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Inheritance Project | art and images beyond a silenced genocide

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Elisa Khachian

Khachian Essay
Garabed Sogigian, professor at Euphrates College, was my grandfather. For the crimes of being Christian and an intellectual, he was taken to prison where he died. For Hrag Sogigian, my mother, thirteen at the time and oldest of five children, the Genocide began.

Remembering the best of the last good times, but mostly remembering the sad, dark times, she had many stories to tell. These were my bedtime stories. "One night, when the wolves howled," she said, "I knew my father had died. We gathered what we could into our wagon and fled. It was dark; I led the horse that pulled the wagon. I walked and walked. Around my waist was a plastic case with the family photos. My hair turned white overnight."

In the wagon was my grandmother Haiganoosh, her younger daughter Vartoohi and baby boy Diran. Grandparents and two sons were left behind. Hrach, eleven, was given to a man taking boys to safety. Kourken, four, was left to neighbors. The stories ended with, "There is a God and He is good."

The long journey across the Syrian Desert brought them to safety: the Red Cross and care in orphanages. After a few years, Hrach safely completed his journey and reached the United States. He traced his family and brought them to "God Bless America." They "came over on the boat" to Ellis Island. Reunited and settled in Brooklyn, they did laugh again, pray again, marry, raise families and continued their tradition and heritage.

My mother's family told no stories, at least not to me. My dear-heart mother was the main storyteller. When she married my father, Mihran Tufenkjian, I inherited another family of survivors rich in history, but they hardly spoke. My father worked hard, read his Bible, but told no stories. When I married my husband Richard, I inherited several more families of survivors. Grandmother Pearlante, my new best friend, matched my mother in her remembering.

About ten years ago, families started handing envelopes of photos to me for safekeeping. I always knew that I would do this work later in my life, but realized that later was now. Using photos and objects as a vehicle, I began making art, which has turned out to be my most satisfying body of work. Done with a mix of sadness and joy, it is a historical journey of my Armenian ancestors, immediate and distant, honoring their courage, dignity, intelligence, survival and love of family — their lives.

All my inherited families are represented, identified by their authentic symbols and imagery. Five generations are covered; stories are interwoven, but the plot remains the same, and I edit for happy endings. The surface is interwoven using drawing, painting, collage, transfers and printmaking. Many pieces are layered with transparent papers. Using some of my own history, stories and mixed memories, the works grow and feed each other.

Mother of three daughters and one son, grandmamma to four granddaughters and six grandsons, there are many new stories to tell, and envelopes with old photos still arrive.

Elisa Khachian
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