Detail from "Navelstone" (2010) by Linda Ganjian and Elif Uras. Ceramic tiles on wooden structure, 20hx72lx2w". The piece revives the tile making traditions of Iznik and Kütahya to highlight Armenian contribution to Ottoman culture (Uras) and family narratives (Ganjian). / photo courtesy Blind Dates Project

Blind Dates with Our Ottoman Past

by | February 9th, 2011 | 4 comments
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The wonderfully eclectic and thought-provoking show Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire at the Pratt Gallery closes this Friday, February 11, 2011. It’s a show that everyone should catch, particularly people with a family past or interest in the Ottoman Empire and the nation states that formed in the wake of its collapse.

Partial view of "Blind Dates" exhibition, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, November 18, 2010 through February 11, 2011. / photo courtesy Blind Dates Project

Through various forms of artistic expression and by “pairing” artists from, among others — Armenia, Bosnia, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States — the show tracks the traces and remains of this former empire. The concept of curatorial “matchmaking” was conceived when the co-curators of the exhibit, Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian, met for the first time in the fall of 2005 and decided to bring together distanced peoples of the former empire through a series of artistic blind dates.

This multimedia extravaganza, which includes painting, photography, sculpture, and video, spans the spectrum from critical reflections on major historical events to intimate or subjective interpretations of mainstream cultural narratives. Among the many interesting works on display are architectural drawings and models by Silva Ajemian and Aslihan Demitas that re-imagine the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani through a complex, nuanced lens; personal stories that question the demise of Soviet-era architecture and human rights abuses in post-Soviet Armenia by Karen Andreassian and Citizen Walker Sergey; an audio-visual critique of the perpetuation of the concepts of “trauma” and “atrocity” through the fascinating image/sound collaboration of Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian and Anahid Kassabian; and a whimsical sculpture in the shape of a Turkish bath platform that reconstructs the once-interconnected histories of Iznik and Kütahya ceramic tile-making by Linda Ganjian and Elif Uras.

"Gorky and the Glass House" (2010) by Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks as Arshile Gorky's ghost. 22 Inject Prints; Installation approx: 9'x8'. Color photographs that recapture the exiled Ottoman-Armenian artist Arshile Gorky as seen through the grids of his "glass house" in Connecticut. / photo courtesy Blind Dates Project

Also of interest to fans of Arshile Gorky is a dynamic, if only partly successful, photo-collage by Aram Jibilian that re-imagines Gorky as seen through the grids of his “glass house” in Connecticut, with dancer Aaron Mattocks standing in, masked, as Gorky’s ghost. I am a big fan of Jibilian’s work, which as a whole is visually suggestive and theoretically rich in its implications. Here however, I found the collage technique that he used to assemble Gorky’s house unconvincing and wasn’t as enamored of the overall visual quality of the work as in the past. Still, the use of the mask and the collage motif to perhaps imply the impossibility of representation (of biography, of the Catastrophe, of reality itself), as well as notions of tracing the past constitute fertile theoretical ground and the piece warrants further critical investigation. Amateurs of translation will delight in a series of photographs of Ottoman texts and inscriptions with an accompanying philosophical essay, translated from English into Ottoman Turkish, on how to resurrect ruptured or disappeared traditions, by Jalal Toufic with translator Selim Kuru.

Stills from "Dance DNA" (2010) a documentary by Stefanos Tsivopoulos with dancers Ursula Eagly, Carlos Fittante and Christopher Williams. 20-minute video based on archival materials and dance workshops/interviews. / photo courtesy Blind Dates Project

