Artist Highlight: Michelle Andonian

Lit candles melt into a pool of wax.
Michelle Andonian, American, b. 1958. Candles. Archival pigment print, 2013-14. Museum Purchase, 2017.67. Image courtesy of the artist.

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

This Picture I Gift, Michelle Andonian’s series featured in The National: Best Contemporary Photography 2018, is a documentary series that illustrates the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. The effects of the genocide are especially meaningful for Michelle because her grandmother, Sarah, somehow escaped the chaos before it was too late. Only 9 years old at the beginning of the genocide in 1915, Sarah survived the massacre of 1.5 million Christian Armenians and displacement of hundreds of thousands at the persecution of the failing Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was historically religiously intolerant. However, the Ottomans became especially hostile after losing the bulk of their European holdings following the Balkan Wars from 1912-13, and essentially defeat at the hands of Russia after joining World War I with Germany in 1914. Surrounded by enemies, the Ottomans turned their hostilities and suspicions inward and focused their aggression on Christian Armenians like Sarah’s family.

Armenians had lived in the area for some 2,500 years by the time persecution began, but as a largely agricultural people, they were no match for the Ottoman machine. Pogroms and massacres erupted across the empire, resulting in villages burned, houses looted, and Armenian men detained and killed for treason or drafted into defenseless military units. Those left behind were subjected to a systemic effort to destroy their culture and faced starvation or unendurable deportation—all, presumably, because they were a minority in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Within a year of the genocide beginning Sarah endured a 500-mile walk through the Syrian and Iranian deserts with her mother and aunt, but her father and infant brother didn’t survive. After a couple of years moving from town to town and relying on the hospitality of sympathetic Muslims, Sarah and her family were able to immigrate to America. When asked by border control how long they planned to stay, they all had the same answer: Forever.

A little girl in a puffy, pink coat meets the eye of the viewer as she stands among a group of women. The women in the foreground wear long blue dresses with white sleeves and their hands are clasped. In the background another girl sits in front of a piano playing music. The group is clustered around a grave.
Michelle Andonian, American, b. 1958. Sunday Service, St. Hripsime, A.D. 618, Armenia. Archival pigment print, 2013-14. Museum Purchase, 2017.63. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sarah soon found her way to the Detroit Metro Area where she was surrounded by a large community of fellow Armenian refugees. She rebuilt her life and soon became something of a pillar of strength in her new community. While Sarah had been able to overcome the pain caused by horrors of her early life to eventually find peace and happiness in America, the genocide wasn’t a taboo subject for her to talk about. Quite the opposite: she saw this chapter of her life, and that of the countless other lives affected, as something that should be faced and understood. As Michelle grew up and spent time with her grandmother, she learned about Sarah’s life-changing experiences from the comfort and safety of Sarah’s warm and welcoming home.

Michelle undertook this series in honor of her grandmother’s strength and traveled to present-day Armenia to document the aftermath that still affects the area. The few Armenians who remain continue to face hardships as they carve their lives out in an often hostile environment. Michelle’s photographs make the clinical facts and figures of the genocide real and bring humanity to an aspect of today’s worldwide culture that may otherwise be overlooked by the great many people—especially Americans, who are insulated from this tragedy. The power to humanize trauma is at the heart of Michelle’s work, and many would say that this power is at the heart of all great documentary work.

A woman stands in the foreground of a monastery in Armenia, walking away while another woman stands in front of the door, possibly locking it up. The Monastery is built into a cliffside, and the rocks and stones are beginning to crumble.
Michelle Andonian, American, b.1958. 11th Century Varagavank Monastery, Can Province, Turkey. Archival pigment print, 2013-14. Museum Purchase, 2017.66. Image courtesy of the artist.

Documentary photography has a long history in social commentary and reform, and Michelle’s work is part of this history. It is a vital tool for exposing world events to the masses as it provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people and events. Though elevated to art in recent decades, photography in its purest form may be intended as a record of reality, even if the photographer will inevitably capture scenes that become influenced by her technical and editorial choices. Similarly, documentary photographers use the genre to shed light on injustices and inequality as a tool for social change. This was true for pillars of the genre like documentary pioneer Jacob Riis, who exposed the cramped and squalid slums of 19th century New York City, and carries through to the work of Fergal Keane and Karoline Frogner, today’s documentarians of the Rwandan genocide like.

While Michelle’s photographs capture the injustices of over 100 years ago in a land many of this blog’s readers will never visit, her subjects emit powerful messages of the hardships that linger today. Her photographs are not gratuitous or sensational: she uses the tools of visual storytelling to expose the realities of trying to build a life in a region that still bears the scars of unimaginable violence.

If you want to learn more about Michelle’s photographs, you can see them on display here at FWMoA until July 15. Can’t make it to FWMoA? Watch the lecture she gave here on June 7: Michelle Andonian Lecture.

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