme source d’inspiration, et plaçant les subjectivités féminines au centre de son argumentation, elle interroge le rôle des femmes dans la transmission culturelle.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 The term always already or always-already (in French toujours déjà) is often used in literary disco (...)
  • 2 The research for part of this article was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHR (...)

1Born and brought up multilingually in Istanbul, I am an always-already1 displaced person of Armenian descent. Having lived in different cities and settled in London, I have become a cultural transient. As a British artist and academic with an Armenian and Turkish heritage, London is my platform city, from where I can begin to be elsewhere; and my art practice is the result of my uprooted and hybrid cultural background. Drawing on relations between the sociopolitical and the aesthetic, my art seeks to critically engage with the Armenian diasporic experience with an integrated theory and practice model of research.2 Archival historical research as well as field research, including oral histories and media of memory are my employed sources. My particular focus is on the role of woman’s subjectivity in the transference of cultural memory.

  • 3 See L. Irigary 1985a; L. Irigary 2002 pp. 95-127.

2As a visual artist, I am classically trained as a painter and printmaker. My interdisciplinary practice has evolved through site-specific installations and time-based practices leading me towards working predominantly with video and sound due to their complex relationship with memory. In this essay, I shall explore gendered narratives of loss and survival by looking at some of my early works through a philosophical and psychoanalytic framework and feminist phenomenology. In order to declare my artistic authority and female subjectivity, I shall write in the first person while bearing in mind that the personal is political and reading is always a form of conversation.3

3The making of art does not only entail the production of an autonomous art object; it also involves the formulation of multifaceted ideas by utilising anti-teleological processes of conceiving and giving form to complex thoughts that transcend ideological limitations. We must also remember that as identity and place travel together, transcultural artistic practices investigate diverse notions of diaspora in the constant negotiation of the present. In order to convey meaning in the reconstitution of cultural identity, they explore intricate representations of diasporic memory and imagination, as an ongoing act of discovery. Thus, artistic intervention subsequently promotes cultural renewal as indispensable in cultivating the semiotic and psychic imagination of diasporic people within the public sphere.

  • 4 Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, (born Hovhannes Aivazian), (29 July 1817 – 2 May 1900) Crimea, Rom (...)
  • 5 Arshile Gorky, (born Vosdanig Manoug Adoian), (15 April 1904, Van, Turkey 21 July 1948, Connectic (...)

4When one carries out online research about Armenian diasporic culture, it is quite hard to find any substantial reference, as most entries are automatically related to the Republic of Armenia and not diaspora. In search engines, as in most books, Armenian art and culture have been emblemised by its ancient heritage illustrated with images of manuscripts, gospels and ancient architecture. Here, the universalised projection of a single nation reigns supreme as a monolithic structure: it therefore might appear that there was “one” Armenian culture, “one” Ivan Aivazovsky4 and “one” Arshile Gorky,5 indicating the lack of research on Armenian diasporic art and culture.

5During research for my PhD, while undertaking a source-based enquiry, I also viewed some of the oral history projects based on the testimonies of genocide survivors recorded as interviews in North America in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As much as I valued those archives’ contribution to the broader academic discourse concerning the historical awareness of the Armenian situation, I came to realise that the process by which questioning and answering was conducted did not offer me enough insight into the emotional understanding of the subjects’ experiences, or adequate interpretation of the affects on their psyches. During my source-based research, I had come across mainly historical material contributing to the ongoing academic conversation with the aim to register the genocide historically, rather than focusing on the present dynamics of cultural memory. Furthermore, the vast majority of the socio-educational material that I found unfortunately conflated the analysis of cultural heritage with ethnicity.

  • 6 H. Anahit, 2015a; 2015c.

6Yet, all too often, to describe and prove a catastrophic past, the ways by which a vast majority of these accounts refer to trauma is solely within the context of physical loss or material destruction without paying enough attention to the social fabric, as if genocide is a temporal phenomenon. I would like to suggest that this approach has categorically overlooked the affects of the unconscious transmission of trauma across generations and their historicity.6 Further considering the over-representation of male authorship, I ask: where is the voice of the female? I am also prompted by the lack of research reflecting on the continuation of Armenian culture in Turkey since the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution.

Lost

  • 7 Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı) is in Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province in Turkey, 40 kilometres from the border (...)

7Whilst conducting field research in the United States between 2008 and 2010, I interviewed a variety of second and third generation immigrant Armenians. The majority of these individuals perceived their indigenous culture in vague terms, as if it was some notion that had existed in the past, as if it was a treasure that they had lost long ago or put somewhere safe and had forgotten about its location. Some even addressed it as her or his “grandmother’s heritage”. Armenian culture was some traditional dish, a kilim, a piece of lace or an old lullaby – or in some cases, a picture of mountain Ararat.7

  • 8 H. Anahit, 2015a.
  • 9 For a discussion on mourning and its impossibility see M. Nichanian and D. Kazanjian, in D.L. Eng a (...)
  • 10 For the concept of melancholy see S. Freud, [1917] 2005, pp. 201-218; J. Kristeva, 1989, pp. 6-11.
  • 11 S. Žižek, 2001, p. 37.
  • 12 See S. Hall, 1990, pp. 222-237. Hall asserts that cultural identity and memory are “never fixed” an (...)

