An Artist’s Journey along the Trail of Tears


Muriel3By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOCHUM, Germany — Thousands of Armenian descendants of Genocide survivors, especially from the United States, have had the opportunity to travel though eastern Anatolia, in the search for the villages and towns their ancestors lost, many of them guided on pilgrimages organized by the indefatigable Armen Aroyan. In Germany over the past year large numbers of people have been able to make a similar trip, albeit vicariously, through the unique medium of art. Starting in 2015 in commemoration of the centenary of the genocide, Lisa Stybor, a German artist and art professor, launched a series of exhibits of works she composed during a six-week trek through those same lands. After having presented the show in Bochum in the context of Armenian cultural events, on February 5 she concluded an exhibit in Chemnitz, a city in the former Communist East Germany.

Titled “AGHET, The Trail of Tears,” the exhibit presents 20 works, abstract in form but very concrete in depicting the drama of the deportations and the genocide. As the artist explained during the reception marking the end of the show at the Chemnitz Artists Union gallery, her own voyage to Armenia as a subject was a long one that had its conceptual beginnings in 1986.

At that time, while studying as a Fulbright scholar in Oklahoma, she became acquainted with the tragic history of the native Americans, whose expulsion, she learned, was known as the “trail of tears.” This led her to pose the question of her own cultural identity and its history. As a student she had traversed the history of European art, from the Renaissance to Bauhaus, and had from an early age taken up pencil and brush. “Drawing and painting for me were like eating and drinking, something I did every day as part of my normal activities,“ she explained. In search of her cultural identity, she travelled backward in time, visiting cities first in Germany and Italy, then in Sicily and North Africa, with their rich Greek heritage; from there she went to Greece itself, and further back in time, to Egypt. In the course of this cultural voyage into the past, she was exploring concepts of space, agricultural space in landscapes, and also architectonic space. In the early 1990s, as a professor at Dessau University, she expanded her search for spatial concepts through architecture, but also through literature and music. Especially significant was her encounter with Johann Sebastian Bach and his Art of the Fugue, which opened up an entirely new understanding of spatial and temporal relations.

“I then looked at myself, through time,” she explained, “reviewing my development from child, to girl, to woman,” and did drawings on this theme, as well as landscapes, especially from Italy. While exploring this organic development process, she was also posing questions of possible simultaneity of temporal phases.

As a European, she had to recognize the tragedy of war as part of her personal history, and consideration of the violence of man against man in that process led her back to the earlier world war. “In my youth,“ she recalled, “I often heard the phrase, ‘something like that must never happen again.’ This sentence referred to the Second World War, to the Shoah. The time before that,” she went on, “the First World War, was actually never dealt with. Only in recent years have we begun slowly to deal with this.”

After learning about the genocide, she travelled to Yerevan and began to work on the theme in earnest. In the course of her extensive reading, she learned about the German involvement and the questions raised as to its extent: the Germans, as wartime allies of the Ottoman Empire, knew what was being done to the Armenians; they have been accused of neglecting to intervene in their behalf, even of being complicit. “I do not understand this,” she wrote in 2014, “and am upset that the question of guilt and responsibility has not yet been clarified in this respect.”

She found it most difficult to define an appropriate way to deal with such a difficult theme, and turned to biographies of genocide survivors for inspiration. She decided to strike out on her own, to travel to those places where the genocide occurred. Armed with a map of Turkey and accounts, both biographical and historical, of the deportations, she went to Turkey in 2014, and moved from one city to another, all sites along the deportation routes of 1915. At each location, she sought out representative monuments — places traversed by the deportees on the death marches, or sites of mass executions, and literally lifted the image of the historic space onto paper. In some areas, like Ankara, where there had been an Armenian church, she did a rubbing of the bronze door. In another place, in Istanbul (then Constantinople), the Hydarpasa station (built by German architects) was the place where Armenians were sent on trains to the interior whence they would not return. She would reproduce a piece of the pavement or a wall, with pencil rubbings of the surface. The single images resulting from the rubbings are abstract in form, though some, like the one from Istanbul, seem to reproduce in stylized form an actual place, or event, like the railway lines.

