Armenia: Creating Home

by Susan Pattie

At the Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival, Washington, DC, June 7 – July 8, 2018.

Festival sign on the National Mall

Festival sign on the National Mall

I grew up in and around Washington, DC and the Smithsonian museums along the National Mall were a constant source of inspiration and adventure. Art, history, science – everything was there, all free entry and family-oriented. In 1967, a new outdoor educational project began.  The Folklife Festival, an annual international exposition of living cultural heritage, started with highlighting the different ways of living and the diverse pathways of heritage in the United States. Since then the Festival has grown to include cultures from around the world and this year the focus was on Armenia and Catalonia. The event was an extraordinary introduction to Armenia in the heart of the American capital, outdoors and open to all.

Young Armenian musicians

Young Armenian musicians

With banners welcoming the crowds, the Armenian section had several stages, one at each end, two more in the middle and a shadow puppet theatre in a small tent. In between these were many booths with artists and cooks demonstrating their crafts. Workshops throughout each day provided the visitors with introductions to calligraphy, cooking, woodcarving, weaving and much more. The stages presented a variety of music from jazz to young kanun players from Armenia as well as Armenian American musicians such as Zulal, Ara Dinkjian and Onnik Dinkjian. Composer and leader of the Armenian Navy Band, Arto Tuncboyajian, performed and also spoke as part of a discussion of how migration and heritage influence creative work.

Cooking demonstrations by Armenian chef Antranig Kilislian and a Catalan chef

Cooking demonstrations by Armenian chef Antranig Kilislian and a Catalan chef

The stages also hosted informative talks, wide-ranging discussions and demonstrations of cooking, customs, and traditions. Interpreters facilitated the communication and for the third year, discussions included a focus on migration. The 2018 version was entitled On the Move: Migration and Creativity, co-presented by the American Anthropological Association.

A discussion about “Armenians in America: A 400 Year Heritage” took place on the Hyurasenyak stage. “Sounding Memory: Music and Migration” brought together musicians from Armenia and Catalonia to exchange ideas about their transnational experiences and a session on “Giving Voice: Language and Cultural Survival” included presentations about Mayan and Armenian languages and cultures.   “Tastes of Food:  Food Enterprises” included Detroit-based journalist Liana Aghajanian (blog - Dining in Diaspora) who also did translations for the presentations.

Armenian village wedding

Armenian village wedding

On the first day visiting the Festival, I spotted an old friend, Dr. Levon Abrahamian, an anthropologist at Yerevan State University (and currently Chairman of the Board at the Matenadaran), rushing from one end of the exhibition space to the other. As one of the several curators, Levon was busy arranging the village wedding about to take place. A pair of real newly-weds, also members of a dance troupe brought from Armenia to perform at the Folklife Festival , played bride and groom as they, their “families” (other dancers and craftspeople), musicians and many tourists made their way across the space. In the outdoor auditorium, Dr. Abrahamian, anthropologist and co-curator Dr. Gayane Shagoyan and others explained a number of wedding customs, some re-enacted for us. And of course we were all invited to dance in celebration of this “new” family.

Dr. Levon Abrahamian, curator, Armenia: Creating Home

Dr. Levon Abrahamian, curator, Armenia: Creating Home

The Smithsonian had sent a team to Armenia to work with Dr. Abrahamian and others finding makers of crafts, dancers, musicians, puppeteers and cooks to demonstrate their skills and show the thousands of visitors what they would find should they visit Armenia – or indeed, if they visit an Armenian home in the diaspora. Feasting was a major theme and the curators and speakers (and now the Smithsonian website) gave very interesting summaries of ways in which feasting in the diaspora and in Armenia differ while sharing many things. Antranig Kilislian, born in Syria but living now in Armenia as a refugee and chef at Abu Hakob in Yerevan, spoke and demonstrated how to make lahmajun, showing how newcomers are changing the foodways of Armenia. Later that day, information about traditions of foraging and the use of herbs was shared by others on the team. A tonir was built in the middle of the open space, providing fresh lavash to the visitors. Pity the poor cooks, making these in 34 degree weather with high humidity – typical Washington summer!

Major concerts on a shared stage in the middle of the Mall brought internationally known musicians from Armenia and Catalonia as well as both diasporas. Most touching was the dancing together as troupes from Armenia and all over the U.S. diaspora met and shared their steps. Of course visitors also joined after fortifying themselves with – what else – Armenian food and wine at the nearby concessions.

The Folklife Festival is a celebration of diversity and connection, of heritage, of creativity and transformation. It calls itself a “celebration of cultures across the globe” and in 2018 it was a vivid, beautiful showcase for Armenia and Armenians.

Please see these websites to learn more:

https://festival.si.edu/2018/armenia/

https://festival.si.edu/blog/2018-folklife-festival

https://festival.si.edu/visit/festival-101/smithsonian

https://festival.si.edu/2018/armenia/cultures-of-survival