8Even though there has been an emphasis by some élites and community leaders on the “genocide recognition” issue as the defining aspect of “being Armenian”, it is a relief that they have not been able to turn the Armenian diasporas into a unified body painted with one brush, in one colour. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those I spoke to felt their identity springs from having been violated, rather than from their cultural heritage. The subjects were relating to their cultural memory as an inherited collective baggage that was solely characterised by the Turkish authorities’ refusal to admit responsibility concerning the past.8 Their perception thus signified an ossified memory charged with the past as that which does not allow the subject to mourn and move forward.9 Evidently, whilst being enclosed in a melancholic vicious circle,10 they felt disconnected from their cultural heritage, which recalls the philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that “inherited memory of atrocity” dominating a peoples heritage can almost become “a defining factor of identity and cohesion, often for many centuries”.11 Yet, in order to have a meaningful future must we not have a connection to the past through the fluid layers of cultural memory?12 All these experiences made me feel that there was a necessity to discuss the transgenerational affects of the traumas of the Armenian loss in relation to the current debates on transcultural discourses with a nuanced comparative approach.

Back to

  • 13 Coups d’État as military interventions against the government took place in 27 May 1960, 12 March 1 (...)
  • 14 Official Republican Turkish history associates Armenians with rebels in relation to the nationalist (...)
  • 15 H. Anahit, 2014, p. 206. The ways in which I employ the term the Other is in relation to the symbol (...)
  • 16 See A. Kırmızı, 2007.
  • 17 See Ş. Mardin, 1983, pp. 221-250; M.Ş. Hanioğlu, 2001; E. Zürcher, 1984; E. Zürcher, 2004.
  • 18 For the image of Armenians in Turkey, see H. Anahit, 2014, pp. 201-222.

9In the mid-1990s, during my undergraduate years in Britain, I was given a box containing old photographs, postcards and newspaper cuttings that my maternal grandmother Marie had collected. I subsequently took family portraits and personal history artefacts as my subject matter. It was my way of exploring the past through my work with curiosity-driven research as a way of reflection. My childhood in Turkey contained a sense of ambiguity amidst the ambivalence of the 1980 coup d’État period,13 which coincided with the ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) terrorist acts.14 I would like to remark that Armenians have been perceived as the Other in Turkey.15 Their image as “the enemy within” or “the backstabbers” since the Abdülhamid II period16 and the Young Turk Government,17 was resuscitated during the ASALA period, which sadly led many Armenians to leave Turkey and emigrate.18 These were my early years in Britain, where there was no real concept for Armenian history and culture. Outside of specific circles, one might have been mistaken as an Albanian when referring to her/himself as Armenian.

A New Path

  • 19 For the interrelation between art and politcs, see J. Rancière, 2003 and 2006.
  • 20 S. Hall, 1990, p. 237.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 227.
  • 22 K. Mercer, 1994, p. 30.

10The black arts movement that had emerged in Britain in the 1980s has been integral to introducing a pathway between politics and aesthetics.19 As the socialist cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall observed, this has provided “new places from which to speak”,20 as a way of understanding “the experience of a profound discontinuity”21 in the shaping of identities with African, Caribbean and Asian heritage through film and art. Indeed, the following decade, the 1990s might be considered the turning point towards the decentralisation of the public sphere due to diasporic artists and filmmakers’ enormous contributions in expanding the forms of identification and belonging in Britain.22 This had had a vast influence on my practice when I was trying to find my own voice as an undergraduate student in fine art and critical theory, while also taking a course in psychoanalysis.

11I created autobiographical installations with old photographs and postcards that had belonged to my family. I was interested in giving them new meaning and put together visual compositions by the juxtaposition of old nostalgic images with the aim of stimulating re-thinking through the articulation of passage of time as a way of reflection. At the time, it was my way of searching for my subjectivity through my art, yet also acknowledging the dubious position that I had inherited as an Armenian woman of Turkey. Perhaps those silent clusters that I had created with my family photographs had signified sites of remembrance referring to questions of loss, mourning and memory. While the theme of the sea was my central metaphor as it was the backdrop for my childhood memories, it reflected on diasporic journeys also relating to my internal journey.

12I placed each composition under the title of Journey (1995) without naming every piece explicitly. The documentation of one of those works [see figure 1] depicts a woman looking sideways; as the viewer, we are unable to return her gaze. I critically placed the photograph together with a postcard of a picturesque nostalgic landscape of seashore; as if she is contemplating to embark on a sea journey. With this poetic yet critical positioning, I attempted to portray an intimacy between the female subject and her reflection through the sea. I also aimed at compelling the viewer to direct her/his gaze to the empty space in-between, which dominated the installation due to the lack of a focal point in the composition. By leaving the viewer uncertain as to which angle s/he should direct her/his gaze, I wanted to make her/him feel uncomfortable. With this approach, I anticipated encouraging a critical distance from what I attempted to allude to, which was a sense of fracture and ambiguity.

