April 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Armenian monuments at risk in Azerbaijan. L.A. artists react

If you stand at the corner of Artsakh Avenue and East Broadway in Glendale you’ll catch a glimpse of a surreptitiously installed public monument.

It shows a woman’s face veiled by lace — a still from Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film, “The Color of Pomegranates” — along with the phrase “ARTSAKH ENDURES.” Emanating from the piece is a soulful mix of Armenian songs.

To see (and hear) this unusual art piece, you’ll need a cellphone since “Monument to the Autonomous Republic of Artsakh” is totally virtual — visible only via an augmented reality app and visible only at that specific geographic point. It’s a poignant work: a reminder of a bloody conflict thousands of miles away in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan (known as Artsakh by Armenians), one that has left thousands dead and centuries of Armenian cultural legacy imperiled.

The monument is a collaboration among a group of Los Angeles artists and scholars. It emerges from a design by Kamee Abrahamian, with contributions by Nelli Sargsyan and Mashinka Firunts Hakopian. Sargsyan supplied the work’s haunting soundtrack: a medley that draws from songs about mountains and wind, a nod to Artsakh’s rugged landscape. Artist Nancy Baker Cahill, who has long used augmented reality as an artistic platform, was also involved, making the monument available for viewing on her 4th Wall app.

The work, says Hakopian, “imagines a future in which Artsakh is visible and a future in which Artsakh endures — even if it’s only virtually or in the memory of the diasporic peoples that have been displaced.”

A view of “Monument to the Autonomous Republic of Artsakh,” an augmented reality artwork that, using your cellphone, you can see on Artsakh Avenue in Glendale.

(Screengrab by Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

It is one of many artistic responses to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh by artists of Armenian heritage.

Last month, the metal band System of a Down, which emerged from Glendale’s Armenian community, reunited to release the protest songs “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” its first new music in 15 years. She Loves Collective, a group of women artists that formed in 2017, has staged guerrilla performances related to themes of loss and trauma in Armenian culture. Filmmaker Nare Mkrtchyan, whose Oscar-shortlisted documentary short “The Other Side of Home” explored themes related to the Armenian genocide, traveled to the region shortly before Nagorno-Karabakh reverted to Azeri control.

“I felt the strong need to go and film and be able to capture history, to be able to touch it one last time,” she says via email.

Among the places she traveled was the historic Tsitsernavank monastery, an early Armenian site whose earliest constructions likely date to the 5th or 6th century. “[I] was there less than an hour before the territory turned to Azerbaijan,” she writes. “It is surreal to think that my Armenian prayer might be the last one in those walls.”

A woman walks toward a stone monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh — known as Artsakh to Armenians.

Los Angeles filmmaker Nare Mkrtchyan walks toward the historic Tsitsernavank monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh — known as Artsakh to Armenians.

(Arsen Abrahamyan)

The conflict in Nagorno-Karbakh is a long and complex one. Situated in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range, the region has been ruled over the centuries by Persians and Russians, followed in the 20th century by the old Soviet Union. Historically, the area has been occupied largely by Christian Armenians, along with Muslim Turkic peoples and other ethnic groups. The roots of today’s conflict lie partly in the hands of the Soviets.

In the 1920s, the region’s population was majority Armenian, but the Soviets split off Nagorno-Karabakh and placed it within Azerbaijan’s political borders (part of a tactic, by Stalin, to weaken the national identities of smaller Soviet states). After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, inhabitants of the region attempted to rejoin Armenia, a move that resulted in a bloody, years-long conflict. A Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994 brought peace but left Nagorno-Karabakh in a tenuous, in-between state: an autonomous zone administered by Armenians that wasn’t officially part of Armenia but was technically considered Azerbaijan under international law. During that period, thousands of Azeris fled the region.

Two women visit a vintage cathedral in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Locals pray at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, in early October — a month before a cease-fire deal that put the region under Azeri rule.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The old conflicts came roaring back in September, when fighting began anew — but this time with the Azeris better armed courtesy of Turkish support and a strong petroleum economy. Another Russian-brokered cease-fire in early November put a halt to the shooting. It also put Nagorno-Karabakh, along with several provinces around it, back in Azeri hands. It is now Armenians who flee.

Left behind are centuries of Armenian cultural heritage: the graceful Dadivank monastery, which dates to the 12th century; the fan-roofed Gtichavank monastery, from the 13th century, once an important pilgrimage site; and the archeological site of Tigranakert, which dates to the Hellenestic era and is, in the words of Hamlet Petrosyan, an Armenian archeologist who has led research expeditions to the area, “the best-preserved city of the Hellenistic and Armenian civilizations.”

This is critical because, as art historian Christina Maranci wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month, Azerbaijan has “well-documented policies of destroying the Armenian cultural heritage found in their territories.”

A Russian peacekeeper walks past an armored personnel carrier parked in front of the towers of Dadivank monastery.

A Russian peacekeeper walks past Dadivank monastery in mid-November. The important Armenian cultural site now lies within the political borders of Azerbaijan.

(AFP via Getty Images)

An extensive investigative report by scholars Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman published by the arts website Hyperallergic last year recorded the systematic destruction of 89 medieval Armenian churches and 5,840 of the elaborate cross-stones known as khachkars in the province of Nakhichevan between 1997 and 2006. This included the razing of the vast medieval necropolis at Djulfa, near the Iranian border, which once contained thousands of 16th century Armenian headstones.

