In April, a teenage boy was stabbed in Yerevan, Armenia, by a man who suspected he was gay. A few months earlier, a transgender woman was beaten in the capital city, her apartment set on fire. In both cases, the attackers were released. These are just two of the many hate crimes that have targeted LGBTQ Armenians in recent years in the former Soviet republic, which didn't decriminalize homosexuality until 2003.
Coincidentally, in March, Glendale's Roslin Art Gallery and WeHo-based Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society (GALAS) announced they would co-host “The Many Faces of Armenians: A Celebration of Queer-Armenian Art,” a small but significant group show that's the first of its kind in the United States.
The local Armenian community, the largest of the diaspora, is home to many Armenian artists and several Armenian galleries, not to mention the soon-to-be-built Armenian American Museum in Glendale, slated to open in 2022. So a show of this nature only seems fitting.
But exhibit organizers, including GALAS' Lousine Shamamian, admit they initially struggled to attract submissions from queer Armenian artists, who battle the stigma of homosexuality and pressure from their family, culture and the Armenian Orthodox Church, the oldest Christian church in existence.
“I thought we would get bombarded by art,” says Arno Yeretzian, owner of Roslin, which is housed inside Abril Bookstore, his 40-year-old, family-owned business. “Based on our history, we should understand how it feels to be the other, to be outcasts and to be oppressed. But Armenia is pretty intolerant, and some immigrant communities outside are even more conservative. There's still this fear of coming out. Not everyone is public about it.”
So the gallery expanded its criteria to include both queer and queer-friendly artists who celebrate “notions of queerness and otherness.” “Things came trickling in, so I got excited,” Yeretzian says.
The show received some two dozen submissions. Among the nearly 20 participating artists, most are L.A.-based and some identify as queer. Their mixed-media work incorporates Armenian history and iconic symbols — the Armenian Genocide, Mount Ararat, pomegranates, etc. — that defiantly confront not only the duality of two cultures but of being a gay immigrant, a minority within a minority.
Participants include Sophia Gasparian, 46, a mother of two who was born in Yerevan and lives in Silver Lake. Gasparian's paintings and street-style collages often integrate images of children; her “Explain This to Your God” features two boys holding hands with muted rainbow colors hanging above.
“To be honest, I don't care what the community thinks,” Gasparian says. “What matters to me is that my children grew up open-minded. I'm very confident with who I am. The church doesn't decide what's moral for me.”
Also in the show is Levon Mardikyan, 61, who's from Turkey, where his family dates back centuries. Mardikyan's prints display vintage photographs and artifacts from Turkey alongside modern pieces, such as “Yin Yang Yan,” which includes the announcement of his wedding to his partner of 33 years and even their cake toppers.
“It's symbolic of male camaraderie,” says Mardikyan, who lives in Northridge.
At 19, Ani (Alik) Lusparyan, a Cal State Los Angeles student from Glendale, is the show's youngest artist. Lusparyan looks not only at the clash of being Armenian and queer but at body-image issues, especially in “Coming Home,” a semi self-portrait of a nude woman standing in front of the famous Mount Ararat with a forget-me-not flower — a symbol used to commemorate the centennial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide — placed between her thighs.
“The work that I do is very intertwined with cultural, sexual and gender-identity affirmations,” Lusparyan says. “They're a sense of self-love and belonging, that my ancestors created this body and I should be proud. They show that Armenia is my home and this is my culture and yet I can be queer and exist within these boundaries.”
Throughout the exhibit's run, the gallery will host related events, including a panel discussion with Haig Boyadjian, GALAS' current president.
Formed 20 years ago, GALAS is one of only two such organizations in America. The nonprofit provides community outreach, scholarships and mentoring and holds social networking events, such as soorj (coffee) sessions, a support group for members and their families.
“It's not just about gay Armenians,” Boyadjian says of the exhibit. “It shows that we care about our art and culture and want to give artists a platform to the larger Armenian community to show that it's not so insular.
“I'm all for it being an annual event,” Boyadjian adds. “It'll only grow from here.”
“The Many Faces of Armenians: A Celebration of Queer-Armenian Art,” Roslin Art Gallery, 415 E. Broadway, Suite 100, Glendale; abrilbooks.com/news/the-many-faces-of-armenians. Opening reception Friday, June 8, 6 p.m.; exhibit runs June 8-28.
Editor's note: Leaders from L.A. Pride helped curate content showcasing the local LGBT community for the June 8-14 issue of L.A. Weekly.