Figure 1 Helin Anahit, Journey, dimensions variable, 1995
Edition of 3, private collection (Montreal, New York)
Installation view, Quicksilver gallery, London, 1995
[Journey © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]

  • 23 H. Anahit, 2015d.
  • 24 B. Fer, 2004, p. 4.
  • 25 Ibid.

13In critical contemporary art, the centrality is based upon the ways by which the viewer perceives the artwork in the present. As the artwork becomes a channel for memory, it facilitates the viewer to search within her/his lived experience and personal history.23 For the art historian Briony Fer, it is significant that “the time of the artwork is not only a matter of the time it takes to look”.24 As she puts it: “the phenomenological encounter with the art object as it occurs in time is a starting point against which a range of other temporal modes is set in play”.25 This affective engagement, which may implement a rhizomic interaction has the potential to produce a meaningful dialogue amongst diverse viewers by unifying the aesthetic form with the political while reflecting on critical thinking as the artistic expression opens a door to the future.

Re-membering

  • 26 I have elaborated on this in my interview with the artist Zeyno Pekünlü, see Z. Pekünlü, 2010, pp.  (...)
  • 27 By employing the term “vulnerability”, I am referring to Judith Butler as she conceptualises vulner (...)
  • 28 For a discussion in regards to the politics of visual representations of the mass violence of the S (...)

14After my grandmother’s death, I started making drawings on bare linen and homemade paper by employing pigments that I created with experimental methods influenced by ancient Armenian techniques.26 I was inspired by old motifs, but instead, I became interested in employing sketches from fossils as preserved traces from the past in my pigment drawings, etchings, woodcuts and photolithographic prints. I then combined them with the old photographs and postcards from my family. It was a way of re-identification with an Armenian past as a way of transformation. I created paintings by mixing homemade pigments with various substances and collaged images through a process of forming layers, only to remove them by scratching or sanding them down with tactile gestures obliterating the surface – an act signifying the transmission and distortion of memory. As a classically trained artist, I knew all the “rules” in relation to colour and layering in fine art. Other than that, I wanted to express my feelings of “vulnerability”27 and defiance at the same time, and go beyond all the “rules” by challenging all the influences by finding a transgressive new language as a form of resistance. It was my search for a kind of visual language that spoke to a history marked by mass violence and rupture but not reinforcing the image itself.28

  • 29 J. Mooney and M. Thompson, 1995, p. 7.
  • 30 I am borrowing these terms from Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory” in M.W. Jennings, H. Eilan (...)
  • 31 See J. Lacan, 1994, p. 49; J. Lacan, 1989, p. 113; B. Fink, 1995, pp. 223-224.
  • 32 For an analysis on the concept of the death drive see R. Boothby, 1991.
  • 33 See Julia Kristeva’s interview with Charles Penwarden in S. Morgan and F. Morris, 1995, p. 23.
  • 34 Kristeva’s statement is in connection with Luce Irigary’s critique of the masculinist perspective o (...)
  • 35 J. Mooney and M. Thompson, 1995.

15I then considered my work to be “a form of archaeological research”.29 It was as if I was “digging” a “buried past” as a way of “re-telling” in relation to “historical index” and not its recollection, without being “afraid to return again and again to the same matter”.30 In classical Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the concept of the “repetition compulsion” (Wiederholungszwang)31 as a neurotic defense mechanism is linked to the concept of the “death drive” (Todestrieb),32 which Freud related to the tendency of the subject to expose her/himself again and again to distressing situations when the origin of the compulsion has been forgotten. Nonetheless, the feminist philosopher, psychoanalyst and literary critic Julia Kristeva proposes a different reading of repetition where “the artist is able to find a temporary harmony in a state of malaise”,33 thus finds catharsis in her/his work.34 As a form of both revealing and concealing complex historical traces, my work was then perceived as “structured as a lament, reminiscent of mournful threnody”,35 as a transforming experience.

  • 36 See R. Thomson, 1979.
  • 37 See R. Lawlor, 1982; V. Hopper, 2003.
  • 38 Talking Openly © 2010, Helin Anahit, All Rights Reserved, is an ongoing multi-media project consist (...)

16In the work Crossroads (1995), [see figure 2] I wanted to be experimental by using ancient Armenian geometry inspired by Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.36 I employed the square shape quite deliberately to score a grounding effect within the haunting visual composition of this large-scale work. Also, the symbolic meaning of the number three and four gave impetus to the ways by which I was employing geometry.37 Again, with the empty space, I wanted to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. I carried out this methodology and the play of gaze between artwork and viewer in future works, installations and videos while the Armenian purple ochre pigment that I used in this work later became a symbolic element for my project Talking Openly38 in 2010.

Figure 2 Helin Anahit, Crossroads, mixed media on canvas, 183 x 183 cm, 1994
Private collection (Los Angeles)
[Crossroads © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]

  • 39 Here the ways in which I employing the term the other is from the perspective of a feminist praxis (...)
  • 40 “Gendered agency” relates to the limits imposed based on the individual’s gender in a society. I ha (...)