With each work in the exhibit, framed and hanging against a white wall, there is another frame, containing a photograph of the site, and/or a depiction in words of the subject. This may be a quote from literature of the genocide, for example, the description of the Armenian carnage in Ankara given by Grigoris Balakian in Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918. Or, an account of how Armenians were rounded up and packed into railway cars, as published in a German collection of eyewitness reports. Other accounts come from Pailadzo Captanian, from Johannes Lepsius, and others. She brings images and citations from Ankara and Konya, Samsun and Sivas, Malatya and Kayseri, as well as Harput, Adana and Diyabakir.

In one particularly painful episode, it is the artist herself who provides the verbal narrative. This refers to her journey along the road from Kemah to Erzincan. She writes: “After having arrived at the railway station I heard that the train to Kemah would not leave until the evening. A very friendly railway official took me in his car to the next bus stop, but the bus had already left. A short time later a taxi stopped and drove me to Kemah. The taxi driver did not speak English or any other language I understood. So we drove about fifty kilometers along the Euphrates in total silence, along a road without cars or people through an idyllic landscape. It must have been here on this road that the deportees were sent a hundred years ago. All of a sudden I saw through the silence these human beings, tattered and ill, continuing their way in pain, or falling down, collapsing. I heard their screaming and moaning. And they did not stop; the crying and suffering accompanied me till the taxi driver arrived at Kemah.”

When describing the experience to attendants at the finissage, Stybor said she tried in vain to convince the taxi driver to take her up to the heights of the Kemah gorge, that is, to the place from which, she knew from written accounts, Armenian men had been bound two by two, stabbed and then thrust to their death in the river hundreds of meters below. The taxi driver did not know, or feigned ignorance. The only sign of demarcation was a plaque on the road they travelled, which commemorated a number of Turkish soldiers who had reportedly perished there in an automobile accident some years earlier.

Significantly, this is the only work of art in the show which is accompanied by a photograph of the artist herself on the site. Taken by the taxi driver who could not find the road to the perilous heights, it shows her seated on the ground, making a rubbing of the stones, the very same ground along which those men must have walked.

 

Infinite Dimensions in Art

In her many years of study, teaching and creative artistic activity, Lisa Stybor has struggled with the concept of temporal-spatial relations. If, through the development of the science of perspective, European renaissance art mastered the means of projecting onto a two-dimensional canvas the illusion of three-dimensional space, that is not the end of the story. For Stybor, space is not only visual but historical, not only geometrical but emotional.

Wandering through the halls of her exhibition, I had a chance to experience what this is all about. Looking at a rubbing, be it of a facade of some church, or of the stones along a path, I saw at first the geometrical design of the work, itself a pleasing image, with a certain symmetry and rhythm. Then came the awareness of the subject matter: this is not an abstract motif, but the replica of a real, that is, physical existence, a building or pathway in an existing geographical locality. And then came the recognition that this is not only an image of a physical object today, in the here and now, so to speak; it is the memory of what occurred, a hundred years ago, there and then. The art object — which embodied the physical action of the artist who produced it — the photographic document of the site and the verbal account of the event that took place there, appeared to me as multiple spatial-temporal dimensions of a reality that is rooted in history, itself political, geographical and personal.

Stybor embarked on this adventure in Turkey — and it must be termed an adventure: she was a European woman, travelling alone, with no knowledge of the language, and extremely sensitive to the human tragedy she was documenting – with full awareness of the importance it bears in the process of Germany’s coming to terms with its history. “The rubbing shows the traces of my own confrontation with the past,” she has said, and that is not only a personal statement.

“My trip,” she wrote at the conclusion, “became a voyage through time, first through today‘s Turkey and then from there back to the Ottoman Empire. I sought out witnesses, stones and walls, which existed in those locations I visited already a hundred years ago. When that was not possible, I chose in their stead paths and walls belonging to a later time.”

Her experience with people she met was meaningful. “During the trip, I met with hospitality and openness, beauty and spirituality, and I am very thankful for the insight into daily life I gained there, into its culture and landscape. I would have liked to talk to my hosts about what happened at that time, and discuss it, but that was forbidden and so not possible.”

But, she concludes, “keeping silent does not help us further. Only when we together acknowledge what our forefathers did, will the doors to reconciliation open. People who live today are not guilty for what happened then, but we carry responsibility for our future.”

Her unique artistic approach to the story of the genocide promises to enable Germans to experience what occurred a century ago, not only factually but also emotionally, and thus to find the route to reconciliation.

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach can be reached at mirak.weissbach@googlemail.com