An Interview with Designer of Genocide Monument in Vancouver

“The fingerprint is an evidence of absence and the design monumentalizes the reality of that absence.”

—Matilda Aslizadeh


Matilda Aslizadeh is a visual artist who works in a hybrid style between video, photography, and animation and has an interest in (re)thinking narrative structures. Her work has been exhibited internationally in galleries and film festivals, most recently at Art Souterrain (Montreal, 2013) and the Foreman Art Gallery (Sherbrooke, 2012). She teaches courses in photography, critical theory, and digital media at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, BC. She is a member of the Board of Directors at VIVO Media Arts Centre in Vancouver. Her latest work is the design of the Armenian Genocide monument in Vancouver.

The official unveiling ceremony of the Vancouver Genocide monument on April 27, 2014
The official unveiling ceremony of the Vancouver Genocide monument on April 27, 2014

K.S.—Matilda, first let’s talk about you as an artist. You’ve been showing your work nationally and internationally since 2000. For those who aren’t familiar with your art, could you tell us what art forms you create and exhibit?

M.A.—I primarily make videos that take an experimental approach to storytelling and have a layered appearance incorporating visual effects and animation. My most recent major video project, “Hero of Our Time” (2009), tells the story of a child soldier in a fictional and unmentioned country. In it, the fictional sequences are combined with video games, a miniature model city, an operatic aria, documentary images from the internet, and footage of the location where the fictional sequences were shot, which happens to be the site of a residential school in Mission BC. This varied and layered approach attempts to turn the well-meaning documentary about unspeakable violence happening somewhere else in the “third-world” on its head.

The Vancouver Armenian Genocide Monument is my first major three-dimensional work.

K.S.—How do you understand art and how do you think it influences people?

M.A.—I think that contemporary visual art has very little influence over people’s lives due to a combination of causes that range from the fact that it has become an esoteric, academic practise, to the fact that it is often categorized as a kind of entertainment and then out-performed by much more spectacular forms of the latter. Also, there is a hesitance on the part of most people to actively interpret contemporary art. I teach an art history course in the adult Continuing Education program at Emily Carr University, and my students frequently express surprise when I ask them, “Well, what do you think? What ideas does it evoke for you?” They almost always don’t think they have the capability or mandate to make these interpretations; however, this is exactly what contemporary art demands.

Speaking for myself, I think art should both move people on an emotional level and provoke thought, but I think many factors—some completely outside the control of the artist—have to come together for this to happen. In this instance, I was very lucky to work on a project that already has a profound importance for an entire community.

The fingerprint of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide that was used to design the monument
The fingerprint of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide that was used to design the monument

K.S.—On April 27, an Armenian Genocide monument was unveiled in Vancouver. As the designer of the monument, how did you come up with the design?

M.A.—The design is based on an archival fingerprint of an individual who experienced the genocide. The fingerprint pattern is magnified so that it begins to evoke a landscape, and the negative space of the pattern is cut through to create a lace-like appearance. The sculpture is raised from the ground and supported by 50 rods that line up with an invisible map of the geographical locations of the massacres.

I arrived at the central motif of the fingerprint quite early on in the process, and it stubbornly fixed itself in my mind. When this happens, I usually see the idea through to the end.

K.S.—The monument actually is an antithesis of the “monument,” in the sense that it’s a fingerprint, raised slightly from the ground. Can you tell us what thoughts went into the conception of the structure and what, exactly, it represents?

M.A.—The fingerprint represents a broad range of ideas for me and, I believe, allows space for viewers to arrive at their own ideas and interpretations. On the most fundamental level, the fingerprint is a trace, an imprint of a body that once existed and no longer exists. It is evidence of absence, the absence of so many lives stories and futures. It monumentalizes the reality of this absence. In this sense it is antithetical to the majority of monuments produced in the 20th century, which either glorify a particular individual or use a (usually) female body to stand in for an abstract concept. This monument is about the fact that the figure is no longer here, but not forgotten. Rather, the trace the figure left behind is magnified and celebrated.

K.S.—And a fingerprint can denote other things, too…

M.A.—Yes, absolutely. Fingerprints have historically been used by governments to track and control people in their borders. This type of tracking and control can provide security, but is also usually the first step in state-perpetrated atrocities. Contemporary states are coding more and more biological information into nationally issued identifications, so for me there is a reminder here of how states control bodies in the present.

Fingerprints are also unique to the individual and can stand in for the genetic code or DNA of the individual and their gender, race, and ethnicity. In this sense, monumentalizing the fingerprint can denote the survival or perseverance of life and, by extension, culture.

K.S.—We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. What do you think is the role of monuments in commemorating victims of tragedies, and in this case the 1.5 million Armenian victims of the first genocide of the 20th century?

M.A.—On one level, I think history and memory are extremely fragile things that constantly need to be retold and refashioned in order to remain a living part of people’s experience, so monuments function as another instance of retelling.

Artist Matilda Aslizadeh
Artist Matilda Aslizadeh

On another level, I think it is very powerful to see something that has so much internal, psychological resonance externalized into a physical object. In this sense, monuments validate the feelings held by people who have experienced trauma by giving them a shape that everyone can see.

K.S.—What will be your next project? Do you think you will come back to the Armenian theme at some point again in your creative life? What do you think it might be?

M.A.—I am currently working on two video projects: a short animation project that will be shown in Montreal in September and a longer video project that will be shown in Toronto in next April. The concept behind both will revolve around borders boundaries and the desire to separate good from evil. I hope to return to an Armenian theme one day. I’m particularly interested in the multiple family histories we all have as a diaspora culture and how these histories intersect with the larger political events in the lives of the nations we live in.


Karin Saghdejian

Karin Saghdejian

Karin Saghdejian is the editor of TorontoHye Newspaper.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Matilda,

    May God bless you for realistic outlook toward the justice.
    You are a real Äsilzadeh”.

    Mack Vahanian, Sydney Australia

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