Maral Der Boghossian has dreamed of cities since childhood. As a young girl growing up in Beirut, she would walk with her mother to one of her grandmother’s houses after school, each of whom lived in the neighborhoods of Nor Hajin and Bourj Hammoud. The image of the afternoon sun shining on the facades of the buildings that were built and inhabited by Armenian residents has been imprinted upon her memory as a recurrent vision. Upon graduating with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Faculté des Beaux Arts et d’Architecture, the view of the skyline from the balcony in her home triggered her nostalgic recollection of the buildings she used to walk by that were constructed in a halcyon era when Beirut felt safe and prosperous. She sat on her rooftop and began to paint the colorful cityscapes that now compose much of her artistic oeuvre.
That view has been drastically altered since the explosion that rattled the city on August 4, 2020. Yet in her mind, her image of those buildings has not changed, and she already has a vision for the cityscapes she will paint. “I don’t think that I like to see myself painting destruction,” she explained in a recent interview with the Armenian Weekly. “Because my art is also my therapy. It’s…an imaginary world [I get in] that is beautiful. It cures me to paint things that are sunny and windows and satellites on the roofs.”
Maral has not been able to paint since August 4th, because she has been occupied with renovating her home and helping her neighbors with reconstruction efforts. Several doors and windows in her home were destroyed, scattering glass shards that she and her family have spent 40 days collecting and restoring. The roofs of their cars were distorted and their windows cracked by the pressure of the blast. For the first two nights after the explosion, she and the six members of her household slept in fear for their safety until they could temporarily replace their entrance door. Over a month later, the renovations are nearly complete, just in time for the approaching rainfall of winter.
Her mother, on the other hand, sculptor Gulen Torossian Der Boghossian, has channeled her despair and frustration into art. She completed a model for a sculpture of a deformed face resting its head on its hand and staring in silent shock, pity and fatigue at the tragedy of the lives that have been upended and homes that have been lost due to the destruction. “I was able to capture everything that has happened in the face’s expression,” she conveyed. “Visual artists communicate all that cannot be uttered through words.” Thin long silos are carved into the back of the head as a tribute to the grain facility at the Port of Beirut that was also demolished.
The Der Boghossian family is unfortunately familiar with this kind of disruptive violence. In 1976 Gulen, pregnant with her daughter, fled to Paris with her husband seeking refuge from the Lebanese Civil War. Unable to find work, the pair returned to Beirut the following year with their newborn child. In 1978, their home was destroyed during seven days of intense bombing. Yet while the family has rebuilt their home once before, the disruption enacted by the recent explosion is unprecedented. “Whenever we hear the sound of a bomb, we immediately hide,” stated Maral, reflecting on the years she grew up in wartime when she was taught how to react in times of crisis. “[But] when it’s [a] normal day and there’s no war, the human damage…it was never in this force.”
The continual movement of the Der Boghossian family reflects a cycle of displacement endemic to the history of the Lebanese Armenian community. Gulen’s parents were members of a generation who survived the Armenian Genocide and settled in Lebanon after being forcibly exiled from their historic homeland in modern-day Turkey. Armenian identity in Lebanon bears the transgenerationally transmitted wound of losing and seeking a home where one can live with their family in peace and security. When she was very young, Maral used to dream about becoming an architect and building a large home where she, her mother and her sister could live together. This desire evolved into her affinity for painting cityscapes. “I am sure that some things in my work are related also to our lost heritage in Armenia, in Cilicia,” she reflected. “There is always this missing the house. Even if I own house, I still miss the house.”
For the pair of artists, visual art is a method of healing from intergenerational trauma. In December 2019, they were invited to exhibit their work at the “Armenian Identity Today” Art Exhibition at the Armenian Art Experience Switzerland. Armenian artists from across the globe witnessed Gulen’s series of iron statues of human figures. The figures that were vertical or in motion represented survivors of the Armenian Genocide who were exiled, persecuted or forced to flee and were scattered across the globe. Two of the statues depicting a mother and father carrying their children are an homage to her parents. They had 14 children “so that the nation will grow, so that the family will grow,” according to her. “I wanted to carry out my parents’ wish through my statues…so that we will not be few, and we will not be alone.” Horizontal figures of people sitting, resting or thinking represent the refugees who established themselves on the coasts of the Mediterranean and preserved their former culture.
“I just belong to nowhere, and at the same time, I belong to all of this.”
The trauma arising from the Armenian Genocide transmitted across generations manifests in visceral fear of an ever-present threat facing communities in the diaspora and of the resurgence of persecution. According to Maral, this fear that resides within every Armenian individual must be overcome by a collective campaign to heal and end the pattern of transmission. In Armenian communities like that of Lebanon, this fear is triggered and affirmed by the repeated renewal of violence, such as in the damage wreaked upon the Der Boghossian family home at various stages and upon the old Armenian houses that were built by survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Her paintings of cityscapes reflect an effort to establish the sense of belonging and security that has not been bestowed by history. “I cannot look at these cityscapes and feel that I don’t belong here,” she remarked. “I cannot say that I belong to Armenia. I cannot say that I belong to Lebanon. I just belong to nowhere, and at the same time, I belong to all of this.”
Yet her artwork is not only a form of personal therapy. It is also a method for creatively transcending violence by offering affirmative conceptions of Armenian identity beyond persecution. At the “Armenian Identity Today” Art Exhibition in Aarau, Switzerland, she presented several paintings that explore her multiculturalism. They blended Persian, Ottoman, Islamic and Armenian influences to celebrate the richness of her multicultural background and the uniqueness of the liminal position of the Armenian community as a bridge between the East and the West.
The ability of Maral and Gulen to survive as artists in the future is uncertain. Cultural life in Beirut has come to a halt as the city grapples with the catastrophic consequences of the August 4th explosion. Basic concerns such as rebuilding homes, securing food and preparing for the impending winter take precedence over investing in the kinds of exhibitions and programs that artists rely on. Rising costs of basic goods as a result of inflation signify that artists often must choose between purchasing art materials and purchasing food. “Artists suffer under both of these conditions. Artists ultimately live through their creations,” asserted Gulen, referring to the dual pressure of struggling to meet basic needs and striving to continue working as an artist. “If I do not create art, I am dead. It is death for me.” She suggested that if the diaspora wishes to help the artists of Lebanon, it should organize exhibitions and invite them to travel abroad to exhibit their work.
Maral’s dream for the future is one in which she cannot only survive, but also live with dignity and carry on the work that is most fulfilling for her. “Our dream is not just survival as a body,” she stated. “It’s to survive and to live and to be able to create art.”