“A Museum Can be a Ticket to Travel”: Experience Armenia with Photographer Michelle Andonian

Michelle Andonian

The artist stands, cameras around her neck, in front of the Temple of Garni in Armenia.
Standing in front of the 1st century Temple of Garni. Photo courtesy of Michelle Andonian.

I have always collected small pieces of art as I traveled.  These precious objects have the power to transport my mind back to the places in my past. The wood carving of a pomegranate tree that sits on my table was made by an artist who had a small stand at the entrance of the 10th century Akhtala Monastery. Not having the correct change, I gave him more than he was asking. Proud and humble- he insisted I take a small collection of regional stones and a pencil drawing of the ancient church as a gift. I noticed at the time- not the figs the size of mangoes that he was also selling – but the crutches that were lying against the antique baby carriage nearby that carried his art supplies. The barefoot man who worked on the hillside path to Sevanavank made the cubist sculpture of lovers that sits on my mantle. Four stones held down the cloth keeping his tools within reach. His carvings are made of the ancient pink lava rock indigenous to Armenia. On each visit I return to collect the stone crosses known as “khackar’s” at the vernaisage. This open-air market is held on Saturdays in the center of Yerevan -one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. On my walls at home are small oil paintings of apricots and pomegranates, watercolors of churches, landscapes of Mt Ararat and copper reliefs of angels. These mementos from Armenia are my talismans. I remember choosing each piece, meeting every artist, and carefully packing my treasures for the journey from homeland to home where they enter my museum of memory.

Paintings rest on a board outside Sanahin. They depict various landscapes, churches, and bridges found in the area.
Paintings outside of 10th century Sanahin. Photo courtesy of Michelle Andonian.

My travels to Armenia began over 30 years ago when I volunteered to photograph relief efforts after the 1988 earthquake. Documenting the evolving changes of this landlocked country over the decades has taken me on journeys that span the thousands of years of Armenian history. Being able to go to the same country several times over the past 32 years has given me a deep perspective on the transformation of Armenia. When I first went to Yerevan after the earthquake, my modest hotel looked over Republic Square and the air was thick with diesel fumes. Russian Lada cars with spare gallons of gasoline in the trunk were your best transport, and the few stores that were open had mostly empty shelves. The only people in the streets were older women wearing drab housecoats moving dust around with straw brooms and small groups of men smoking cigarettes. People who needed wood to heat their homes had cut the trees down to stumps.

All that has transformed into a lively town square full of families, couples, and teenagers who gather to eat ice cream and watch a fountain that in the evening loops a musical light show. Luxury cars circle boutique shops, restaurants, and wine bars. There are several five-star hotels and tour buses full of visiting travelers that flew into a new modern airport. The trees have grown back.

What has not changed for me in Armenia is time spent in cars going to villages and monasteries. There are over two thousand churches in Armenia, the first state to recognize Christianity in 301 AD. The roads to them have improved for the most part over time, and the occasional road blocked by a flock of sheep ­always adds to the excitement of a long car ride.

Video courtesy of Michelle Andonian.

In 2015 I went to Historic Armenia (present -day Turkey). Someday I would like to return to the Haunted Medieval City of Ani. The border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed since 1993. It seems cruel to separate such an important place from its historic creators. A bridge that once crossed the Akhurian river is symbolically broken. I had hoped to visit this border on this most recent trip to Armenia last summer, which was commissioned by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art for the current exhibition Hope Dies Last: The New Armenia. Getting to see Ani from the Armenian side can be complicated and difficult. After calls and following up on the experience of friends who recently had gone, it didn’t seem worth the trouble-or potential trouble.

Surrendering to the inability of what I had hoped to do opened up the opportunity to experience the 10th century Marmashen Monastery. On the left bank of the Akhurian river, the Monastery was built by the medieval Bagratid Kingdom who also laid the foundations of Ani. As I stood on the shore of the river, I looked up at the main church as four women with children were heading down the hill. I honestly could not believe the simple beauty of the scene that was unfolding in front of me. I felt the thrill of knowing that I was being given a gift as I watched and waited, pressing the shutter several times as the people moved within the frame.

I walk carefully as I enter the Gavit at 10th century Sanahin. It is impossible to enter and not step on the stones that mark past patrons and priests who are buried beneath.  Deeply silent and surrounded by souls, a grandmother arrives with her grandsons to light candles. There are candles burning all throughout the churches in Armenia. The used wax is collected and new candles are made creating an endless circle of hopes and prayers.  

A grandmother and her two grandsons lights candles inside a monastery.
Lighting the candles in Sanahin. Photo courtesy of Michelle Andonian.

Akhtala was the last stop in a day that began by driving through mountain roads that at times seemed to be impassable. Some of the best-preserved frescoes in all of Armenia are at the Akhtala Monastery. They are breathtakingly beautiful. I can only imagine what the faded frescoes in the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island in Van or the interior of the church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani would look like if the Armenians were not forced to lose their historic homeland.

Wall frescoes inside a monastery. Though faded, various biblical figures can still be seen.
Frescos at 10th century Akhtala. Photo courtesy of Michelle Andonian.

I feel at times I am chasing ghosts of past artisans who labored to paint these storybooks on the walls of worship. Its become important to me that I am able to preserve them in their current state with a photograph. My Armenian photographs are images of people and places that called out to me. The old women remind me of my grandmother, the children are proof of the survival of the many souls that were lost.  They are hope.

One year ago I was able to walk through the arched entrance of a 4th century monastery and imagine life prior to the Middle Ages.

The world was a different place when I last photographed in Armenia. The experiences of that trip, the photographs, the collected artworks, and their exhibition have taken on a new significance during this pandemic. The people who inhabited our ancient world experienced their own plagues and pandemics. Our ancestors have left us with a map to survival through their experiences and their art.

An exhibition photo of "Hope Dies Last: The New Armenia" now on view at FWMoA.
“Hope Dies Last: The New Armenia” on display now at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

One of the highest honors for any artist is to have work in the permanent collection of a museum. The photographs in this exhibition will remain in the permanent collection of FWMoA thanks to June E. Enoch and the fund she bequeathed. June was an educator who understood the enduring power of art to transport the minds within the community she spent her life supporting. A museum can be a ticket to travel. These photographs were taken for you. May they somehow inspire your own journey and allow you to travel again.

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