17The left piece of the triptych [see figure 3] portrays one of my drawings of fossils with pigment on bare linen. I used earthy toned homemade pigments by combining chalk and the Armenian bole mixed with egg tempera and casein. The right piece has bole and soil layered with residues of human skin and hair, bonded with resin. The central piece of the triptych depicts a collaged photograph of my grandmother when she was a teenager. She is directly facing the camera as if she is challenging the stereotypical patriarchal aesthetic of the photographer and assigning herself power. Through her posture and gaze, she is searching for her liberty and claiming her autonomy. I consider the way that she confronts the conventions of objectifying the other39 from a young age is significant in symbolising how women have been instrumental throughout history – especially during the early post-genocidal period – though the picture also indicates a “gendered agency”.40

Figure 3 Helin Anahit, A Triptych, mixed media on linen, 3 x 58.5x 58.5 cm, 1995
Private collection (Boston). Installation view, “XIII” group exhibition, Gasworks Gallery, London, 1995 [A Triptych © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]

  • 41 During its exhibition in London in 2004, I displayed it with lyrics from “Illusion”, the poem by Go (...)
  • 42 Among those installations are: Trace, Old Power station, Enfield, London, 2005; Layers, Ther Cology (...)
  • 43 For the psychoanalytic perception that envisages the skin as the first envelope of our bodies estab (...)

18Having explored the Armenian book of gospels in the British Library’s collection, I later on started focusing on the haptic qualities of paper that I was making for the drawings. By stepping aside from the Biblical ornamental elements of ancient Armenian motifs and moving away from my sketches and photographs, one of the works that I produced was a small book with a thicker handmade paper. I smeared soil and rubbings of dirt on the surface of the pages concealing the residues of skin and hair that I had embedded when baking the paper. I marked each page with my handmade red ink, reminiscent of the blood red of the Armenian cochineal crimson dye, which was used in textiles, rugs, carpets and manuscripts. After stitching and hand-binding the book, I tore and separated its pages and displayed them in a composition as if they were manuscript leaves from a book where some of its pages were missing – an act signifying the dispersal of a culture. Again, my interest in geometry and the symbolic meaning of numbers was instrumental in creating the installation Illusion41 [see figure 4]. I subsequently created several installations, as “paper based” interventions in public spaces.42 Paper, became a characteristic material of my work, as it reminds me symbolically of the human skin, which is the largest organ covering our bodies but also acting as the border between our bodies and the outside.43

Figure 4 Helin Anahit, Illusion, mixed media, dimensions variable, 1995-2004
Edition of 3, private collection (Edinburgh, Boston). Installation view, “Layered Visions” group exhibition, The Tea Building, London, 2004
[Illusion © 2004, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]

Balat

  • 44 Helin Anahit, Arrivals and Departures, 2005, single-channel video, 4:3, colour, stereo, 6’36’’. Arr (...)

19As I have previously indicated, the theme of the sea was the central metaphor in my early practice. I am now going to discuss Arrivals and Departures (2005),44 the first video that I made during which my ideas in relation to the themes of memory, loss and survival became crystallised. This work marked an important juncture in my practice. As it led me to reassess the sheer complexity of the subject’s spatio-temporal relationship through what the lens of the video camera captures almost haptically, and the ways in which I can subsequently render time, hence memory.

  • 45 Balat is situated in the Fatih district on the western shore of the Golden Horn in Istanbul.

20I shot it in Balat,45 one of the old Armenian quarters in Istanbul, where my maternal grandmother had spent her childhood. Armenians no longer inhabit the area. The name of the district Balat (Balad in Armenian) probably derives from the Greek palation, meaning palace. Once, part of Byzantine Constantinople, it was one of the oldest settlements for minorities during the Ottoman Empire. Its multi-ethnic character was largely lost during the twentieth century and the neighbourhood has been one of Istanbul’s poorer areas. I shot the footage just before the government began renovating Balat as part of the city’s on-going urban gentrification transforming it into a touristic area. I also made an artist book complementing the video.

  • 46 Walter Benjamin, “The Return of the Flâneur”, in M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland and G. Smith, 2001, p. 26 (...)
  • 47 See H. Anahit, 2005; 2015a.

21According to the social critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, “to depict a city, a native would have deeper motives – the motives of the person who journeys into the past […] The account of a city given by a native will always have something in common with memoirs.”46 Even though I might have rehearsed my “journey into the past” several times in my mind, I am not sure if I had “the motives of a person who journey[s]ed into the past” during the time when I was in Istanbul for my research. I might have felt a certain level of curiosity when looking for the past, even if I always knew that I could never recapture it. Perhaps it is “no accident” that I spent my childhood in the city, but I wanted to remember it fragmented and diluted and perhaps to leave the palace where it belonged in the first place, in the past.47

  • 48 K. Meynell, 2005, p. 3.
  • 49 See H. Anahit, 2010a; 2015a.

