BEIRUT

Living

An Armenian tapestry of resilience

BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: Hripsime Sarkissian took on the role of protector of her family at 8 years old. Born in the Dersim region of middle Anatolia in 1908, Sarkissian grew up in the village of Ergan, famed for its beautiful, 1,000-year-old stone church. In 1915, the Ottomans began killing and expelling the Armenian population in modern day Turkey. Hripsime’s father, a wealthy merchant and landowner, was killed in the massacres, along with her uncles and brother.

“She survived because it’s a mountainous area and she and her mother and her little brother hid in a cave,” says Hripsime’s granddaughter, Anita Toutikian. “For a year, they ate a kind of wild grass. Sometimes they found lizards, so they survived until the wave passed, and they came back and started to work the land.

“She was a very strong personality, and she never knew fear. At the age of 8, she took on the responsibility to be the father of the family, and she started to carry a rifle. Maybe there was no real threat, but she was traumatized, so she spent her afternoons on the roof, trying to defend her family.”

Toutikian tells her grandmother’s story with quiet passion, recounting the hardships and triumphs of a life pieced together from interviews with her mother and aunts. Hripsime’s fascinating biography is the subtext to “Exbroideries,” an exhibition of her wild, vibrantly colored embroidery currently on show at the Badguer Center in Burj Hammoud.

Having survived the massacres of 1915, Hripsime toiled as a plantation worker on the land formerly owned by her father until she met and married Hovnathan Hovagimian. The couple had seven children together, but Hripsime’s struggles were not over. In 1938, the Turkish military launched a campaign in Dersim targeting the Kurdish population in response to the 1937 uprising protesting the resettlement law. Thousands were killed.

“They came to the houses and took everyone out to a big [plain] and they killed them 20 or 30 at a time with artillery,” Toutikian says, reporting her mother’s memories of the event. “You could see kilometers of dead people. Before Hripsime’s turn came, she saw a general. She ran to him and said: ‘We are Armenians. Why are you killing us? ... If you want to kill us, kill us now. Do not make us wait.’”

Hripsime was holding her 40-day-old son, Toutikian says, and offered to name him after the general in exchange for his sparing their lives.

“They were not killed but exiled to a remote village,” she says, “where she had to pretend to be a Muslim. After 10 years, they were allowed to go back to their village, but there was no one there anymore.

“There was no opportunity for them to get married, for them to get work, for them to survive. My mom and my auntie left for Aleppo, and my mom got married there, so she never returned. After a year, she moved here, so I was born in Lebanon and I grew up in Lebanon.”

Exhibited as a single installation, the 10 pieces Hripsime left behind after her death in Istanbul in 2000 are nothing like the restrained cushion covers and tablecloths the word “embroidery” usually calls to mind.

Rather than painstaking, neat stitches that pick out a delicate still life or floral design, Hripsime’s works are wild, asymmetrical, abstract and riotously colorful. The jagged stitches that crisscross the fabric betray her failing sight, as well as the passion that went into the creation of these works.

“She broke every rule,” Toutikian says. “She has even used plastic bags for support and sometimes pieces of the curtains. She has broken every rule in terms of material, pattern, symmetry – everything.”

An installation artist, psychologist and art therapist, Toutikian stumbled across one of the pieces of embroidery in her aunt’s house on a visit to Istanbul in 2009. Over the years since, she has gradually uncovered more and more, some hidden away in old pieces of luggage, other worn pieces laid on her aunt’s floors, used as rugs.

“Because I’m an artist and a psychologist,” Toutikian says, “over a year, I was looking at the work and discovering that it has psychological, historical, aesthetic and intellectual content. It’s not just copying something.

“She probably started doing the embroideries at the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s. She was losing her sight. ... So she did not do them with the eye, she did them by feel. She didn’t know anything about art – she had never seen a piece of art, except church artwork. She started to work from her memory.”

Toutikian points to details in the seemingly abstract patterns, picking out square crosses with flared arms, resembling reliefs on the old stone church. Star bursts of color evoke the flowers in the area of Anatolia Hripsime grew up in, now a national park, as well as darker themes. Some pieces are peppered with what look like gravestones, others adorned with coin-sized splotches of red, like drops of blood.

The pieces are displayed in numerous rooms on the second floor of the Armenian cultural center, surrounded by color photographs of the work that draw attention to the stunning detail, as well as pictures taken in Dersim, which show the influences of Ergan church and certain local flowers on the motif.

“I am extracting information, feelings, biography from the embroideries,” Toutikian says, explaining her choice of “Exbroideries” as a title.

“I am not showing the embroideries, I’m showing the extract of the embroideries, which is her life and a historical period of the Armenian people.”

“There is torture and elements of unhappiness in the work,” she acknowledges. “This is a biographical exhibition that shows how art can express itself through a woman who has lived through 1915 and 1938, so it reflects the steps in her life, with all the pain but also hope.”

Anita Toutikian’s “Exbroideries” is on show at the Badgeur Heritage Center in Burj Hammoud until May 18. For more information, please call 03-946-528.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2014, on page 4.

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