Armenian Genocide Anniversary Sparks Fiery Art in Los Angeles

ArtViaArt’s mural in L.A.’s Little Armenia commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The woman depicted in the mural is the artist’s grandmother, whose parents narrowly survived the genocide.  (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

A lot of Armenian-Americans of a certain age can relate to L.A. actress and comedienne Lory Tatoulian.

“I remember when my grandfather would come and visit us, he would share a room with me and he would wake up in the middle of the night screaming,” recalls Tatoulian, sitting beside her mother, Araxy Tatoulian, in the kitchen of Lory's home in downtown Pasadena.

“And I remember getting scared and running to my mom’s bedroom,  and I didn’t understand what was happening,” she says.

Lory's mother would try to calm her down.

“And I would say, 'Lory, he has a pain, and later on when you grow up I’m going to tell you the story,' ” Araxy Tatoulian says.

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Araxy Tatoulian's parents survived the Armenian genocide, barely.

Her mother was wounded by Ottoman soldiers while she fought alongside men in the Armenian resistance.

She lived with the bullet until her death 30 years ago. The bullet is now part of a museum collection of genocide-related material in Armenia.

Araxy’s father, at the age of 8, was taken in by Arab Bedouins after his family was butchered. He was later reunited with surviving family in Lebanon.

 Araxy Tataloulian (L) and her daughter Lory with pictures of Araxy’s mother and father, survivors of the Armenian genocide.
Araxy Tataloulian (L) and her daughter, Lory, with pictures of Araxy’s mother and father, survivors of the Armenian genocide. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Lory Tatoulian says her grandparents rarely spoke of their experiences.

“But you just felt it in their eyes. It was manifest in the way they raised us with this underlying anxiety that something horrible could always happen,” Lory Tatoulian says. “That was an energy that was always present.”

But family life was also filled with a great deal of laughter and creativity. Her grandmother was also a stage actress and writer. Her mother, Araxy, is a teacher and poet.

“This is my story. This is a burden I also carry, and what am I to do with this pain?” Lory Tatoulian asks. “What am I to do with those stories, with those nightmares?”

Around 200 people crowded into Abril Bookstore in Glendale recently to hear Araxy and Lory Tatoulian sing traditional Armenian songs and share stories and photos of their family’s survival.

Araxy Tatoulian says her generation also kept stories of the genocide alive through art. But it’s younger generations who have really thrust it into the pop culture mainstream.

“This new generation, second and third generation, they feel like there’s a still a pain," says Araxy Tatoulian. "So that’s why this year is very special. It’s a sacred centennial."

Hundreds of people also attended last week’s L.A. premiere of "1915: The Movie," the first American feature film to explore how the anguish of the Armenian genocide continues to ripple across the generations.

“One hundred years after the Armenian genocide, this rather obsessed and haunted theater director is staging a play, which he believes will bring the ghosts of this forgotten crime back to life,” co-director and screenwriter Alec Mouhibian explains.

“And it turns out that personal confrontations with the truth need to be made before the historic confrontations can be made on the stage for the play to work,” Mouhibian says.

Both historic and contemporary confrontations must deal with the executions, death marches and land seizures of 100 years ago. Turkey concedes atrocities were committed against Christian Armenians under Ottoman rule during World War I. But it insists they occurred during wartime, when many Turks also perished.

To this day Turkey denies there was ever a systematic plan to wipe out Armenians, or that as many as 1.5 million Armenian men, woman and children perished.

“1915” co-director Garin Hovannisian, whose father, Raffi Hovannisian, is the first foreign minister of Armenia, says that as long as the denial persists, so, too, will the protests.

“If you’re aware as an Armenian, you’re also aware of the fact that Turkey’s denial is just not passive denial. It’s aggressive denial,” Hovannisian says. “So the battle is ongoing, and that’s why I think we have no opportunity to back down.”

One of the loudest voices in the call for genocide recognition is the Grammy Award-winning L.A. metal band System of a Down.

All four members are also descendants of Armenian genocide survivors. This week System of a Down wrapped up an international tour commemorating the genocide’s centennial with its first-ever performance in Armenia, in a massive outdoor concert in the capital city, Yerevan.

Screen shot from the web simulcast of System of a Down’s April 23 outdoor performance in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. It was the band’s first ever performance in Armenia.
Screen shot from the web simulcast of System of a Down’s April 23 outdoor performance in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. It was the band’s first-ever performance in Armenia. (System of a Down)

“The important thing is justice,” said vocalist Serj Tankian, speaking about the band’s 20-year crusade in a video statement at the start of its "Wake up the Souls" tour.

“If someone killed my family and burned my house down and I’m running after them for 100 years, you have to have incrimination, you have to courts involved, etc,” Tankian says.

An online campaign launched this year by Glendale rapper R-Mean to raise awareness of the genocide sums it up in its slogan: "Our Wounds Are Still Open."

Open wounds is also the theme of a street mural painted last year in L.A.’s Little Armenia neighborhood by artist Arutyun Gozukuchikyan, who goes by the name ArtViaArt.

The mural shows a forearm sliced open by a dagger, the year 1915 exposed beneath the skin. "Our Wounds are Still Open" is painted in letters that look as if they were carved into the concrete.

"As for why and what difference this will make, it’s just documenting,”  Gozukuchikyan says. “I don’t know what the next generation will do, but you’re kind of just painting history.”

Arutyun Gozukuchikyan otherwise known as ArtViaArt and his recent street mural in L.A.’s Little Armenia commemorating the Armenian genocide.
Arutyun Gozukuchikyan, otherwise known as ArtViaArt, and his recent street mural in L.A.’s Little Armenia commemorating the Armenian genocide. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

A second mural completed a few months ago shows an elderly Armenian woman, Gozukuchikyan’s grandmother, her mouth bound with a cloth that's again inscribed with the year 1915.

Gozukuchikyan says a lot of older Armenians were hesitant to ever talk about the genocide, let alone to protest.

“This generation’s different, this generation’s stepping up,” Gozukuchikyan says. “This is our way of saying: No one wants to recognize this? We’ll recognize it ourselves."

Gozukuchikyan says he’s done with the genocide as a subject, for now anyway. All he could say is right up there on the walls.

It’s a sentiment that “1915” co-director Garvin Hovannissian can relate to.

“When we were making this film I’d always been thinking of April 24 as our last chance of telling the world what happened to us,” Hovannissian says.

“But it’s really the first time that many people are going to hear about (the genocide). And that’s another way of saying our work and struggle are still ahead of us.”

And maybe through a film, song or street mural, the Armenian genocide will remain burnished in people’s memories for another hundred years.

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