22My first video about going back to my native city ended up with no apparent identifiable biographical element or “something in common with memoirs” within it. I may have shot the video in my native city, though it probably relates to the raw chaos of some other port cities embodying memory as my “medium” in my work and not just as an “instrument” for exploring the past. As proposed by the artist Kate Meynell, in the work “a passage suggests perhaps simultaneous arrival and departure”, “with meaning that is slippery and allusive, thematically occupying the uncertain place of diasporic thought”.48 Albeit, the work could be read as undeniably self-representational, as I shot the video with a hand-held camcorder, often standing up on a small moving boat. I thus put myself in the shoes of a migrant, as the diasporic subject, as the one who is moving and whose time and place cannot be fixed.49

  • 50 I shot the video in the Sourp Hreshdagabed Church (Holy Archangels Armenian Church) in Balat before (...)

23In Arrivals and Departures, I guide the viewer with a sequence of tableaux vivants shot in a church, from one door to another to suggest the concept of traveling through social and physical borders as an experience of transition between different times.50 During one of the segments, my camera focuses on an elderly man, waiting by the Bible next to the altar whilst a woman exits the building. In another, I included the encounter of two men while one of them goes through a door and enters a building. By way of a critical portrayal of men, I aimed to draw on the themes of belonging to a traditional culture and its continuity whilst directing the viewers’ attention to the exclusion of women from social narratives in patriarchal settings, which strips women of agency. This is followed by a long sequence with a grainy visual effect portraying people as they are getting in and out of a boat. It is accompanied by a multilayered audio segment, which is cut with a muted section nuancing the departure of two boats fading into the silent horizon. The scenery gets slowly dissolved into a glaring light introducing a discontinuity to the looped video [see figure 5].

Figure 5 Helin Anahit, still from Arrivals and Departures, 2005
Single-channel video, 4:3, colour, stereo, 6’36’’
[
Arrivals and Departures © 2005, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]

  • 51 M. Blanchot, 1995 ; also see P. Ricœur, 2004.
  • 52 M. Blanchot, 2002; Id., 2007, pp. 38-39.

24During its exhibition in London, the lack of sound in this sequence seemed peculiar to the viewer at first, as it comes out of nowhere. The philosopher and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot who inaugurated the concept corresponding to the impossibility of expressing that which haunts the limits of language,51 draws on the power of art in conveying the “untransmisable”. For Blanchot, “the silence of art” transports the viewer into “unfamiliar regions”.52 Then again, through this sequence, I aimed to depict silence as a haunting veil, which embodies absence. With this tactic, what I anticipated was not to deduct but add a layer, positioning the viewer in a physical manner to the feelings of departure and longing in relation to the impossibility of return, also coupling with the themes of erasure, loss and disappearance.

  • 53 For the significance of the sea in diasporic and transnational artists’ works, see H. Anahit, 2015a (...)
  • 54 J. Kristeva, 1991, p. 16.
  • 55 I undertook numerous field trips to Turkey for my research. Some of the trips were in Istanbul, but (...)
  • 56 S. Hall 1990, p. 227.

25The sea as a concept often has an emblematic significance in diasporic and transnational artists’ works. Portrayed as close-ups or in seascapes, it may represent the distance between different times and places referring to journeys. It can thus allude to the themes of migration, dislocation or relocation and the fluidity and ambiguity of diasporic identities.53 Drawing on the social borders and barriers of the migrant subject, Julia Kristeva elaborates on silence as “a harsh light”, as there is [...] “no one on the horizon”.54 When I was making this work, I found peace in the silent seascape, particularly in the white frame glaring back within the emptiness of light suspending memory and time. This, in turn, led me to undertake numerous field trips to Turkey for my research since 2005.55 I subsequently created a body of work symbolising the understanding of “the experience of a profound discontinuity”56 reflecting on implicit memory.

  • 57 P. Ricœur, 1999, pp. 7-8.
  • 58 P. Ricœur, 2004, p. 504.
  • 59 Ibid., 2004, p. 9. Here, Ricœur is referring to Aristotle’s Physics Book IV.

26Socio-cultural influences challenge the ideas about the ways in which memory is visually expressed through art. Nevertheless, it is the very essence of visual culture and its discourse that has a unique potential to expand the possibilities of the overwhelming complexity of history as a form of memory and remembering. In his deeply philosophical meditation through his search from the “mnemonic representation of history” to a history based in lived memory, the philosopher Paul Ricœur asks why memory is subject to abuses.57 He subsequently proposes the necessity of forgetting as a condition for the possibility of remembering.58 For him there is a “duty to remember” and “a work on memory, which reverts from past to future”.59

There is no ending without a beginning60

  • 60 S. Dermen, 2012, p. 235.
  • 61 I was able to put my family’s narrative together after interviewing family members and also carryin (...)
  • 62 Safranbolu is a town and district of Karabük Province in the Black Sea region of Turkey. It is situ (...)
  • 63 On 6-7 September 1955, mobs looted and destroyed shops and properties belonging to non-Muslim minor (...)

