Unique Folk Art Recreates the World Before the Armenian Genocide

At the Armenian Museum of America, a small collection of dioramas reveals a world that was left behind during the genocide.

In the Armenian Museum of America, there’s a curious collection of dioramas that might represent one of the most unique forms of Armenian-American folk art. On the first floor of the Watertown, Massachusetts-based museum is a small model of a home from the now-gone town of Hussenig, which was once located in the province of Kharpert (Harput) during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

The model was made by an elderly man from Yerevan, Armenia, named Haji-Hagopian, who arrived in the United States in 1990 and went to a dentist named Martin Deranian. During their appointment, the doctor started talking about his famous uncle Hagop Bogigian, and the name rang a bell for the visitor. It turned out Bogigian’s family had helped Haji-Hagopian’s father during the Armenian Genocide.

Deranian pounced on his guest’s words and asked him if he remembered the family’s home. Haji-Hagopian joked that he couldn’t even remember what he ate that day, but he remembered that house. He would eventually be convinced to recreate the home from memory with the help of another man. Together they created a model replica, which continues to be proudly displayed in the museum, serving as a monument to a place that no longer exists.

The diorama, which is one of five in the museum’s collection, demonstrates a unique type of folk art that only appears to exist in the United States. Some were made by the immigrants themselves, while others were commissioned to be made by compatriots to help survivors feel closer to their lost homes.

Curator Gary Lind-Sinanian suggests that their creation might also have to do with the long tradition of building models of Armenian churches, many of which are also in AMA’s collection. He also wonders if similar regional dioramas, such as more well-known examples at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, might have inspired them.

Visitors to the Peabody encounter dioramas which offer glimpses not only of natural scenes, but also of traditional scenes of Native American culture. The dioramas in AMA’s collection certainly evoke the style, scale, and manner of the Native American exhibits at the Peabody. Why the makers may have emulated those models remains a mystery, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine they felt a personal connection with the scenes of idealized Indigenous life, before the violence of colonization and removal.

These dioramas might also be part of a different type of memory work, done by Armenians across the US in various ways and scales. “There were a lot of other old men of that generation who had their own little Armenian museums,” Lind-Sinanian explains. “It was the kind of thing that was not unusual for the generation of survivors.

So they’d clip out newspaper clippings, magazines from Hayastan [the Armenian term for Armenia], anything and everything that was Armenia-related, and they would save this as, again, a way of recreating Armenia.” Some of these personal museums were maintained in garages and other unconventional spaces, denoting a desire to assert their identities and history on their terms.

That desire to recreate a lost homeland permeated much of early Armenian American culture. Lind-Sinanian points out that artist Yenovk der Hagopian, for instance, “converted his entire backyard [in Yonkers, NY] into a landscape replicating [historical] Armenia.”

“So when you look at the back window of his kitchen, you would see the hills of Armenia with Lake Van in the foreground — he was Vanatsi [meaning from the city of Van] — and in the background, Mount Ararat,” Lind-Sinanian explained. “Of course, you actually can’t see Mount Ararat from Lake Van.” The need to recreate those natural scenes and the fantasy involved is referenced in Atom Egoyan’s film Ararat (2002), in which a movie director sets a scene that also places Mt. Ararat in view of Van.

Another way Armenian Americans would recreate their lost homes was gardens. While not as drastic as der Hagopian’s recreation of Van in his backyard, there is a tradition of cultivating traditional plants from the old country. A similar tradition exists for Italian Americans, but the Armenian version remains largely unstudied.

Bogigian’s home is a centerpiece of the collection at the Armenian Museum because of its detail and the role of its owner in the early community that sprouted up in Watertown and elsewhere in New England. Bogigian himself was one of the most curious figures of the early Armenian American community. His rug shop, widely believed to be the first in the country, was located across from the statehouse. He established it after the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow encountered him selling carpets in a shoe shop in downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lind-Sinanian explains:

[Bogigian] got to Harvard Square with three rugs. He went to the shoe store, paid the guy a little money — or just asked a favor, it’s not clear — to hang the rugs in the window of the shoe shop. Then he sat down with the various customers, hoping somebody would walk by and buy something. The same day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came in, found this fascinating young man … and bought the rug and began talking about him to his friends. They began buying rugs. Two years later, [Bogigian] opened a business right across from the State House and became very successful selling rugs.

Bogigian helped foster a taste for what at the time were called Oriental rugs among Boston’s elite, and he was also a character himself. He would, Lind-Sinanian explains, travel internationally with an empty coffin. “So when they were putting the stuff aboard a ship, they’d be putting an empty coffin on board,” he revealed. “And the sailors would look at each other and start laughing and say, ‘Oh, let me guess, Mr. Bogigian is coming, isn’t he?’ ‘Yep, that’s his coffin’ … Everybody knew Hagop Bogigian, and this is just one of his little oddities.”

The following photographs show a selection of these unique dioramas in the Watertown museum’s collection. It’s unclear how many others might exist elsewhere in other private collections or institutions. The images are accompanied by the museum descriptions, which have been edited for clarity and context. These unique models demonstrate the desire of early survivors to transport the material and lived experience of the world they were forced to leave behind to their new homes in the United States.

The Bogigian Complex

This was the finished model approved by Haji-Hagopian. The home was one of the largest in the Armenian quarter of Mezere, Kharpert (Harput), and was originally the home of the Bogigian family. Hagop Bogigian had funded the construction of the family estate with his rug business, but his family was killed during the genocide.

The Chorebanian House

This model, a reconstruction of a typical home in Arapkir (Arapgir) in present-day Turkey, was created by Diran Chorebanian as a keepsake of his childhood in Arapkir before the genocide. It includes an array of features and tools to represent different activities, and utilizes a generic design, rather than an exact representation of his own home. The building is a flat-roofed adobe structure common in the region.

The Kechichian Models

These were two architectural models commissioned by Papken Keshishian of Kharpert (Harput), who had a successful photography supply business in Boston. These were simplified wooden models based on his drawings, created to illustrate basic architectural principles rather than to reflect actual lifeways. One model illustrates the construction of a home on a steeply inclined hill, common in the hilltop community of the city of Kharpert, while the other allows one to glimpse inside a mill and see how the millwheel functions.

The Caucasian House

This is a house model built specifically for the museum as a diorama to illustrate the style of buildings used in Eastern Armenia, made of stone and half-buried, which contrasts with the adobe-style architecture prevalent in Western Armenia. The model is generic, based on the traditional “hazarshen” buildings in the Zangezur mountain range and Artsakh (Karabakh). 

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You can also watch this video produced by AMA where you can see the models in action along with curatorial commentary.

Object Show and Tell: House Dioramas

Editor’s Note, 04/28/21: A previous version had listed the name of the person who commissioned The Kechichian Models as Papken Keshishian of Kharpert (Harput), but the family has informed us that the correct spelling and location is Papken Kechichian of Cemisgezek in Kharpert (Harput). The name of the models has also been changed to reflect that.

by Hrag Vartanian Hyperallergic




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