Celebrating Armenian culture at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
June 30, 2018
Voch to Vartavar?
One of the most beloved times of the year in Armenia is the festival of Vartavar. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., there was a small area designated for the water-throwing fun, but some avid participants, in true Hayastanyan fashion, left the confines of the ‘safe zone’ and brought the fight to other areas of the village.
2018 has been the year to be Armenian. From a political revolution in April/May to a full Armenian village in the middle of the U.S. capital in June/July, to the upcoming Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (Met) exhibition on Armenian art in September, Armenianness has never been more in the spotlight. As the political discussion around immigrants grows increasingly hostile here, at home, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s decision to shine a light on Armenian heritage and culture this summer in our nation’s capital is a proud occasion for our community to showcase, as the President of Armenia calls it, “the cradle of civilization—after Africa.”
An Armenian village in America
They say to never judge a book by its cover—and with good reason. For 10 days this summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is honoring Armenian cultural heritage in a program called "Armenia: Creating Home.” It is a title that, perhaps at first glance, doesn’t reveal much. Yet, like an enigmatic book that must be read in full to understand the beginning, we realize that the authors could not have been more perceptive. “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.” These were the first words Mesrop Mashtots translated into Armenian after creating the Armenian alphabet, and they are the words that guide our journey into the makeshift “Armenian village,” located in the heart of the United States capital, mere steps from the Capitol building.
From page one, the smells and smiles, sights and sounds of Armenia and Armenianness enrapture the crowds. Thousands have braved the boggy humidity of Washington, D.C. to experience a world different from their own. Greeting them at the gates of this storybook hamlet is the hazarashen, a towering criss-cross log dome building, which serves as the literal and proverbial center of the community. In the mountainous areas of Western Armenia, these structures were, quite truly, lifesavers, providing heat and protection in the rainy, snowy months.
Standing next to it is the kenats tsar (tree of life), whose reverent depictions throughout the Armenian Highlands goes back so far in history, it predates even an Armenian national identity. Tucked behind the hazarashen is the hatsatoun (bread home), where—as tradition dictates—a young woman performs the ancient ritual of lavash-making. Dusting the air with flour, she moves swiftly from paddle to tonir; passersby of all ages and colors stop to watch this performance, definitively ancient and distinctly Armenian. The performer cracks a simpering smile at her audience, perhaps emboldened by the spirits of those who came before her, each performing the same dance of dough, fire, and hands since time immemorial. Each time, the audience is different but the show is the same. Everything begins and ends here, the hearth and heart of the Armenian home, as it has for centuries.
Part Renaissance fair, part D.C. urban, with a dash of Eastern kef time, the vibe is all parts eclectic and entertaining. The southern half of the village is manned by artisans from the countryside of Armenia, who take the most basic of materials—iron, stone, clay, and wood—and craft them into something extraordinary. It is another performance, inherited from their ancestors, which they show off proudly. Bogdan Hovhannisyan, affectionately known as “Bogdan Papi” (meaning “grandpa”), is perhaps the most boisterous and eccentric of them all.
Initially intending to become a painter, young Bogdan mistakenly enrolled in a sculpting course at university. Fate brought him to accept the calling of his father and grandfather, who each worked with stone. For the last 30 years, he has specialized in making khachkars (cross-stones), which, like lavash, is included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Armenia. Bogdan’s booth is among the most popular at the festival, and it’s easy to see why. When he’s not demonstrating his craft, you can catch him roaming around the village, singing folk songs with strangers or cracking jokes in the trademark humor of his native Vanadzor, a city renowned for its churches and friendly charm. (For more Bogdan, check out this hilarious video interview by the Smithsonian in the artist’s home studio.)
Though the Vanadzortsi puts on a great show, he faces some fierce competition from his fellow countrymen and women. Walking around the various workstations, one can see the entire Armenian map represented: husband-and-wife power couple ceramicists from Sisian, a five-generation blacksmith family from Gyumri, a Syrian refugee needleworker from Yerevan, a khachkar-carving brother duo from Yeghegnadzor—and that’s just one corner of this little avan (town).
Though the festival is statedly dedicated to Armenian culture and not politics, a dialogue on the recent events that unfolded in the Old Country was all but inevitable. Just a few days ago, I had returned from the “New Armenia,” as many have been calling the country after the peaceful revolution in May, which brought a change of government and a renewed fervor and hope among the Armenian people. I was interested to see how it would be covered here, in the diaspora, in front of a mainly non-Armenian audience. On the last day of the program, I got my chance.
In the outdoor Hyurasenyak (guest room), a five-person panel held a discussion on the Velvet Revolution and the role of protests as a national festival. Many of the questions came from non-Armenians and those not familiar with the country and its tumultuous history. Perhaps it is strange, but the most telling analysis of Armenia’s current state actually came from an explicitly non-Armenian moment. One of the panelists, calligrapher and friend of h-pem, Ruben Malayan, drew parallels between the struggles of the Armenian people and Catalonians, whose culture is also honored at the festival this year.
Recalling the recent violent crackdown on peaceful protestors who wish to secede from Spain, Malayan stated, “their struggle for independence and political representation should also be respected.” The room clapped and cheered in resounding approval. I looked at the two older Armenian-American women I had sandwiched myself between. “How amazing is this, ché?” one giddily asked the other.
In that moment, we felt a kind of pride that was oddly foreign to us. We are used to the pride that comes with having a unique alphabet and a rich, ancient language, or our status as the first Christian nation in the world, or our wonderful artists and their creations through the centuries—some of whom were showcased here—but we are not so used to gushing about our politics. To have Armenia and the Armenian people commended as contemporary leaders of democracy—setting an example for the rest of the world—is both refreshing and inspiring.
One of the many beauties of this festival is that it showcases the wonderful aspects of different cultures and communities, expanding our worldview and, thereby, shattering barriers and bigotry. Like the ladies in the Hyurasenyak, attending this festival made me a prouder Armenian, as well as a prouder American.
There’s No Place Like Home
At the opening reception of the festival, the president of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, described its importance as a way to honor and celebrate the founding fathers of the Armenian-American community—those who had everything taken from them during the genocide and worked against all odds to create new homes in the United States. To paraphrase the great Armenian American writer, William Saroyan, our forefathers created a ‘New Armenia’ here.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s honoring of our culture by creating an Armenian village in the middle of the National Mall during peak tourist season proved two things: that our people can build a home literally anywhere; and, more importantly, the immense value this culture has—not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world. We truly are turning a new page in our history and it could not be more exciting.
Stay tuned for h-pem’s coverage of the Met’s upcoming exhibit on Armenian art in the medieval period, between the 4th and 17th centuries, which opens on Sept. 22!
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