By Lilly Torosyan
The annual Hamazkayin ArtLinks retreat program has quickly become one of the most beloved and anticipated Armenian events of the year. For one weekend every summer, a couple dozen students and young professionals from all over the United States and Canada gather in a different location to participate in workshops and taboo-breaking discussions on topics ranging from Armenian music to creative writing to film to leadership and beyond. Organized by the Hamazkayin Western Region, Eastern Region, and Canada regional boards, ArtLinks aims to engage youth in enlightening conversations about Armenian art, culture, and identity.
This year, the fourth installment of the program was held from June 28-July 1 on a beautiful Catholic retreat center in Elverson, Penn. About 40 participants were gathered in all, with ages ranging from 21 to 35. As everyone trickled in the first evening from all corners of the continent, the organizers provided a wine and cheese spread to kick off introductions. Though the official start of the program wasn’t until the next day, everyone took a crack at presenting themselves in their best Armenian, which received a round of applause from the organizers.
Day One: Confronting new ideas
Maral Varjabedyan kicked off the next morning, bright and early, with a relaxing yoga session. Afterwards, ArtLinks program director and founder, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, began his workshop on public speaking. Upon concluding his animated presentation, he asked the participants to prepare a 2-5 minute presentation on a topic that they pulled out of a hat. In the following hour, students from Montreal, Detroit, Connecticut, and Los Angeles–among other places–volunteered to speak on topics as hilariously varied as fashion, human rights, and ice cream. It was the perfect ice breaker to a warm weekend.
The next presentation was given by Matthew Karanian, a lawyer and photographer, whose dozen plus journeys to Western Armenia have resulted in two groundbreaking travel books on the region. With a picture slideshow, Karanian spoke about his experiences visiting the land of his grandparents and the emotional encounters he has made with the hidden Armenians there. He then assigned everyone a task: during the course of the weekend, take one or two pictures of what you think ArtLinks represents and upload it to the Facebook page. “Be the storyteller and the publisher of your story,” he told the crowd. The two winners would each receive a copy of his new book, Historic Armenia After 100 Years: Ani, Kars & the Six Provinces of Western Armenia.
During lunch, the conversation continued. Everyone bonded over their vegetarian meals (no meat on Fridays in this house), discussing the ancestral villages of their families and how they would feel if they discovered relatives who were left behind. Already, ArtLinks was asking the tough questions and the wheels of curiosity were turning.
The second half of the day began with a poetry session–all in Armenian–led by one of the foremost Western Armenian poets of our time, Vehanoush Tekian. She asked us to brainstorm words that define our Armenian identities, and use those to compose a poem. Words like “survival,” “assimilation,” and “struggle” were thrown around–but so were “heroes,” “hope,” and “vision.”
The final session of the day was led by the instructor of the Hamazkayin Arax Dance Group of Detroit, Nayiri Karapetian. Before dusting off our dancing shoes, Karapetian gave a background of the dances, discussing which region they were from and what they signified to their community. Though she could not say for certain, Karapetian mentioned that the Armenian word for dance (“bar”) likely came from the word meaning wall (“bad”). Since dance was such an integral way of uniting a community and creating a wall of defense through long lines or, in the case of specific dances such as yarkhushta or berd, actively recreating battle scenes, this theory may not be so far-fetched. Though most of the dances originated in Western Armenia, some took on a life of their own in diasporic communities, she explains. For example, genocide survivors who ended up in the United States created their own variations of Armenian dance, such as the Armenian Shuffle, the Michigan Hop, and the California Hop. ArtLinks participants had the chance to learn all of them. Taking the party outside, a drone captured the group linked around a bonfire dancing kochari from the Karin region of Western Armenia (karno kochari).
Day Two: Synthesizing the old and the new
The next morning, everyone gathered for another poetry session by Tekian. Some read their creations, others shared their difficulties with the task, and what ensued was a long discussion on language, dialects, and the evolution of culture in different diasporas across time. It was a difficult debate with a few awkward moments, but it lit a fuse that has yet to be extinguished. Participants were not just listening and learning from their elders; they were offering their knowledge and opinions on the most crucial problems facing their communities. Without realizing it, they were doing what ArtLinks set out to do in its mission statement: encourage the younger generation to actively shape the future of the Armenian community.
