Four Artists’ Pictures of an Unspeakable Past


In this time of multiple global wars, genocides, and force displacements, art has a particularly important role to play in helping us be present with unspeakable violence. What’s less visible is the long-lasting trauma that people and families carry through the generations. Peeling the Onion: Visual Reminders at Elza Kayal Gallery aims to do just that, peeling back the layers of memory by featuring four artists who engage with intergenerational trauma through painting, photography, drawings, and video.

When I entered the show, my eyes were drawn immediately to paintings by Anoushka Bhalla, rich in crimson and burgundy and alive with texture. “Portraits from the lost homeland” depicts two figures in an embrace. One looks sorrowfully at the viewer, while the other has a plaintive expression. Next to this are more abstract representations, such as “Hope of the forgotten,” portraying eyeballs gazing upward, and “Night burning,” a singular hand that looks as if it’s holding a wound or a spot of light. Bhalla, a New York-based artist born in India, works with archives of the British Empire to explore its painful legacy of colonialism in South Asia.

Equally arresting are Marsha Nouritza Odabashian’s paintings made with onionskin dye, such as “Homecoming,” in which birdlike figures appear to be returning to buildings amid an explosion. In “Counting Sheep,” a blue-clad figure stares outward into a cloud of sheep and human figures. Born in Boston, Odabashian is the grandchild of Armenian immigrants and genocide survivors. Her works respond to a trip she made to the land of her ancestors, and capture, in my mind, the complex emotions that often arise when visiting sites of familia trauma.

In an artist’s statement, Odabashian explains her choice of material, the onions after which the show is named:

Painting for me is magical and my earliest experiences with painting involved my mother using onionskins to dye Easter Eggs. I was always fascinated that white or brown eggs thrown into a pot and boiled with yellow onionskins would come out bright maroon. I was haunted by the history of the tradition and the ritual …. When I begin the dying process, I bury the canvas or paper in the onionskins or soak it in the watery dye and let it dry. Some of the onionskin falls off when it dries and some of it sticks.

New York artist Kevork Mourad, a descendent of Armenian refugees in Syria, presents a series of Flight sketches, images made on plane rides. Rich with line and texture, many capture human-like figures in a mix of dancing and writhing, based on his childhood memories from Armenia and Syria. Best known for live drawing in concert with musicians, he also created the enigmatic “Hidden Portal 1” and “Hidden Portal 2,” two acrylic on cotton fabric works that go three layers deep, like a three-dimensional maze set to the tune of a cacophonous chamber orchestra. They reflect on war and the consequent refugee crises.

Two photos by Massachusetts artist Adrienne Der Marderosian, a descendent of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, reach out, almost literally, from their black and white frames. We cannot see their faces, but we can see the palms of their hands, which in some cultures are believed to carry traces of memory and history. If the other three artists’ works are about remembering across generations, these two photos are about forgetting.

“On my maternal side,” writes Der Marderosian in a gallery statement, “they were unable to tell their stories and so that part of our family history is lost. Their experience was too painful to explain and so their unspoken truths, remain with them.”

“Ultimately,” she adds,” I found the answers to what I am searching for lie within me.”

Peeling the Onion: Visual Reminders continues at Elza Kayal Gallery (368 Broadway, Suite 409, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.



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