(excerpted from the artsite of the allegheny college art department)
Odalisque for Said, 2006
Image courtesy of the artist
Interview with MELISSA BOYAJIAN
Vika Gardner: Can you describe what you do?
Melissa Boyajian: In many cases I’m a performer, using irony and humor. My projects are designed to question gender, homophobia, and sexism. I also question established, academic discourses. In my photographs, I am both the subject and the artist, poking fun at the male artist’s gaze. I problematize the trope with gender ambiguity, masculine women and feminine men. I created the Odalisque for Said during my first year of graduate school. It is among the works I abandoned.
MB: I was confused about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to work on the things that I had been working on with photography. I wanted to use other mediums and subject matter. I was trying to decide on something so daunting, and I was feeling inexperienced. I didn’t know enough of the cannon of art history, theory, etc. I created subjects that were meaningful for further work, although I didn’t know it at the time; they turned out to be powerful.
VG: What are your influences?
MB: Said’s Orientalism was a major influence. My grandmother, Mary, had recently passed away. My family is Armenian; my grandparents emigrated from Anatolia, modern day Turkey. I became interested in representation of the Middle East, such as the Odalisque from 1814. Said borrows from Foucault’s contrast between the Occident and the Orient. It creates a misconception about the East or the Near East being feminine, docile, etc. I followed Ingres' Odalisque because of the idea of fantasy. The original was based on letters from the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, Lady Whortley Montague. Ingres projects his own ideals based on his imagination from Lady Montague’s letters. This depicts people -- a fetishization -- based on her writing, even though the closest he ever came to the Middle East was Italy. I started thinking about my own identity and my parents coming from Anatolia. I had been questioning my gender identity as well. I began playing with ideas of female masculinity to confuse the gaze.
VG: Do you see the work as revealing problems or solutions?
MB: More problems than solutions. I think that’s all art can really do, critique or reveal problems. It’s not good to forcefully change anything; it’s more democratic to present a problem.
VG: Why did you use a beard in this image and not a mustache?
MB: I don't know if I am being too simple saying that I was working with the idea of the 'bearded lady.' The beard did not signify anything religious or anything from Bear culture. The bearded lady, however, aside from being a subject of laughter, ridicule or "schizonphrenic" subject with "gender confusion" problems, is also an individual pushing the boundaries of gender and normality that is appreciated in the queer community. Such as circus entertainer, writer and bearded lady Jennifer Miller.
VG: Describe your day.
MB: I teach photography one day a week, and I have a job as a pastry chef since 2003. I don’t work in a way where I’m constantly producing. I might have a few months where I’m reading a lot. I read a ton and I’m really really super organized and anal. I have a million preliminary plans and go through a series of tests of the project before a final result. So it can be a year to a year and a half before a project is installed. For me the research component is important to the studio work.
VG: Do you see gender as binary?
MB: I see gender as performative and fluid, no binary at all.
VG: How does art enrich your life?
MB: I can’t imagine not doing art; life would be boring without being a kind of cultural producer. It’s fun -- it brings a lot of riches. Creative people in my life influence me in general.
VG: Do you think orientalism as a theory is over?
MB: It’s still really relevant, especially in wartime. People’s attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims are ridiculous. It’s about war and domination. There’s still work to be done.
VG: What’s your intellectual lineage?
MB: I have masters -- I studied art and theory. I see myself in the Western tradition of art and theory. I am also in dialogue with a sort of intellectual circle of international Armenian writers/activists/artists. Shushan Avagyan (writer and activist), Chris Atamian (writer and director), Mamikon Hovsepyan (gay right's activist), Arpi Adamyan (artist and activist), and Nancy Agabian (writer/professor), Arlene Avakian (activist/writer/professor), Adrineh Der-Boghossian (artist). My interest in social/political theory (Said, Foucault, bell hooks, Judith Butler and Benedict Anderson). 2. I am also shaped by Armenian history, both history books and stories from some of my family members that have passed on. 3. Other artists. To name a few: Anri Sala, Harun Farocki, Michael Rackowitz, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Joan Fontcuberta, Sharon Hayes, Walid Raad, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper, Cindy Sherman, Sergei Parajanov, Atom Egoyan, Shirin Neshat. 4. I am also influenced by Armenian music, food and dance.
