blog posts Kevork Mourad and Helen Makdoumian visit the University of Illinois, April 24-25, 2023 Apr 28, 2023 1:15 pm by Brett Ashley Kaplan Images My daughters (both in college) introduced me to the term “energy vampire” to describe people who suck all the energy out of a room. What’s the opposite? Energy generator? Kevork! Kevork has so much energy, vision, moxie, drive, imagination, and enthusiasm that he lights up all space. He can’t see an empty room: he sees a gallery filled with visual art, graced with dancers, performers, and light, accompanied by the stirring sounds of a million cellos. Sometime in 2018 or perhaps 2019, Helen Makhdoumian said something like: ‘I’ve just discovered this incredible Armenian artist…do you think we can bring him to Illinois?’ With this question she catalyzed my long collaboration with Elizabeth Sutton, director of the Spurlock Museum. We arranged to have Kevork come to campus in April 2020 to co-create art with art students. There were going to be—if not quite a million cellos—art hanging from ceilings, moving fabric we’d walk through and around, community involvement, student creators, thoughtful responses. Well, you can imagine my frustration and disappointment when, after all the planning and fundraising and and and that it talks to pull off such a thing, he wasn’t able to be here. Rotten pandemic. Kevork did arrive, virtually, in April 2021, for a scintillating conversation with Helen, which you can see here.But there’s no substitute for the experience of breaking bread with someone, co-making art with someone, or witnessing an artist share his vision and his process with such incredible energy and generosity. Unforgettable doesn’t come close. Transformative will have to do.DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightThe workshop with thirteen willing learners—a mix of students, Spurlock staff, and faculty—took place on the second floor of the museum. When we arrived the awesome Spurlock staff were there to help us get set up and Kevork began to explain what we would be making and how. At first, I confess, I couldn’t see my way to the end—I couldn’t envision how the blobs of paint we were pushing around on a transparent sheet could be melded into art. But Kevork seemed completely confident and unworried that we didn’t understand. He just patiently took us through each step of the process he’d invented and perfected: take a transparent sheet, paint it with black paint mixed with something white, manipulate with a hotel key (or, in what I thought was rather fitting in my case, an expired Museum of Contemporary Art Membership card), press onto a piece of white fabric. Kevork stood sentinel by the fabric and carefully chose where to make each singular impression. Some of the transparencies had to be re-done but once they were pressed onto the fabric there was no erase button. This made me very nervous, but Kevork was totally chill and enthusiastic and calmly placed each new creation onto the fabric precisely where he wanted it to go, making an incredibly complex aesthetic series of choices look effortless.DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightAgain, I couldn’t really “see” where he was going with this. What we had, once Kevork put the fabric up on the wall, were a bunch of small pieces that we’d made. And then, what I can only “magic,” began. Kevork took a special tool he developed and painted over and across our small, rapidly rendered works. He created cities, landscapes, towers, spaces of connection. During the conversation with Helen after, at the Knight Auditorium at Spurlock to an eager and large audience, I pressed him to explain this magic and he said that he can see where and how the images will morph and thus can merge them. It’s a level of vision + moxie that has taken years to develop but takes only minutes to execute. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightThe next stage is much like editing a manuscript, but slightly more dangerous: Kevork took a red sharpie and placed an “X” on all the white spaces that had to be eliminated. We each had a small, sharp cutter and began taking out the white space. This is a slow and careful process and, even though the workshop was three hours long, we did not finish it before the conversation. The finishing, it turned out, took place in a lovely conference room in the very museum (Spurlock) that will house the “Paintings of Hope.” This happened on the 25th when I was expecting to return to editing and commenting on my graduate student’s essays but found myself cutting fabric in the company of Kevork, Helen, and Dilara Çalışkan—Dilara made a time-lapse video which you can see here. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightThe final stage will be completed by the museum—the three layers we made were of varying thicknesses of paint and density such that the layer that will hang at the back is deepest and darkest, the middle layer lighter, and the front layer thin branches arching around each other with ample space to see between, to the two other layers behind. This tripartite structure allows us to think about connection and distance, diaspora and community, windows onto other worlds and collaboration and cohabitation. The students who participated in the workshop on the 24th were thrilled to be part of this project! Kayla Wilson, a sophomore in Civil Engineering who is pursuing an Art Minor, said: “This workshop was a really refreshing experience. It interrupted my crazy busy day with a creative experience that was new and collaborative. Working with a new medium with the guidance of the artist himself who was super talented and nice was the