By Deborah Ng, BA Art History, Level 3
(This passage was submitted as an assignment for my university course module “The Armenians: Crafting a Community in Dispersion” (2020-2021). Some changes has been made in the current version after grading. Many thanks to my tutor Dr Alyson Wharton for improving my work.)
‘Where there is power, there is resistance,’ Michel Foucault suggested when commenting on the relationship between the two concepts. (Foucault, 1978: 95). Perhaps this is a good reflection on the resisting state of marginalised groups oppressed by state authority, such like the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Resistance can be executed in many different forms – though it is generally differentiated by physical and abstract approaches; the former is much more vocal and hence attracts more attention, meaning the latter often gets overshadowed.
I would like to take this opportunity to explore an intellectual approach to nationalist resistance in the nineteenth-century Eastern Armenian community, particularly the work of Panos Terlemezian. Terlemezian was an artist and political activist who was inspired by Russian and French enlightenment education respectively. He struggled for his vision of an independent Armenia from oppression under the Ottoman regime. This exploration will feature an analysis on one of his works – A Shepard from Lori (1905). I will then compare the painting with a contemporary painting done by Hong Kong artist duo Lum Li and Lum Long, as an attempt to highlight the themes of political resistance and nationalist pride.
Before we examine the artworks, we can start off by thinking about nationalism and crafting national community – how is it done, and why does it matter? To understand how nationalism is constructed, we shall look at one of the most-cited definitions of ‘nation’ proposed by historian Benedict Anderson. Anderson suggests, that a nation is an ‘imagined’ community formed by members who ‘don’t know most of their fellow members’, but is bonded by the ‘image of their communion’ and a ‘style they imagined’. What is interesting about this idea of nationhood is the abstract agreement that has formed across a period of time, which eventually reach ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson, 1991: 5-7). That begs the question: Can this imagined identity be used to bring advantages to people? What creates this collective identity and heritage? I believe these questions will become relevant when we look at A Shepard from Lori.
Panos Terlemezian, A Shepard from Lori, oil on canvas, 93*70 cm, 1905; The National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan.
This artwork shows a portrait of a sitting young man with his legs mildly spread. The work is painted in dark warm palette with limited tonal contrast, making the work’s lighting very dimmed. There is, however, a small area of bright skin tone applied to the portrayed fist. With close examination, we see that the artist has put effort in the rendering on the young man’s flesh and veins on his fist, indicating the amount of labour he would have been using on a daily basis. The contrast between the highlights and shadows of the fist’s veins and the dagger’s metallic texture is subtly more intensive than the rest of the painting. Terlemezian had also put some thought into illustrating the young man’s clothes. The rough brushstrokes complete the plain but durable fashion of the man, implying that he is from a humble background – very likely to be from the rural labouring class or peasantry. This combination of the painting’s formal qualities, depicted imagery and their indications shows a strong resemblance to Realist style – a European artistic genre that focuses on underrepresented poverty and rural subject matter in conventional academic high art (Rubin, 2003).
A Shepard from Lori may seem like a normal portrait of an ordinary person. However, upon understanding the historic environment behind its production, viewers would find the content of this work no less vocal about Terlemezian’s understanding of his national identity. The Armenian population had been treated unequally under the Ottoman regime due to their difference in religious beliefs – while most of the Armenians are Christians, the Ottoman Empire ran on an ‘ethno-religious administrative system’ based on Islamic state laws, hence treating the Armenians as ‘second-class citizens’ (Payaslian, 2007: 114). A notable restriction of Ottoman second-class citizens was forbidding their right to bear arms, while regular Muslim citizens were permitted to bear weapons. The nineteenth-century saw the emergence of Armenian nationalist political parties that expressed political resistance to the regime. The Armenakan Party and Hunchak Party in particular put their emphasis on obtaining power from ‘the people’, which were the peasantry and poor, to resist against the regime with intellectual and physical (though often violent) approaches respectively. Terlemezian was in line with the Armenian nationalist movement, and contributed in different forms of resistance. An intellectual approach he pursued was his composition of paintings capturing the rural side of Russian Armenia (Tongo, 2015: paragraph 21).
