Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Artist Statements: Recalling genocide

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Painter Stephen Koharian has international relations on his mind when he’s in his studio. Four of the works at his upcoming show at Portland’s Two Point Gallery are responses to the Armenian slaughter of 1915-23, in which 1.5 million Armenians (and a million more Assyrians and Greeks) were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and which Turkey has never acknowledged as a genocide. (Candidate Obama promised he would during the campaign, but President Obama upset Koharian and many other Armenian-Americans when, during an April visit to Turkey, he refused to use that word in front of his hosts.)

Koharian, a 27-year-old Portland native and Maine College of Art graduate whose great-grandparents escaped the genocide and came to the US, wants “Turkey to admit this,” and hopes to provoke more discussion with his art — including two pieces entitled “Turkishness.” One of them shows two skeletons, a mother and a child, in a dark environment alone. The other shows three figures in fezzes, one holding a chain leading to the neck of a skeleton lying at their feet.

“To insult Turkishness is illegal in Turkey,” Koharian says, by way of explaining the pieces’ names.

Some of the works are his own illustrations of survivors’ tales he has read in online archives or at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts. Others are his own responses to what he has seen and heard and read on the subject. And many of the works that will be on display are not related to the Armenian genocide at all, but nevertheless depict what he calls “atrocities” — such as environmental destruction.

But beyond the depth of feeling in his conversation about the topic, and in his art, is his chilling choice of an artist statement. Quoting Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it reads: “Our strength lies in our intensive attacks and our barbarity . . . After all, who today remembers the genocide of the Armenians?”