As a critic with a strong interest in dance, I was particularly fascinated by a delightfully challenging and culturally rich documentary video titled “Dance DNA” based on performance workshops that trace the evolution of the Zeybekiko Greek folk-dance tradition by Stefanos Tsivopoulos, with a cast of remarkably accomplished New York dancers Ursula Eagly, Carlos Fittante, and Christopher Williams. Zeybekiko is based on Zeybek Turkmen warrior dances brought back to Greece by Anatolian and Pontic Greeks who landed in mainland Greece in 1923 as part of the post-war population exchanges with the newly established Turkish Republic. Here, in harbors, cafes, and other lairs of the demi-monde, it melded with the pre-existing rebetiko culture practiced by the societally marginalized and became part and parcel of Greek dance and music history. At first a group performance, it eventually evolved into an individual dance performed by a lone male. “Dance DNA” is composed of archival footage, photographs, texts, and fiction films, and interviews with the dancers in question. The documentary plays with notions of time and space and the passage from Turkmen to Greek cultural expression, from a rural collective phenomenon to an urban and eventually mainstream dance that both constructs and deconstructs aspects of its own macho culture. Renowned puppeteer and contemporary dancer Williams is hawk-like and fierce as he mimics the avian wonders who accompanied the Zeybek on their hunts extending and folding wing-like arms, falling to and springing up from ground, twisting in small mesmerizing circular movements. Fittante, the artistic director of BALAM, which fuses contemporary and traditional Balinese dance, contributes a unique and wonderfully performed piece of comparative choreography, recreating a hunting dance from Indonesia that is eerily similar to Zeybekiko: everything from the port de bras to the violently contained energy runs parallel to the Zeybek tradition — Fittante’s yoga-like contrast between restraint and release a revelation. Meanwhile, Eagly’s heavily self-narrated meditation on movement and form by itself constitutes a short lesson in post-modern dance.

"(Re)Imagining a Narrative" (2010) by Jean Marie Casbarian with Nazan Maksudyan. An installation of black and white photographs, photo strips, and texts on glass panel;variable dimensions. Impressionistic renderings of photographs from the Near East Foundation (Casbarian) juxtaposed with an essay (Maksudyan) in three languages that explore our reliance on archives in search of objective truths and personal mythologies. / photo courtesy Blind Dates Project

Melkonian and Ayas have curated a subtle, intelligent, and aesthetically revealing exhibit that makes good use of Pratt’s space and avoids perhaps needless polemics: nationalists of all stripes may leave somewhat disappointed, but everyone else should be in for an artistic treat. Other outstanding artists in this show include Nina Katchadourian, who collaborated with Kurdish artist Ohmet Ogut in an opening-night performance that entailed permanently exchanging letters from their names in the presence of an attorney, and Jean Marie Casbarian, whose haunting black-and-white photos from the Near East Foundation archives are accompanied by a text and family story by Armenian Genocide scholar Nazan Maksoudian. Run, don’t walk to Pratt Gallery on 14th Street: after the 11th, the show disappears before traveling later this year to Istanbul and Yerevan.

Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire continues at the Pratt Gallery (144 W 14th Street, 2nd floor, New York, NY) until this Friday, February 11, 2011.


  1. Vazken Khatchig Davidian says:

    Many thanks for an excellent commentary on the above exhibition. I am looking forward to catching it in either Istanbul or Yerevan later in the year. Do you happen to know when it is opening in either city?

    Also, I found your comments re Aram Jibilian’s ‘Gorky and the Glass House’ very interesting. I am and have been a great admirer of Jibilian’s work for over a decade. He is a wonderful artist of great depth and touches upon issues of identity, kinship and memory, ethnic, sexual or otherwise, with great sensitivity and insight. I will have to view the work for myself before commenting, obviously, but judging from photographic images of the overall work on ararat and Jibilian’s website, it appears to be a pretty successful and powerful piece of work. Will comment more when I seen it in situ.

    Again, thanks very much for the commentary. Can’t wait to see all the works mentioned in the flesh!

  2. Sonia Porter says:

    A fantastic concept and a very well written review of the exhibit. For those of us who did not have the good fortune of attending it, this was a great way of staying in the loop with it. Defne Ayas’ and Neery Melkonian’s curatorial approach to “matchmaking” is plain UNIQUE. “Blind Dates” was both an eye opener and a heart grabber I have to admit.

  3. Tamar says:

    Thank you so much for the review! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to NY to see the show, I am happy I was able to read about it. Hopefully I will be able to see the works in person soon.

  4. christopher atamian says:

    Thank you for the nice comments-
    Vazken, I agree re: Aram’s work and have written about him quite favorably in the past.