By Alek Surenian, AYF Chicago “Ararat” Senior chapter
From a very young age, I would doodle at every opportunity. Every time I had an empty sheet of paper or margin, my imagination would take over and those papers (homework included) became lively illustrations from my imagination.
At a young age, I was very interested in abstract art; Picasso was a significant influence. As I browsed through books and websites filled with his artwork, I began to create my own abstract pieces and one by one I would tape them on the wall in my basement to showcase my work.
I knew from an early age that I had some talent. I also knew that I was different from my school friends in certain ways, not just because of my artistic abilities, but also because of how I looked and who I was—I was Armenian.
I was teased at a young age because of my slightly darker skin and brown puffy hair. As a result, the paper and pencil became my outlet, where I could express myself freely without any criticism from others.
Superheros, cars, planes, landscapes, abstract compositions—the small sketches and art I produced in art class became my passion. As I grew older, I began to understand how art could be a powerful tool, and how I can show others who I really am.
In middle school, I continued to hone my skills. At this point I was a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Chicago “Ararat” member and I would occasionally be asked to design t-shirts for local events. However, it was not until high school that I discovered how my cultural heritage could impact my art.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I began to realize that I could make art that expresses the different aspects of Armenian culture and politics. I decided to make a small sketch to commemorate the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide that year. This sketch was the turning point for my work. It set the tone for my future concentrations and helped propel my skills to a new level.
After I made that sketch, I decided to create a new piece each year to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Each piece would hold a different meaning, like manifesting the struggles of our ancestors but also the triumph of how the Armenian people and spirit lives on. Most of these works were abstract and expressive to help the viewer experience the same emotion that I had when creating these pieces; what being Armenian means to me and how it shaped me into the person I am today.
While I produced these pieces, I would also make other works, which highlighted different aspects of Armenian culture like our alphabet, our delicious food, and our homeland’s beautiful churches and landscapes. These pieces collectively became my concentration during my Junior and Senior years of high school, which also expressed my culture and ideals about identity and individuality. These pieces became a way I could educate others about my Armenian Heritage through a visual context.
Most of these works were displayed in various art shows. I also presented a few of my best works in my school district wide art show. I was truly grateful to be able to show and teach others about my passion for being Armenian and sharing our story. I would also use social media as a means of showing others around the country and world my work and the meaning behind each piece.
These pieces carry the message about what it means to be Armenian. Being Armenian isn’t just about ethnicity—it is a lifestyle. Being Armenian is going to church. Being Armenian is learning how to make the best cheese boreg. Being Armenian is going to Armenian Camps and meeting other Armenians from around the world. Being Armenian is learning the Hayr Mer, folk songs, dancing a shoorch bar, and being politically aware and active. The list is endless. Being Armenian is hard work, and sometimes it consumes your life.
Why is that important? Because without it, we would be nothing.
Armenians have been persecuted and conquered repeatedly throughout history. We have suffered a lot. But despite these tragedies, we have not been destroyed. My pieces are a tool to combat assimilation and remind not only Armenians but also non-Armenians who we are as a people and how we will continue our struggle.
Alek Surenian is a James Scholar Sophomore studying Industrial Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign School of Art and Design. He is an active member of the AYF-YOARF Chicago “Ararat” senior chapter and member of the University of Illinois Armenian Club.