Salon Mashup – Armenian Perspectives of Loss and Resettlement

http://www.armenianinstitute.org.uk/

Shoreditch Town Hall

Thursday 31st Jan – Sunday 3rd Feb 2013

I attended the opening night of Salon Mashup, a three-day event of performance and visual arts that explores Armenian culture and history with especial reference to the experiences of displacement and resettlement. I was attracted to the event as it explores notions that affect many in London, migration, which is often and, certainly currently, viewed through negative and indifferent lenses, needs a voice to express the other side of what is often a complex and painful coin.

The siting of the showcase in the basements of Shoreditch’s old Town Hall, now a heritage site, was particularly apt as became unravelled during the performances that took place over the evening. After an introductory dance in the main hall the audience was led though the labyrinthine basements to a small claustrophobic space where the performance of Deported took place.

A lack of knowledge of Armenian history on my part was no bar here, Victoria played by Nathalie Armin tries to acknowledge her new life in America but is in constant conflict with memories of the enforced displacement from Armenia by the haunting shadow of Varter played by Agni Scott. I found the dilapidated environment of the basements particularly resonant in experiencing this performance; it brought home the sense of violence and destruction it explores; the injustice, oppression and loss of culture and the reduction to fighting for survival itself.

The piece is well played by the actors who bring a real intensity to the performance; Armin truly conveys Victoria’s internal struggle, the loss of her children and her attempts to reconcile herself to her new life. Her remaining daughter, she says, is shielded to the suffering experienced by her parents who want to give her a new, safe life in America, free from their histories but, inevitably, she is drawn to her memories of her former identity. It’s wonderfully moving, touching on the displaced present that migrants constantly work to embrace while standing on uncertain roots and the legacy to children of migrants, the gift of a new haven in which to live their lives.

Armenia’s history of conflict, displacement and genocide was vividly brought to life through the performance Armenian Undercover by Nourtiza Matossian. I learned all I know about Armenian history and culture through this wonderfully condensed piece which gave me an understanding of how persecuted Armenians have been through their history. Her explanations of Armenians travelling through their towns by using connected rooftops and basements so as not to be seen were almost beyond belief as she explored how despite being hidden to the point of invisibility Armenians managed to retain their identity.

As a reviewer of visual arts I was fascinated by the revelation that Arshile Gorky was not so much Russian as Armenian and the work Nourtiza had personally undertaken in bringing this information to light, demonstrating that, inevitably, as Victoria in had found in Deported, the layers of the self remain encapsulated within no matter where physically displaced.

In addition to performances, the basements have also been filled with visual art that reflects on the themes of the event. Curated in collaboration between Vazken Davidian and Shoair Mavlian, they have used the atmospheric space of the basements creatively to produce an excellent exhibition. As the viewer follows the performances around the space they come across visual art that in some senses crosses over to blend with the performances.

I was drawn to Marc Balakjian’s beautifully and finely executed drawings and sketches on paper, I particularly liked his representations of conflict in the series of sketches. These, for me, read as allusions to the sense of nationhood perpetuated by the colours of flags, as individual objects took on different hues creating difference and territorial stances but also indicating that identity can be fluid.

Vanessa Berberian’s series of photographs taken on the day of emptying her grandmother’s house after her death were particularly affecting. Berberian’s work is made even more poignant by the fact that she is pregnant, whilst we are always aware of the inescapable circle of life, this series of photographs gives a rare glimpse into that action as the artist and her mother clear the house of items and revisit memories, effectively preparing a new space for the new life to come.

I really enjoyed my experience at Salon Mashup, truly it was exactly what the director and the curators set out to achieve which was a rich mix of different artistic disciplines giving a real sense of Armenia’s story but also the further resonances of the migrant. If I have a criticism it is that it may have been too rich in its intensity and that one evening was not enough to take in the range of performance and visual arts offered and so perhaps could have been extended over a longer period but, that said, it was indeed a wonderful mash up that as a viewer you could pick and choose from and enjoy.

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