Nour: In conversation with Hagop Kalaidjian and Tania Sarin

For those that know anything about the Armenian people, they will be aware that for centuries families have been uprooted and spread all over the world. For a plethora of reasons, Armenians today have settled across all four corners of the globe. And, while they plant new roots wherever they land, those initial cuts remain to be healed, being passed on to future generations. 

In recent months, Armenians have been stunned by the events that have been taking place in Artsakh – the region known to many as Nagorno Karabakh – as a war has been raged, with its devastating impact being felt by millions, and resulting in the sad creation of a new wave of Armenian refugees. 

Deeply affected by re-living a horror that generations of Armenians have experienced, Armenian-American photographer Hagop Kalaidjian has created a body of work called NOUR, to raise funds for those suffering as a result of the conflict. “Nour” is the Armenian word for pomegranate, a fruit and a symbol of Armenian culture for more than 1,000 years. Partnering with Tania Sarin Araradian, he has created six images that have been presented as an exhibition online. Hagop’s works act as a study of roots and a personal reflection on the overwhelming love and life that has crossed oceans, tragedies and centuries to reach him. Gallery Girl spoke with Hagop and Tania about creating the images, Armenian identity and the pomegranate. 

NOUR, 2: Eastern Sunrise, 2020 by Hagop Kalaidjian

Gallery Girl: How did you come together to create Nour. And what made you focus on the pomegranate to make something beautiful in a time that isn’t so pretty.

Hagop Kalaidjian: Rewind to March. I was in New York, I had a great job coming up for Vogue and we had to cancel it. Everything cancelled and it was time to get out of the city and go home to Los Angeles. In all the chaos I enjoyed spending a lot of time in my garden, with my dad telling me the story about the pomegranates he planted when I was a kid. The idea for Nour came after watching the awfulness of the war in Artsakh and seeing how my family and other Armenians experienced it. I started working on the series by taking photographs of the tree itself and I knew Tania would be perfect for the project because she shares so much of the roots and the seeds, and the symbology that exists there. For generations my family has not lived in the same place; we’ve all been born in different countries. That’s part of what this project is about, and Tania’s family has the same history.  

NOUR, 1: Generation, 2020 by Hagop Kalaidjian

Tania Sarin: I’ve been sharing about my family and what they went through with the Genocide for a while now. Because of what’s been happening with the war I wanted to shed light on the situation and let my non-Armenian friends know about what has gone down. My great-grandfather witnessed his whole family get massacred and it was just him left. He escaped and a Turkish family adopted him and was a slave to the family, before escaping to Lebanon, where he created a life for himself. I can’t imagine doing something like that. So, when Hagop approached me I wanted to create something. 

HK: When I was starting the Nour studies it was very emotional. A lot of my other work is for other people. This is my first project that is very personal. My roots and my family are very important to me. There was a lot of awfulness, but there’s also a lot of joy too, even one of the images is called Joy

GG: Yes, recently everything we show to non-Armenian friends is quite dark, so it’s nice to show something that’s quite beautiful. People respond to that more than an image of war.

HK: And there’s also that saying that if you can experience true sadness, then you can also experience true joy. I hope we can show that. 

NOUR, 3: Haig, 2020 by Hagop Kalaidjian

GG: And what about the text, how did you come up with the writing?

HK: A lot of it speaks to the diaspora. It spreads across the world from East to West, everywhere the sun touches there are Armenians all over the place. And the light reflects that too. 

GG: And do you think you would work on more images after this?

HK: Yes, I have some ideas. I’ve also been shooting the pomegranate trees through winter and watching the leaves fall and seeing how animals interact with it. I’d like to go to Armenia for this project too. 

NOUR, 5: Joy, 2020 by Hagop Kalaidjian

GG: And what about your non-Armenian friends, how have they reacted to the images?

HK: The way that the situation in Artsakh has been represented in many Western outlets that I consider to be unbiased haven’t really given this the attention or the point of view this deserves. One of my goals was to contribute to the spreading of awareness and a wider perspective through the lens of what’s been happening for the past 150 years – from pogroms in Western Armenia, to the Genocide and pogroms in Baku before the vote in 1991 for Artsakh to have the right to self-determination. That said, I still have friends who don’t know about what’s happening, but I think people are happy to learn when we ask them to take a minute to look at what’s going on.

TS: If people can resonate with a culture they can care about the suffering of its people, empathy comes from familiarity. How can you care about something if you know nothing about it? So that’s where I came in with a need to teach people about my culture. That’s why a few years ago I started by sharing me making Armenian coffee on my Instagram stories. A lot of my followers are non-Armenian and they didn’t even know where Armenia was on the map. I think me sharing my culture and my family makes people care about our culture and our suffering and what we’ve been through. It starts with teaching about culture.

NOUR, 6: Western Sunset, 2020 by Hagop Kalaidjian

GG: I just wanted to finish by asking whether you realised that “nour” means light in Arabic, or was that a nice coincidence as both of your families – and mine – have been through Western Armenia, Syria and Lebanon. It almost has a double meaning, light in Arabic, and pomegranate in Armenian. 

HK: This is a lovely point that you have raised. It’s a happy coincidence.

GG: Right, because you’re using the pomegranate to shed light on the situation.

HK: My grandparents were born in Aleppo, my parents were born in Beirut, they speak Arabic. I have seen a lot of support from many Arabs, and there is a strong familial connection from me to the Lebanese people. 

GG: And your sale, how long does it last?

HK: It will be open for another couple of weeks. We already have money to donate to the Armenia Support Fund, and we’ll also select a few other charities to share donations, to support Artsakhtsis [the term for Armenians from Artsakh]. 

The images are available to view and buy online at nournournour.com, with proceeds to benefit Artsakh and Armenia via the Armenia Support Fund / The Paros Foundation 501(c)3

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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