During the next session, journalist Raffi Khatchadourian described his experience working for the New Yorker magazine. His long investigative pieces have earned him much acclaim in the industry, but he doesn’t dwell on the accolades. When a student asked him how one could pursue a career in print journalism in this day and age of the internet and fast news, he admitted that it’s a lot harder today than it was when he got started, but advised to simply read a lot, and write about what interests you.
After a lunch break, several short presentations on networking followed: ANCA Programs Director, Tereza Yerimyan, discussed the activism of the ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America) on behalf of the Armenian American community, and the many ways to get involved as a summer intern or Capital Gateway Program fellow. All of the 2018 Leo Sarkisian interns attended ArtLinks this year, which she felt was an important way to highlight the strength of collaboration between different Armenian organizations and institutions. Participants then watched a 20 minute video detailing Hamazkayin’s far-reaching initiatives worldwide.
Next up were a few representatives of the ArtLinks Collective group, which was created last year as a way to engage alumni of the program all year round, in their respective regions. They encouraged all participants to become Hamazkayin ArtLinks members and offer their feedback through an online survey.
The final presentation of the program was a last-minute deviation from the original schedule. ArtLinks decided to highlight the recent events that unfolded in Armenia with an all-women’s panel. Doctoral candidate, Asya Darbinyan, kicked off with a PowerPoint on the crucial role that women played in the Velvet Revolution this past spring. An otherwise marginalized group in Armenian political and economic society, women proved that they do, in fact, have agency and can wield it to make positive change–both for themselves, and for their country. “From banging pots and pans as a means of protest to the first female mayor of an Armenian city, “the future of Armenian women is heading in the right direction,” Darbinyan states.
Next up, Lilly Torosyan presented on the new Hamazkayin h-pem platform, which aims to engage diasporan youth in the many facets of Armenian arts and culture in a way that is welcoming, familiar, and exciting. “We want you to not only read and like and share our stories, but also write them, upload your own photos and poems, art pieces, and video clips. We want you will be the curators of your Armenian experience,” Torosyan tells her audience. The site, www.h-pem.com, will be launching next month.
Rounding out the female trio was Karine Vann, Editor of the Armenian Weekly newspaper–one of the oldest and most integral diasporan newspapers in the world. Discussing the role of the paper in elevating the Armenian American community’s voices and concerns throughout its long and storied history, Vann also made a plea to the audience to get involved as writers through the paper’s burgeoning op-eds section.
The program concluded with another dance session, where participants learned dances from Dzakhkadzor, Iran, and Sassoun. A few did not pass on the opportunity to cool down in the indoor pool on the grounds; others still chose to hang out by the bonfire where, a few smores and Ruben Hakhverdyan tunes later, the bonds that ArtLinks created were glued for life.
Reflections on culture and family
In a promotional video on ArtLinks, Dr. Mouradian states that what makes ArtLinks so unique is its horizontal platform. “The young professionals and individuals who have been successful in their fields come and exchange knowledge and expertise and opinions.” The result is an environment of complete openness, where dogma and convention are challenged.
The other main feature of ArtLinks is its emphasis on culture as a living, dynamic thing. ArtLinks allows us to experiment and think about culture differently, in an environment that is safe and welcoming. Helena Bardakjian, a three-time ArtLinks participant from Detroit, shares what keeps her coming back, year after year: “Being frank and open with your culture and actually growing culture and not letting it sit.” Aram Keuylian, a first-time participant from California, echoes this sentiment. “Everyone is on the same page of open mindedness, and we want to help each other grow.”
There is something to be said about the bonds that ArtLinks creates. Like a family that is dispersed across the world but tethered by the same tree, young Armenians from all over North America, in diverse fields–sometimes not even remotely related to the arts–congregate in one secluded place every year to discuss the most intimate and challenging aspects of their identities and communities. It is no surprise, then, that the connections made at ArtLinks have led to strong friendships, romantic relationships, and even other creative endeavors. On Facebook, there is an official Hamazkayin ArtLinks page, and a closed group for alumni called “Hamazkayin ArtLinks Family,” where participants post interesting articles and links they come across, as well as travel plans to meet up with members in their neck of the woods. As two-time ArtLinks participant, Lory Zakarian, states, “the connections that we make every year really does feel like a family, and every year it grows.”
To get a taste of the action, join this family next summer at Hamazkayin ArtLinks 2019, which is set to be held in Toronto, Canada. Follow the Hamazkayin ArtLinks page for more updates as the date approaches.
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