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Inheritance Project | art and images beyond a silenced genocide

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Eileen Claveloux

Claveloux Essay
No one ever said much about being Armenian when I was growing up. My father told me that my grandmother was Armenian and that the Turks had tried to murder all of the Armenians. What I heard from my grandmother and her sisters were small of fragments of stories. Sometimes out of the blue a comment was made and I always remained a little in doubt as to whether or not I actually heard what I thought I heard, or maybe I'd just dreamt it.

I am a quarter Armenian and that quarter was mysterious because almost everything about it remained unsaid. Years after my father had sustained a spinal cord injury, I began to associate his family's behavior towards him with a possible link to the Genocide. For the most part, they seemed to drop him. They'd always had difficulty dealing with death and illness, and although hurtful, it really didn't seem too strange to us. Only after a chance conversation with a friend, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, did I begin to think there might be a connection.

After my father's death, I had a real need to understand how the silences in my family allowed the historic trauma that occurred long before I was born to still have power over us all. How does memory work and how do we evoke the unremembered? If people want nothing more than to forget, or can do nothing but forget, does their amnesia mean that their descendants must replay those blank spots in their history over and over?

As a partial answer to these questions, I created The Naming, a video/installation. This work examines the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 and the ways in which the first genocide of the 20th century still reverberates through the lives of survivor descendants. Working primarily with private and public archival footage, the video became a way to link the realm of personal memory with history. It is a locating of self and family within a historical context through the process of naming.

The video construct is a triptych. First there is the realm of dream, which depicts the fluid, unstable way the unconscious processes information. Second is the version of more contemporary memory, which acts as a hinge that the other two sections depend upon. It is this segment, relating to incidents surrounding my father's injury, which spurred the entire investigation. The third section is a look at the lives of those in the past whose experiences shaped the lives of their descendants.

This project has aided in seeing myself within a different context; helped me establish ties with family members I didn't know existed, and allowed me to connect with a community I knew little about. More importantly, it has helped me understand my ghosts better. There is no way to comprehend genocide, as there is truly no comprehension of smaller, more intimate devastations. These losses, personal and collective, can be understood in one context — that they are unutterably and terribly commonplace.

Eileen Claveloux
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