Monuments Under Occupation
A Conversation With Patricia Eunji Kim
“In this conversation, Mashinka Firunts Hakopian—Los Angeles–based artist of the Armenian diaspora, researcher, and organizer—explains the ongoing attacks against Indigenous Armenian lives and cultural heritage in the Republic of Artsakh [being] enacted by the states of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The conversation builds upon current public debates around monuments and markers of memory by focusing on cultural heritage. Cultural heritage refers here to the physical objects (e.g., monuments, artifacts, and archaeological sites) and traditions that are passed on through multiple generations; communities depend upon their cultural heritage to be able to assert their continued presence. Erasures of a community’s cultural heritage are thus enactments of oppression, and in Artsakh such erasures are, quite literally, matters of life and death.”
From the conversation:
Patricia Eunji Kim: Over the past year and a half, conversations and controversies around monuments have occupied public consciousness, especially as activists have advocated for the removal of—and sometimes even toppled and destroyed—racist and colonial statues and markers. But of course, not all forms of iconoclasm are the same. In fact, I believe that the debate around monuments is incomplete without a discussion about cultural heritage.
Mashinka Firunts Hakopian: Today, Azerbaijan deploys Caucasian Albanian historiography as a tool of epistemic violence and a pretense for the desecration of monuments. State officials identify indigenous Armenian monuments as Albanian monuments that have been “Armenianized.” Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has announced, without a shred of supporting evidence, that many historical documents confirm that Armenian historians and impostors have simply “Armenianized” the ancient Albanian churches. So monuments or sites that bear Armenian script and attest to Armenian indigeneity in the region will be marked for destruction.
What the performance ultimately calls for is not militarization but self-determination. Its titular rifles don’t extol the weapons of military violence. Rather, they make a claim for how the continued existence of people targeted for annihilation constitutes a kind of victory. The artists argue for the diasporic body that performs cultural memory as a weapon against the forces of historical erasure. To put a fine point on their argument, the size of the rifles silkscreened on the artists’ robes was carefully calibrated during the design process. The rifles had to be “fifty-two inches and not an inch shorter,” to cover the performer’s entire body and code that body as a weapon.
Notably, what scholars term the “responsibility to recall” in diasporic communities is often coded as a feminized practice.2 The preservation of cultural memory is cast as invisible and gendered labor, as is the unwaged reproduction of communal social life. Rifles turns these formulations on their head, recasting the labor of recollection as an active force of political transformation. In this way, the performance weaponizes feminist memory work as organized resistance.
Bronze head from a cult statue of Anahita, shown in the guise of Aphrodite
Courtesy of the Argam Ayvazyan Digital Archive, a collection representing more than 25 years of Argam Ayvazyan’s efforts to document the Julfa cemetery.