Late last year, when Maghakyan presented his findings in Pasadena, he told The Times: “If I do not tell this story, who will?”

Azeri officials deny charges of iconoclasm. Last year, Nasimi Aghayev, consul general of Azerbaijan to the Western United States, told The Times that the destruction of Djulfa was “a figment of Armenia’s imagination.” And a statement issued by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture last month stated that all monuments, “irrespective of its origin,” will be preserved.

But copious photography and satellite imagery of Nakhichevan tell another story. Not to mention the fact that Azeri officials are in the habit of regularly describing Armenian churches as “Caucasian Albanian,” a specious classification that serves as a way of writing Armenians out of the region’s history.

The U.S. foreign policy apparatus, in the meantime, is checked out on the subject. The State Department has not issued any statements regarding Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is too busy delivering Republican stump speeches in Georgia — the U.S. state, not the Caucasus nation.)

UNESCO issued a statement late last month reminding both nations that they are signatories to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and cited a U.N. Security Council Resolution from 2017 on the “unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, looting and smuggling of cultural property.” As part of its efforts, the agency promised to carry out a field mission to draw up an inventory of heritage in the area.

How effective that will be remains to be seen. In 2000, UNESCO ordered an end to the destruction at Djulfa. It was futile. By 2006, the cemetery had been smashed to pieces, with ancient grave markers dumped into the Araxes River, according to a report by Pickman in Archaeology magazine.

A view of stones with Armenian script on a rugged hilltop at the historic Tsitsernavank monastery.

A view of stones with Armenian script at the historic Tsitsernavank monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh to Armenians).

(Nare Mkrtchyan)

To draw awareness to the issue, artists of Armenian descent in Los Angeles are busy making work.

Members of She Loves Collective staged two performances this fall that dealt with themes raised by the war: struggle, displacement, erasure.

“We are all sucked into this immense pain that we all feel and we are seeking ways of expression,” says Adrineh Baghdassarian, a multimedia artist who is a co-founder of the collective. “We are all seeking ways of connecting to our heritage. Can I fly to Armenia? Can I help someone collect funds? What is it that I can do? Well, what is that we do best? It’s this.”

For its first performance, on Oct. 11, the group staged a procession through downtown L.A. that began at the Broad museum and moved to City Hall, where participants chanted, “The Rifles Our Ancestors Didn’t Have” (the title of the work). The artists wore striking white caftans emblazoned with an image of a rifle, a design that evoked the female Armenian freedom fighters of the early 20th century.

“The concept was looking peaceful, looking strong, looking powerful,” Baghdassarian says.

The collective followed this with a similar procession along the banks of the Los Angeles River that ended with the group dropping rose petals into the water while images from Artsakh were projected onto a bridge nearby.

The action functioned as “a healing,” says Nelly Ackhen Sarkissian, an installation and performance artist who is also a co-founder of She Loves.

It also incorporated iconic sites of the Los Angeles landscape. Southern California, after all, is home to the largest population of Armenians outside the former republics of the former Soviet Union. It is also home to one of the first monuments to the Armenian genocide built outside of Armenia: the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument in Montebello, completed in 1965.

The L.A. River performance employed as backdrop the concrete architecture of the river, as well as the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance — a way of connecting the Armenian story to to the American story.

“The focus point is always to have a strong L.A. backdrop,” Sarkissian says. “It’s not just important to say that we’re Armenians from L.A., but that we are engaging with our fellow Angelenos and Angelenas.”

Women in white caftans emblazoned with an image of a rifle stand triumphantly on a pedestrian bridge over the L.A. River

The She Loves Collective stages “The Rifles Our Ancestors Didn’t Have” at the L.A. River on Oct. 25.

(Jake Hagopian)

The group is currently at work on another performance that it plans to stage in Malibu, possibly in January if the COVID surge eases, at the site of a house claimed by one of the recent fires.

“It’s a universal thing,” Baghdassarian says. “Whether you lose it in a war or you lose your home in a fire or you lose your ancestral land.

“Where does home begin and where does home end?” she adds. “How is a person willing to burn his own home down if he cannot go down to his home ever again?”

Artists dressed in white carry candles as they march along the banks of the river, where someone has placed flowers

The She Loves Collective employs iconic L.A. sites as a way of connecting with broader themes.

(Jake Hagopian)

Hrag Vartanian is an arts journalist of Armenian descent who is editor in chief of Hyperallergic, which has doggedly chronicled some of the cultural issues at stake in the region. He is also part of an informal group of international scholars and cultural workers trying to compile information on historic sites in the region in anticipation of any destruction.

Vartanian, who has spent time in Nagorno-Karabakh, says that Armenian history is embedded in the landscape there. “Those buildings tell our history in an intimate way. … The history is written on the walls. Families are buried there.”

He notes that Armenian artists making work in response to the region’s tragedies is nothing new.

In the poignant painting “The Artist and His Mother,” created between 1926 and 1942 and held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., artist Arshile Gorky depicts himself as a young boy with his mother, who died of malnutrition after being displaced by the 1915 Armenian genocide, in which Ottoman Turkish forces systematically killed 1.5 million Armenians.

“It’s not the first time Armenians have been threatened,” Vartanian says. “They have been threatened by Mongols and different invaders.”

“This is how Armenian culture has evolved,” he adds. “We take these stories and we take these instances and we build something new.”

Cultural sites may be at risk in the Caucasus. New ones arise in L.A.