best part of the workshop. I loved it!”DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightAfter this transformative workshop we moved to the Knight Auditorium for a conversation between Helen and Kevork which of course took place on the somber occasion of the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies is committed to commemorating this event in ways that do not shy away from trauma but simultaneously point towards the brilliant artistic, scholarly, literary, and other flourishings of Armenian culture makers in diaspora. This year we commemorated on the actual day, April 24th, that was chosen because it was on April 24th in 1915 in what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul) that Ottoman Empire authorities rounded up and murdered many Armenians, thus beginning the terrible events to follow. This day is a national day of commemoration in Armenia.DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightHelen Makhdoumian, who received her Ph.D. in English and Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies in 2021, and is now a Promise Armenian Institute Postdoctoral Scholar at UCLA, did more than anyone to catalyze HGMS’s annual commitment to remembering this event. Helen’s dissertation, “A map of this place: Memory and the afterlives of removal” articulated a novel category of “nested memory” and, in Helen’s words, “centers the category of indigeneity to reframe questions of place, space, movement, and belonging articulated in transnational and transcultural memory studies.” She “developed a connective study of how memories of dispossession and removal travel across time, generations, and geographies… through a contrapuntal study of contemporary Armenian American, Palestinian American, and American Indian/First Nations novels and memoirs.” This mapping of memory, this transnational accumulation of disparate stories all threaded through diverse moments of nested memory will prove to be an invaluable contribution to memory studies, Armenian, and indigenous studies and will help us to think through the traumatic legacies we inhabit.DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightKevork’s visit, then, continued the rich tradition inaugurated by Helen and which has included visits from Peter Balakian, Nancy Kricorian, Silvina der Meguerditchian, Melissa Bilal, Sato Moughalian, and many other scintillating voices from the Armenian diaspora. Helen has been a proven trailblazer on campus and has done an enormous service to the university and the larger community to expand and enrich our programming around the Armenian Genocide and trauma and memory studies more broadly. Please go here for more on our past efforts. Kevork Mourad is such an active and diverse artist that I struggled to keep my introduction short. Kevork was born in Syria, studied art in Yerevan, Armenia, and now lives in upstate New York. His intensely evocative, beautiful work explores migration, memory, and place; trauma, community, and isolation. History and its often violent over-writing, the competing claims of inheritance and presence, the motherland and the currentland. Time, engagement, and distance. He collaborates with dancers, musicians, and other visual artists to create stunning multimedia projects. He has worked with Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kim Kashkashian, and exhibited and/or performed at Carnegie Hall, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tabari Art Space in Dubai, and many other august museums and performance spaces all over the world. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightHis projects invite us to see and feel the spaces he evokes but also to come in, to experience your own—our own—memories, reactions, and emotions as we travel through the work. As Kevork said in one of his many videos (and I urge you to check out his website which offers a vast archive of at least some of his myriad projects), “I’m interested in knowing what you’re going to feel when you are in front of the piece, as a citizen of the world.”An enormous thank you to Elizabeth Sutton, Director of the Spurlock Museum, for working with us so thoughtfully on this visit. She and her staff arranged the three hour workshop in which we built this incredible piece of art. We are also grateful to Elizabeth for commissioning Kevork’s wonderful piece. “A World through Windows,” which is part of Spurlock’s’ collection and is currently on view on the second floor. She has been unflaggingly generous and patient and I am so grateful for her collaboration with HGMS and her fierce determination to bring Kevork to the museum. The rest of Spurlock’s staff was incredibly helpful. Enormous thanks to Brian Cudiamat, Travis Stansel, Christa Deacy-Quinn, and especially Dery Martínez-Bonilla for making Kevork’s visit and his installation so wonderful. This visit would not have been possible without the incredible energy and dedication of Masumi Iriye, and we thank Masumi, Tamara Chaplin, everyone at CAS and MillerComm, Gene Avrutin, and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society, and through the Department of Education Title VI grant, Emmanuel Rota and the EU Center, Steve Witt and the Center for Global Studies, Wail Hassan and the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies provided crucial support for this visit. Enormous thanks to Leslie Davison for making the logistics of the visit possible. HGMS has set up an April 24th fund to help us continue this annual tradition so please feel free to find that on the HGMS website. We would like to thank Travis Stansel of the Spurlock Museum for providing us with wonderful images of this event.