27My grandmother Marie who was a widow at a young age was born to a single mother in 1913, as the sixth child of the family in Balat.61 Her father, a military medical doctor in the Ottoman army, was poisoned and murdered by his colleagues after the Balkan War in 1913 in Safranbolu.62 This was at the time when his wife Bayzar was pregnant with Marie. Bayzar’s father, Avedissian Efendi, who owned the local dock and the quayside in Balat, was a loyal Ottomanist who sponsored young Armenian men to attend the Ottoman Military Medical School (Mekteb-i Tıbbiye-i Askeriye) in Istanbul. He was taken away in 1915. Over the following years, Bayzar who was a young widow was raped regularly by local police officers. Her two eldest daughters were abducted to be married to Turkish men: one died young due to being physically abused by her husband. Bayzar’s two sons died at a young age; her youngest daughter my grandmother Marie and her remaining sister were widowed after their husband’s sudden death following the pogroms of 1955.63

  • 64 He later became a furniture maker.
  • 65 Compulsory second or third time military conscription of non-Muslim citizens of Turkey – between th (...)
  • 66 They worked in Cibali Tobacco Factory on the southern shore of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. Since 2 (...)
  • 67 I have been profoundly inspired by Arlene Voski Avakian’s moving memoir. See A. Avakian, 1992.

28Marie’s stories never portrayed abjection but they were filled with affection and hope reflecting memorable family anecdotes and neighbours’ gestures. When I was little, instead of going out and playing with my friends, I often used to beg her to tell me her stories about the old days. When she was young, she worked in a factory to raise money to buy her husband’s first tool before he even had a job64 while he was away doing double military service for seven years.65 Her remaining sister and cousin also worked as factory labourers;66 her mother Bayzar had became sick and her aunt had become a housekeeper in a family, since they had lost everything. She referred to friends and family who emigrated as, “they left”, while by staying in her country, she said she was the one who “really” survived. Marie’s stories were her testimonies of survival and resistance to subjugation portraying the essence of Armenian culture. Perhaps telling me about her past was her way of healing and commemorating her grief. Each time she told them to me, it was her way of re-constructing herself as a survivor. Her stories had a very strong influence on my personality as a child; they probably shaped a part of my future reinforcing a sense of resistance within me and claiming my autonomy.67

Listening and remembering

29In psychoanalysis, listening is considered an active process. Remembering and writing Marie’s stories has given new meaning to my childhood memories. This process has allowed me to re-contextualise myself through the writing of my early-career work, which was then instrumental in finding my agency as an artist and a woman. While writing this essay, as I re-encountered those works and shared them with you, I was struck by the importance of visual art practice as a means in establishing complex social and historical relationships beyond the memory of trauma by transcending the dynamics of power relationships.

  • 68 See L. Irigary, 1985a, p. 75.
  • 69 Art writing relates to writing through art and not writing about art elucidating art practice as a (...)

30In this essay, my attempt to represent symbolic and corporeal memory through gendered narratives of loss and survival has been from the point of view of memory as a perceptual activity. As I explored the relationship between memory and female subjectivity through the lens of contemporary art practice, I aimed to highlight how visual arts convey the “untransmissible”, without trying either to provide or to prove any “indexical” knowledge. Through the “process of interpretative rereading”68 of some of my early works, I hope to have shown that the field of art practice and art writing69 is imperative not only for promoting cultural renewal but also to help understand the present and galvanise disparate people by creating new affective spaces.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 The term always already or always-already (in French toujours déjà) is often used in literary discourse, post-structuralist philosophy and transcultural studies. See P. Ricœur, 1984, p. 57. The ways in which Ricœur employs the term follows Maurice Blanchot. See M. Blanchot, 1955, p. 181.

2 The research for part of this article was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) postgraduate award between 2007 and 2010.

3 See L. Irigary 1985a; L. Irigary 2002 pp. 95-127.

4 Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, (born Hovhannes Aivazian), (29 July 1817 – 2 May 1900) Crimea, Romantic painter. See his biographical note on Wikipedia [accessed 23 July 2015].

5 Arshile Gorky, (born Vosdanig Manoug Adoian), (15 April 1904, Van, Turkey 21 July 1948, Connecticut, USA), Expressionist painter. See http://arshilegorkyfoundation.org/gorkys-life [accessed 23 July 2015].

6 H. Anahit, 2015a; 2015c.

7 Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı) is in Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province in Turkey, 40 kilometres from the border between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia. It is part of eastern Turkey once known as the Armenian Plateau. It has become the identifiable Armenian national symbol signifying the lost “motherland” for most Armenians all over the world. See H. Anahit, 2015a; 2006.

8 H. Anahit, 2015a.

9 For a discussion on mourning and its impossibility see M. Nichanian and D. Kazanjian, in D.L. Eng and D. Kazanjian, 2003, pp. 125-47 (p. 127); see also C. Caruth, 1996, pp. 10-24.

