Last Thursday, many of us got together to honor Neery Melkonian, the beloved Armenian American art critic and curator, with a memorial evening at AGBU Central Office in Manhattan.
Emceed by Houry Guedelekian and Nancy Agabian, the evening started with artist Aram Jibilian sharing the contours of his friendship with Neery, and an overview of her career, philosophy, and thoughts on armenity.
Then there were readings by Jean Marie Casbarian, Tina Chakarian, Silva Ajemian, Lola Koundakjian, Lusine Kerobyan (who introduced the two AGBU WebTalks videos featuring Neery), followed by an opportunity for friends and family to come up and say something.
Her nephew Patrick said some moving things about her relationship with the family, which I think everyone appreciated. One of Neery’s friends from Santa Fe ended with some energy exercise to have Neery’s spirit delivered into the heavens, or something. It was a little confusing but a light and playful touch that captured some of Neery’s spirit.
Kardash Onnig also spoke and he explained that a project he did with Neery ended up into a book that got him banned from Armenia. That book was recently translated into Armenian by a professor there and he got his copy the day before, and it mentions Neery on the back cover.
I read this piece as part of the program. It is a letter I wrote her after she passed away. Friendships never end the way you want, so sometimes we have to make up your own ending.
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I still remember the last time I saw you. You came over for brunch at our apartment in Brooklyn and we ended up chatting for hours about life, art, and the future. I remember your excitement at what ended up being a Pyrrhic victory over something no one could’ve controlled. I shared the thrill with you that your work was finally getting noticed and that people were reading your essays, and they were interested in your ideas. We talked with a new openness and discussed the urgency of culture in the world, and I felt the buzz in our conversations that I often felt with you, as if there were fireflies fluttering between us.
It’s hard for some of us to get noticed in this world. Particularly those of us who feel tethered to history, very much in the present, and anxious about our future. We had that in common you and I, often feeling rejected by people who don’t understand us, but also being adventurous, maybe sometimes careless, as we forged our own paths.
I’m trying to remember the first time I met you and I’m certain it was in this office that we’re standing in today. You walked in like a windstorm, slightly disheveled, passionate, and we had an instant connection even if we didn’t fully know it yet.
And how could we? It was like meeting another alien, yet someone as connected as family.
You wore a scarf wrapped around your head and you were usually coming in asking for funding for your ambitious projects that not everyone understood. Personally, I wish I could’ve funded everything — but it wasn’t my decision.
At that final brunch, you said that you thought I was angry at you but I had no idea what you meant. How can I be angry at someone who is so like me, not a mirror, but a continuation, woven from the same thread and fading in the same sun. You seemed relieved with my answer and so was I that another weed was removed between us in the garden of our friendship.
Our time together was fragmented across so many projects, conversations, and rooms, and there was always something else, something new, different, that you were always excited to tell me about and to listen and talk and listen.
We bonded most over the art we hated. Kitsch or chintzy stuff that passed itself as more than it was in Armenian circles. Endless Ararats and sappy scenes of figures in traditional garb twirling in fields of grass amidst mountains. Everyone looked oddly depressed, and we’d laugh and laugh about all of it. You smoking, and we’d laugh some more.
I’m glad I got to see the Armenity pavilion in Venice, and republish your essay. You wanted to write more, I could tell. Epic histories, tying together things that no one thought about. All of it, anchored in a thirst that could never be quenched, in language that was shriveling and blooming at the same time, ideas planted in the cracks of pavement we treaded daily.
We’d complain that Armenians confused us, but only because we understood them too well. Or at least that’s how I’m choosing to remember it. We were two diasporan cultural workers, fluent in the languages of many communities, which created an automatic kinship, twice removed from stable narratives, which we both knew were a fiction anyway.
I know you carried a wound with you, because some days you let some of us see it, and at other times it was hidden so deep but I always knew it was there. I know we recognized each other’s wounds even though we didn’t talk about it, but then again maybe we both chose art because we knew some of the most interesting and important things are left unsaid.
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Memorial for Neery Melkonian at AGBU Central Office, NYC, March 9, 2017
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