cllr Interview by Nancy Le Nezet 5/18/2-15
Exactly one hundred years ago, the Armenian genocide took place, claiming well over a million lives and leaving the Armenian people landless and scattered. As some of the world commemorates the event, it remains a relatively unknown one, and a source of controversy. In Turkey, the word “genocide” cannot legally be used to describe the massacre, and only fifteen countries – including Canada, France and Switzerland – have recognized the genocide itself.
Nevdon Jamgochian is an American artist of Armenian descent who is using his art to raise awareness about social and political issues ranging from the extinction of animal species to that of rare languages. The recognition of the Armenian genocide is at the heart of one of his biggest projects. We met in Bangkok to discuss his plans, his message and his philosophy of art.
Nancy: Nevdon, you are about to take a sabbatical to develop your Stephan Bagradian project. Can you tell me about it?
Nevdon: The main project that I’m working on is a museum to an artist that never existed. The background for this whole project is that my father’s side of the family is Armenian, and I have been trying to find out a way to represent that through art, to log it into people’s memory, because I think that’s the only way we can really get people to remember things: through art. The importance of it isn’t the particular incident, but it’s genocide in general. Once humans realise that this is something that’s happened, once they remember genocide, it’s much less likely to happen again. In this particular case, the President of Turkey recently said that Muslims are incapable of committing genocide; the Armenian genocide cannot be talked about.
Nancy: So you chose to invent that artist who never existed, as a way to explore what would have happened if the version of history that is official [in Turkey] were real?
Nevdon: Exactly. I didn’t invent the character; he’s from a book from the 1930s called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. Werfel saw what was happening to the Jews in Austria and wrote a book that was about a real incident: one Armenian community resisted the Turks for a very long time with minimal equipment during the genocide and were eventually rescued by a French ship.
There’s a minor character in the book who is killed when he’s 15 years old, named Stephan Bagradian.
So I took the idea from the Turkish government saying that this did not happen: if this did not happen, if there was no genocide, what does this world look like?
Nancy: You’ve been painting as if you were the Bagradian, creating what he would have created, and creating his life, right?
Nevdon: That’s correct. I’m writing his life, I’m writing an autobiography of him during this period, and a lot of it takes place in Istanbul, which, is this world, remains to be called Constantinople. In this world, New York does not become the primary art capital; Paris and Constantinople remain the two art capitals.
Nevdon is painting on behalf of Stephan Bagradian, in the style of the period he would have lived in.
Nevdon is creating fictional biographical details about Stephan Bagradian, to explore the life an Armenian artist like him could have had if the Turkish version of history were true.
Fictional biographical details include correspondence with great artists like Marcel Duchamp. Nevdon painted the stamp from the land where Armenians would have lived without the genocide that scattered them.
Nancy: Your project is like an ironic form of revisionism!
Nevdon: The history of that area is so poor, and knowledge of artists who didn’t live in New York or Paris is so poor, it’s completely plausible. People contact me and they think it’s an artist that did exist, because there’s no reason that he couldn’t have. If you visit these Eastern European museums for example, they had their own version of impressionism, they had their own futurism, and you don’t hear about them. They had those brilliant artists in Budapest, in Slovakia, that I’ve never been made aware of. In our very limited art cannon, there are only twelve white men that wrote the entire history of art, which is ridiculous.
Nancy: You have been contacted by people who are excited because they think it’s true. Do you tell them it isn’t?
Nevdon: I immediately tell them, because I don’t want to make it a joke. If I didn’t tell them then the whole concept would be about the hoax, and it’s not; it’s about an exploration about what we remember, and what is real, and what is not real.
Nancy: Let’s talk about your philosophy of art. You believe that art needs narrative and that artists should be communicating a meaningful message. Is this view recent, or have you developed it over time?
Nevdon: I have been impatient of frivolous art for a long time. I think there was a point to art for art’s sake, art that has an aesthetic value by itself, as an exploration of your inner world, for a long time; however there are so many terrible things happening in the world now that all good art now is political, it has to be political.
Nancy: Is this what you think is an artist’s duty?
Nevdon: There’s a point to working on art; it’s good for training, it’s good for meditation, there’s nothing wrong with it. However, if you’re not doing art that has an idea being it, it’s decorative. And decoration is important, not to put down decoration, but since the invention of the camera, the point of art has to be about the idea.
I think the mistake has been made in the past to think that idea and beauty cannot be together, that if you go for one you’re betraying the other, and that’s something that we need to change too. We need to make these ideas beautiful for people, like a sugar-coated pill to take down, because no one will change their mind unless there’s an aesthetic value. Beauty is the fly paper! That is what is going to pull people in.
So my Bargadian project for example, hopefully people will come to it thinking “those are interesting-looking paintings”, and then “oh, he’s not a real artist”, “oh, this takes place in a different world”, “oh this is about a genocide that actually happens in another book”, down this well that hopefully can go down infinite levels.
Nancy: So where is the museum going to be?
Nevdon: I am engaging some carpenters in the Pacific Northwest to retrofit a trailer. I’m making a museum that I’m going to pull across North America, in as many spots as I can, some with permission, some in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully, and I’ll set up a museum for people to visit, to engage as many people as I can.
Nancy: So it’s like a traveling show?
Nevdon: Exactly, yes.
Nancy: Will you be selling some potions?
Nevdon: [laughs] If I can link it to the art, sure! Snake oil? Yeah!