10 For the concept of melancholy see S. Freud, [1917] 2005, pp. 201-218; J. Kristeva, 1989, pp. 6-11.

11 S. Žižek, 2001, p. 37.

12 See S. Hall, 1990, pp. 222-237. Hall asserts that cultural identity and memory are “never fixed” and “always in flux”.

13 Coups d’État as military interventions against the government took place in 27 May 1960, 12 March 1971 and 12 September 1980, in Turkey.

14 Official Republican Turkish history associates Armenians with rebels in relation to the nationalistic movement of the pre-First World War period, or as terrorists as a result of ASALA, whose intention was “to compel the Turkish Government to acknowledge publicly its responsibility for the Armenian genocide” through armed acts, against Turkish overseas diplomats, between 1975 until the early 1990s.

15 H. Anahit, 2014, p. 206. The ways in which I employ the term the Other is in relation to the symbolic order inscribed in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s theory corresponding to the masculinist parameter privileging Sunni-Muslim male identity within a patriarchal hierarchy in Turkey. See J. Lacan, 1989, (S3, 274 and S8, 202).

16 See A. Kırmızı, 2007.

17 See Ş. Mardin, 1983, pp. 221-250; M.Ş. Hanioğlu, 2001; E. Zürcher, 1984; E. Zürcher, 2004.

18 For the image of Armenians in Turkey, see H. Anahit, 2014, pp. 201-222.

19 For the interrelation between art and politcs, see J. Rancière, 2003 and 2006.

20 S. Hall, 1990, p. 237.

21 Ibid., p. 227.

22 K. Mercer, 1994, p. 30.

23 H. Anahit, 2015d.

24 B. Fer, 2004, p. 4.

25 Ibid.

26 I have elaborated on this in my interview with the artist Zeyno Pekünlü, see Z. Pekünlü, 2010, pp. 12-13.

27 By employing the term “vulnerability”, I am referring to Judith Butler as she conceptualises vulnerability as a position of strength rather than weakness and a way of resistance against paternalistic infrastructures rather than passivity. See J. Butler, 2004, pp. 19-49.

28 For a discussion in regards to the politics of visual representations of the mass violence of the Shoah in conjunction with Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), see G. Pollock and M. Silverman, 2014, p. 9. Pollock and Silverman argue that Lanzmann’s refusal to use the archive in his work is against the misuse of images, which may indulge the viewers in sadistic voyeurism. As an artist, I indeed side with their perception.

29 J. Mooney and M. Thompson, 1995, p. 7.

30 I am borrowing these terms from Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory” in M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland and G. Smith, 2001, p. 576.

31 See J. Lacan, 1994, p. 49; J. Lacan, 1989, p. 113; B. Fink, 1995, pp. 223-224.

32 For an analysis on the concept of the death drive see R. Boothby, 1991.

33 See Julia Kristeva’s interview with Charles Penwarden in S. Morgan and F. Morris, 1995, p. 23.

34 Kristeva’s statement is in connection with Luce Irigary’s critique of the masculinist perspective of the Freudian repetition compulsion and the death drive in the context of the feminist psychoanalytic concept of the “life drive”. See L. Irigary, 1985b, p. 53.

35 J. Mooney and M. Thompson, 1995.

36 See R. Thomson, 1979.

37 See R. Lawlor, 1982; V. Hopper, 2003.

38 Talking Openly © 2010, Helin Anahit, All Rights Reserved, is an ongoing multi-media project consisting of oral histories of Armenians based in Turkey. See the exhibition link in Istanbul http://www.depoistanbul.net/en/activites_detail.asp?ac=31 [accessed 31 March 2015]. For the exhibition booklet, see H. Anahit, 2010b.

39 Here the ways in which I employing the term the other is from the perspective of a feminist praxis suggesting woman as the “other” than the other of a male subject. See for example L. Irigary, 1985b; H. Cixous, 1986, p. 71.

40 “Gendered agency” relates to the limits imposed based on the individual’s gender in a society. I have elaborated on this during the Gender, Memory and Genocide” Conference in Berlin. See H. Anahit, 2015b.

41 During its exhibition in London in 2004, I displayed it with lyrics from “Illusion”, the poem by Gomidas. See http://www.komitas.am/eng/poetry.htm [accessed 30 September 2015]. For Gomidas, see R. Soulahian Kuyumjian, 2001.

42 Among those installations are: Trace, Old Power station, Enfield, London, 2005; Layers, Ther Cology Centre, Mile End, London, 2004 ; Landed, Middlesex University, Cat Hill, London, 2004. See H. Anahit, 2006.

43 For the psychoanalytic perception that envisages the skin as the first envelope of our bodies establishing a limit and a boundary in relation to corporeal identity, see L. Irigary, 1980 and D. Anzieu, 1985. I have elaborated on this during the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop and International Gender and Aesthetics Symposium at Sabancı University. See H. Anahit, 2015e.

44 Helin Anahit, Arrivals and Departures, 2005, single-channel video, 4:3, colour, stereo, 6’36’’. Arrivals and Departures © 2005, Helin Anahit, All Rights Reserved.

