Father Land by Vahé and Ara Oshagan is a poetic journey through the rugged, human and history-laden landscape of their forefathers in Karabakh and a unique collaboration between a photographer son and his writer father. The book, which will be released on Sunday with an accompanying exhibit at the Los Angeles Municipal Arts Gallery, chronicles a decades-long journey of a father and son that resulted in a literary and visual contemplation of present-day history and culture, as well as a meditation on transnational identity, land, and paternal bonds.
Springing from a deep understanding of the Armenian people and their unique past, Vahé Oshagan’s essay presents a reflective, yet witty and fluid, account of his encounters with people from all walks of Karabakh life. It touches upon topics as diverse as the happenings of the 8th–century BC, the recent war of liberation, the dialect of the people, their worldview, their contradictions, their body language, their spirituality, and their legendary hospitality. It is an accomplished piece of imaginative literature, weaving between literary and literal, creative and factual, objective and subjective reflection.
Ara Oshagan’s photographs depict a complex and layered vision of Karabakh. Functioning on documentary as well as symbolic levels, they reflect his encounters in the region as seen from his own intensely personal point of view. At times capturing an intimate familial moment; at other times, in the street, observing the chaos of life; or reverent in the presence of Karabakh’s millennial churches, the images simultaneously document, explore, and reflect upon Karabakh’s precarious present and his own place in this Father Land.
Taken together, the text and images are symbiotic and deeply connected—like the father and son who produced the work–and they portray a region and a culture as old as the bonds of family and society themselves.
Vahé Oshagan is the preeminent poet and man of letters of the Armenian diaspora. He has authored eight volumes of poetry, six volumes of prose fiction, short stories, plays, and countless scholarly and literary articles and essays. Oshagan’s career as a writer was marked by a clear break from the past and the introduction of new literary ideas and forms into the Armenian language. In 1998, the President of the Republic of Armenia awarded Oshagan the Movses Khorenatsi medal for a lifetime of service to Armenian culture and letters–the highest Armenian honor given to a living person. Vahé Oshagan passed away on June 30, 2000.
Ara Oshagan is a photographer whose work revolves around the intersecting themes of identity, community, and memory. His first series, iwitness, joined portraits of witnesses of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 with their stories of survival, and redemption. Oshagan has also explored is own identity through photographs of the Armenian diaspora of Los Angeles. His other projects include Juvies, an image/text project with youth in the California prison system. Ara Oshagan’s work is in the permanent collection of the Southeast Museum of Photography, Florida; the Downey Museum of Art, California; and the Museum of Modern Art in Armenia
This week we present both father and son in their own voices. Excerpts from Vahé Oshagan’s essay, which is presented in Armenian and English in the book and an Asbarez interview with Ara Oshagan.
ARA OSHAGAN: Father Land is a book that my father and I decided to do in the mid-nineties about Karabakh. He was a writer at the peak of his abilities- mature, published many books- and I was just starting into photography, so we decided to go and do a project together in this place. We wanted to work in parallel and have two artists at this one place creating art, connecting only indirectly.
The idea of a fatherland and the Father Land title came to me pretty late into the project, and it really has three different meanings for me. The way the title is written is separate, so “Father” is separate and there’s a space, then there’s “Land.” The “Father” is me and my father working on this project and me in the process of working on this project for ten years, becoming a father myself, and losing my father in the process.
Land is everything in Armenia and in Karabakh; the war that was fought in Karabakh was for the land. They live very close to the land, so when you talk about land in that area of the world, it is very organic, very connected to the way they live. The word together, as one, is “fatherland,” which my fatherland, even though it’s a place I had never been to before ’98. Yet I called it my fatherland, because that is how we are in a Diaspora- you have a place that’s your homeland, your fatherland, but you have maybe never been there before.
VAHÉ OSHAGAN: In Karabakh, mountain and man are interchangeable realities. The mountains, which stand still and endure, are living human beings, and human beings are living mountains that move about and speak. Human beings may die; the mountains will live on in their stead. For as long as the mountains remain and live on, the Karabakhtsis will survive – that is, will continue to live free, like their mountains.
Karabakh is still not far removed from being a spontaneous culture without writing, and the complicity between human and natural things – plants, insects, food, animals, birds, mountains – is so close and intense that it is hard to say where the human ends and nature begins
ARA OSHAGAN: My father’s writing is very specifically about Karabakh, but it has also got this universal aspect to it where it talks about people and their struggles, about human life as it is, and he’s trying to, in a way, untangle this history, humanity, soul, and linkage. His approach was to talk about humanity as a whole and the human condition, but in this particular case it would be through the Armenians of Karabakh. Hopefully that and my photographs will connect with non-Armenian leaders. My approach was the same, and if I am successful, people will see an ancient nation land and a way of life. Hopefully there will be that cross-fertilization of different cultures and they can see different cultures in this once place that is very specific to this one small region.
VAHÉ OSHAGAN: This is a land of folktales and myths, where people do not die but, are transformed into legend and live on with their curses and blessings, impacting the present, inspiring coming generations, and shaping their nation’s cultural map.
Invasion, massacre, war, pillage have razed and ruined great deal: civilization has departed, but culture has remained. If it, too, goes, folklore will remain, along with the impulse to rebel, to struggle and fight, using raw, brute force. That’s still here; so is the millennial culture, which nothing can destroy. That is the source of this land’s strength.
ARA OSHAGAN: For me as a Diasporan living in totally urban areas, going back to this place, this land–this fatherland–is very significant, where are searching for your own roots, your identity, and you are trying to find it in this place that is really your fatherland.