Considering these circumstances, A Shepard from Lori can be viewed as a projection of a prideful Armenian nationalist spirit. This interpretation may explain why the young Shepard is depicted to be grinning with seemingly provocative body language. If you wonder what gives him such confidence, Terlemezian has answered from his deliberate emphasis on the shepherd’s laborious fist, which points to his armed dagger. This implies that his confidence comes from his self-empowerment from rebellion and pride for his ethnic origin and social position in the given circumstances. When all this comes together, we can see that the painting shows a powerful and provocative Armenian empowerment message, even when the imperial authority enforced heavy censorship on potential political opposition.
Terlemezian’s intention to reflect nationalist spirit within the Ottoman Armenian community at the time is an intriguing question. It is certainly fascinating that he chose to communicate, in quite open ways, feelings of nationhood and collective spirit using a simple combination of visual languages, especially with the emphasis on the objects and features of clothing, as well as the subject’s confidence. It stands as an elaborate expression of his pride for his Armenian identity. I can’t help but reminding myself of a work done by artist duo Lum Li and Lum Long, who were also my mentors when I was still doing oil painting training. The duo have been actively participating in Hong Kong political activism against oppression by the regime under People’s Republic of China since they completed their artistic training in France.
Lum Li and Lum Long, A Person of Thousand Hands, oil on canvas, 125*200 cm, 2019; photo credits to the artists.
This work is called A Person of Thousand Hands. Some of you may recognise this attire if you followed the news about physical demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019. The combination of a gas mask, helmet, protective goggles, and flexible attire in black was the dress code for the physical demonstrators. They are labelled as “the warriors” by their supporters. The colour scheme shows a major difference compared to A Shepard from Lori, as it features more vibrant and diverse colour choices. Yet, strikingly similar is that this painting features depictions of ordinary attire and objects as points of focus, in order to reflect the identity of a struggling person for their power in an oppressed regime. Amongst many ordinary but meaningful objects in this painting, I would like to bring your attention to the umbrella handle on the left. While an umbrella is usually seen as an essential item to protect from rain, it has been repurposed by protestors as protection against police pepper-spray attacks and tear gas attacks, hence became a symbolism of resistance among supporters of Hong Kong liberalism against state oppression. The combination of the demonstration attire and activism-related ordinary objects dominate the composition. The opposition, drawn as two mini figures at the bottom, are dwarfed. This painting doesn’t only portray resisters’ identity, but also serves to empower supporters of activism, making this painting extremely vocal in a visual sense.
We have advanced a close examination of Terlemezian’s A Shepard from Lori by exploring the construction of imagined symbolism and the associated political-historic background behind the production. I have also compared this painting to a similar contemporary work, A Person of Thousand Hands by Lum Li and Lum Long, which is comparable in its use of ordinary objects and dress iconography to highlight a collective identity united with elements of regional nationalism. It has been revealing to see how intellectual resistance – in the form of portraits – has been executed similarly under the condition of a struggle for power, despite the difference in time, regional culture and associated regimes.
What do you think of these works? Feel free to comment your thoughts!
Lum Li and Lum Long, A Person with Thousand Hands, oil on canvas, 125*200 cm, 2019. From 淋漓淋浪, “〈千手人〉”, 2019, [online source], https://www.facebook.com/LumliLumlong/photos/a.587613794920509/1044403305908220/ accessed on 7 Dec 2020. Reproduced with permission from the artists.
Panos Terlemezian, A Shepard from Lori, oil on canvas, 93*70 cm, 1905; The National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan. From “File:P. Terlemezian, Shepherd from Lori, 1905.jpg”, [online source] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:P._Terlemezian,_Shepherd_from_Lori,_1905.jpg accessed on 3 April 2020.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1991).
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction (New York, 1978).
Payaslian, Simon. The History of Armenia: From the Origins to the Present (New York, 2007).
Rubin, J. H. ‘Realism’, 2003, [online source] https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T070996 accessed on 7 Dec 2020.
Tongo, Gizem. ‘Artist and Revolutionary: Panos Terlemezian as an Ottoman Armenian Painter’ from Études arméniennes contemporaines issue 12 (2019), 111-153.