VG: Do you work collaboratively?
MB: Yes, I’ve been working collaboratively since my second year of graduate school. I’m just drafting a solo project now, but everything else was collaborative. I enjoy how to have 2 minds meet and create something -- it’s challenging and democratic. One of my collaborators is Jesse Jagtiani; another is Valeria Lopez.
VG: Pop culture?
MB: I have other work that references TV and pop culture more. I have a piece critiquing tourism. I and a collaborator fabricated a town in Oklahoma, created a history with pamphlets, maps and a parody video, like Travel Channel stuff.
VG: Do you have a specific goal for your viewer?
MB: No, I don’t really from a simple picture. I hope it would raise questions about authoritative structures, questioning what’s true, what’s factual or fictitious.
VG: Why is the body art in this image here?
MB: It’s just queer. There was no reason to take it out. It’s more of an emphasis that it counters the expected gaze. If I were to make this image again, I would not change it, but I think that I would go about the way I made other images in the series differently and I would read more on the discourse and criticism of Orientalism and homosexuality and colonialism in the Middle East. I later realized that the photo has a certain likeness with other artists such as Yasumasa Morimura and Yinka Shonibare. How might I make my series a bit different?
VG: Given that this image is on some level based on a woman’s view of the Ottoman harem, did you consider a woman’s gaze in this image?
MB: I’ve read Lady Montague’s letters from Turkey; she was extremely impressed with the role of women. She thought they were freer than the women in England. There’s some speculation: she might not draw out problematic issues on gender, but there’s still lots of class distinction.
VG: Do you have a cultural/political lens?
MB: With my family history and her upbringing, I’m aware of and sensitive to oppression. I think I’m more open-minded because of that. I also volunteer and participate in activism. So I’m fairly political inside and outside of art. There are other issues I try to address in some of my other work, which stem from some of my family members who escaped the massacres in Turkey from 1895-1915 and my own personal relationship to the Armenian community being only a halfsie, such as collective memory, cultural erasure and cultural belonging. My dad and his brothers were raised in Watertown, MA (the former little Armenia before Glendale, CA) and they were initially forced to go to Armenian school when they were children (my brother and I also went for a time). They hated it and wanted to be as American as possible so they would crawl out the bathroom window at school until their parents eventually gave up on making them go. My father being the youngest of the boys retained the least amount of the Armenian language and therefore it was not passed down to me. The passing of customs and language in Armenian is usually done by the mother. My grandmother and uncle taught me a small amount of the language and I have learned quite a bit on my own from language tapes and visiting Armenia with my uncle. Part of my other work ("Basic Conversational Armenian," video) addresses the irony of trying to learn the Western Armenian language (spoken by Armenians of the Diaspora) and negotiate with gender codes and sexism in the lessons. There are also issues of collective and personal memory present in my work. How does a group of people remember a traumatic event and how does it change over time? How do I remember it and is part of the memory pieces that I have improvised? I am interested in how cultures retain and hybridize traditions as well.
VG: Would you do the same kind of gender boundary crossing today?
MB: I’m not sure if I would do it differently. Since then I have been reading about post-colonial feminism. It’s another layer that’s not quite a critique. Perhaps some of the orientalists were visiting the East to explore homosexual desires, a fetishization in a way Said did not explore. I now see this as something adding another layer; I didn’t know this when I made this picture. . . . it’s an article in a book by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills [Worldcat says: Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader / Reina Lewis, 2001]. The position of the artist in the past has been linked to ethnographers and anthropologists, and I want to look more at the possibility of homoerotic vacations.
VG: Is there anything more that you want to tell me?
MB: There’s a different for me between being openly queer with friends and family versus those in the Armenia culture. It’s quite different. I came out to my close family when I was 22, but not to others in the Armenian community. I came out to my Armenian family only 2 weeks ago. My grandmother who died in 2003, and I never had that conversation with her, although we were close. When I told my Armenian family, they were okay, but visiting other family, there were strict rules. I could not be visibly gay in any way there. But I have a group of gay friends in Armenia anyway. So I have different identities for different cultures. I go to Armenia every few years. My work also deals with this -- with the sexism and homophobia in Armenian culture.
VG: Do you speak Armenian?
MB: Just at a very very basic level. My grandmother taught me a little; my father and his brothers speak a little.