45 Balat is situated in the Fatih district on the western shore of the Golden Horn in Istanbul.

46 Walter Benjamin, “The Return of the Flâneur”, in M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland and G. Smith, 2001, p. 262.

47 See H. Anahit, 2005; 2015a.

48 K. Meynell, 2005, p. 3.

49 See H. Anahit, 2010a; 2015a.

50 I shot the video in the Sourp Hreshdagabed Church (Holy Archangels Armenian Church) in Balat before it was renovated. See V. Seropyan, 1993, p. 90, quoted in M. Polatel et al., 2012, pp. 267-268.

51 M. Blanchot, 1995 ; also see P. Ricœur, 2004.

52 M. Blanchot, 2002; Id., 2007, pp. 38-39.

53 For the significance of the sea in diasporic and transnational artists’ works, see H. Anahit, 2015a.

54 J. Kristeva, 1991, p. 16.

55 I undertook numerous field trips to Turkey for my research. Some of the trips were in Istanbul, but most of them have been in Anatolia (Anadolu). Among those cities in no particular order are: Adana, Diyarbakır, Batman, Mardin, Bitlis, Muş, Bingöl, Elazığ, Dersim, Erzincan, Van, Kars, Artvin, Gümüşhane, Kastamonu, Karabü̈k, Kayseri, Ankara and İzmir. It is my family relative, the late Sarkis Seropyan, one of the founders of the Agos newspaper, who glued me to Anatolia: in his own words to “the lands of Anahit”. See S. Seropyan, 2003.

56 S. Hall 1990, p. 227.

57 P. Ricœur, 1999, pp. 7-8.

58 P. Ricœur, 2004, p. 504.

59 Ibid., 2004, p. 9. Here, Ricœur is referring to Aristotle’s Physics Book IV.

60 S. Dermen, 2012, p. 235.

61 I was able to put my family’s narrative together after interviewing family members and also carrying out research in the official archives in Turkey. I have explained the ways in which the themes of memory, loss and survival have been given meaning in my family at more length elsewhere. See H. Anahit, 2015c, pp. 387-399.

62 Safranbolu is a town and district of Karabük Province in the Black Sea region of Turkey. It is situated in the northeast of Bolu. The old hospital building where my great-grandfather used to work is being used as an Art College since 2012. See Karabük Üniversitesi, Safranbolu Fethi Toker Güzel Sanatlar ve Tasarım Fakültesi, http://gstf.karabuk.edu.tr [accessed 23 July 2013].

63 On 6-7 September 1955, mobs looted and destroyed shops and properties belonging to non-Muslim minority Turkish citizens, mainly targeting the Rums (Greeks) in Istanbul. No investigation was carried out after the riots. The incident later became known as “6-7 September”. See D. Güven, 2005; A. de Zayas, 2007, pp. 137-154.

64 He later became a furniture maker.

65 Compulsory second or third time military conscription of non-Muslim citizens of Turkey – between the ages of 25 and 45 during Second World War, known as 20 Kura Askerlik (20 class military service).

66 They worked in Cibali Tobacco Factory on the southern shore of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. Since 2002, the building of the tobacco factory has been used as the central campus of the Kadir Has University, founded in 1997: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kadir_Has_University [accessed 3 March 2013].

67 I have been profoundly inspired by Arlene Voski Avakian’s moving memoir. See A. Avakian, 1992.

68 See L. Irigary, 1985a, p. 75.

69 Art writing relates to writing through art and not writing about art elucidating art practice as a medium of knowledge and representation by engaging in its intellectual, political and cultural prospects.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 Helin Anahit, Journey, dimensions variable, 1995Edition of 3, private collection (Montreal, New York)Installation view, Quicksilver gallery, London, 1995[Journey © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/935/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Légende Figure 2 Helin Anahit, Crossroads, mixed media on canvas, 183 x 183 cm, 1994Private collection (Los Angeles)[Crossroads © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/935/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 280k
Légende Figure 3 Helin Anahit, A Triptych, mixed media on linen, 3 x 58.5x 58.5 cm, 1995Private collection (Boston). Installation view, “XIII” group exhibition, Gasworks Gallery, London, 1995 [A Triptych © 1995, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/935/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 284k
Légende Figure 4 Helin Anahit, Illusion, mixed media, dimensions variable, 1995-2004Edition of 3, private collection (Edinburgh, Boston). Installation view, “Layered Visions” group exhibition, The Tea Building, London, 2004[Illusion © 2004, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/935/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
Légende Figure 5 Helin Anahit, still from Arrivals and Departures, 2005Single-channel video, 4:3, colour, stereo, 6’36’’[Arrivals and Departures © 2005, Helin Anahit All Rights Reserved]
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/935/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 288k
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Helin Anahit, « Gendered Narratives of Loss and Survival through Art Practice », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 6 | 2015, 273-291.

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Helin Anahit, « Gendered Narratives of Loss and Survival through Art Practice », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 6 | 2015, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2016, consulté le 15 novembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eac/935

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Auteur

Helin Anahit

Middlesex University

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