May 25 – July 1, 2023

Photo credit :  Jean-Michel Seminaro

Poetry/Artist Talk

When you descend from people who were not supposed to survive, what do you make of/from/with your inheritance of their wounds? Muriel Ahmarani Jaouich is the descendant of an Armenian man whose parents and thirteen siblings, save for one brother, were murdered, and on the other side, from an Armenian woman whose sister and parents were murdered. Photographs of beheaded men were among evidence of Turks massacring one and a half million Armenians between 1914 and 1923, from which the Turkish state still absolves itself, still systematically denies as genocide.

Muriel had been piecing together fragments of her lineage—from oral histories, a constructed genealogy, and surviving personal materials shared with her by kin during her search for connecting threads—when she discovered that both her great grandfathers were among those decapitated.

She collapsed in the middle of a six-week silent meditation retreat, feeling petrified and possessed. But the fear that she felt was not her own. “That’s your ancestors’ trauma. You’re healing it,” her trauma-specialist meditation teacher told her. Given the impossibility of verbal communication, how do you speak with those who are no longer here? How do you listen to them? (And what about those who are still here but who can no longer speak?) Her intention to commune with her ancestors through—not despite—silence guided her work when she returned from the retreat.

In moments, Muriel’s body completes the sentences her words cannot; when she shares with me that she approaches her paintings from a felt and embodied sense, that she’s disinterested in circumscribing with words and theory and rationality, her hands’ gesture begins from her stomach then they rise up, mirroring a gushing current seeking a calming channel. “How do I transmute these things and let them work through me?” became a guiding question in her practice.

Ancient Egyptian iconography entered her pictorial lexicon when her father began to lose his capacity to speak. His voice’s disappearance urged her to understand where he came from, where her grandparents sought exile, in Alexandria. When she tells me about the violent uprooting of her family’s migration, her hands vibrate with vigour, suggesting the rupture’s still-living imprint. We both cry.

Her paintings are a vehicle for the unspoken, a vessel for connection and reclamation. To articulate what can’t be articulated, to imagine what was lost and looted, to become a receptacle, she paints in the presence of photographs of her family before and after the genocide; they are picnicking, or posing in a studio group portrait in their indigenous Armenian dress. A photograph of her grandmother Rose as an orphaned teenager watches over her. When she shows me her predecessors’ traces surrounding her in her studio, both her hands circle and swirl around her shoulders and her collar bones; she feels entourée. And when she props up her paintings to show me on Zoom, she stands next to figures representing the women in her family, at the scale of her own body; she appears to stand, on the same plane, alongside her predecessors. In the presence of Goddess Nut, the protector in the afterlife, they are emancipated, bathing in light, despite grief’s presence in these edenic, harmonious, sometimes flamboyant images. The recurring motif of the fez-wearing male figure represents the Ottoman oppressor; by congregating, despite the rupture of forced separation, despite the severance of their lineage, the women reclaim their power from patriarchal colonial violence. They gossip in a lost language only few can decode. In this way, Muriel’s picture plane is a portal, inviting us to an in-between place, to feel the co-existence of connection and severance, of dark and light.

— Merray Gerges