nothers: variation of another/other
Susan C. Dessel (USA)
multimedia installation (360 ceramic objects, ready-made objects)
Curator: Susanna Gyulamiryan
Naregatsi Art Institute, Yerevan
June 21, 2010
Contrary to the rhetoric of multiculturalism, being the Other in contemporary culture means being subjected to fundamental dispossession, i.e. discrimination and political marginalization. The ‘Other’ is interpreted as unequal irrespective of the fact whether the ‘Other’ is in a dominant or subordinate position, unlike being ‘Diverse’ which means being equal but different.i
This body of work by Susan C. Dessel is a visual commentary on societal issues and trends, a communication of her conviction that each of us is a determinant of society’s character. When thinking about the work that she would create during her residency at the ‘Art Commune’ AIR Program (ACSL), she learned of the 1999 discovery in Eghegis (Vayots Dzor region in Armenia) of a Medieval Jewish cemetery. This material became the focus of her work in Armenia which is a visual interpretation of historic artifact—material from the archeological excavations at the 13th Century Jewish cemetery and subsequent research on Medieval Jewish communities, particularly women and families. The work bridges the richness of the past with the potential of the future.
When the gravestones were found it was necessary to remove the lichen that covered them to understand the nature of their Otherness. Soon after their similarities were also revealed:
‘The results of the examination of the graveyard of the Orbelian family in the village of Eghegis shows that these aristocrats’ tombstones are identical in form, manufacture and decoration with the Jewish tombstones… the combination of Jewish religious and cultural tradition with local Armenian cultural tradition is evident here.’ii
The project ‘nothers’ honors the women among those buried in the Eghegis Jewish cemetery and their acceptance by and of others. In the 13th and 14th centuries Jewish women were obligated (according to some sources, it was written into their Ketubot or marriage contracts) to breast feed their babies for a period of at least 24 months to help ensure the survival of each child. When it was not possible for a woman to breast feed her child for 24 months a wet nurse was hired. Wet nurses were both Jewish and Christian and the sanctity of the life of every individual was inherent in this practice.
Susan Dessel’s installation, 365 forms of back-to-back torsos of nursing women, represent the 24 month period of obliged breast feeding for every child. Gold-leafed on one side is an Armenian Khachkar and on the reverse a 6-pointed Jewish Star of David, quietly referencing the positive elements of cooperation between Others. Her use of multiples also references the commonality of some aspects of the women’s lives while the differences among the pieces symbolize their individuality. The coincidence of 365 forms and 365 seeds in a pomegranate was accidental but fitting.
As the medieval Jews were Others among the Armenian Christians so the Armenians have historically had the experience of being the Other in the Diaspora.
An intent of this work is to invite viewers to consider the place of otherness within Armenia’s largely homogeneous society today.
[i] Vvedenie v gendernie issledovaniya, p.1, Ed. Jerebkina I., Kharkov, Petersburg ‘Aleteya’, 2003.
[ii] Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. liii, no. 1, Spring 2002. Report of the Survey of a Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Eghegis, Vayots Dzor Region, Armenia. David Amit and Michael E. Stone, pp.88-89.
Susan C. Dessel lives and works in New York City. She left a successful corporate career in 1998 to study Studio Art at the City University of NY (BFA Hunter College, 2003; MFA Brooklyn College, 2006). Her work has been exhibited in the U.S., London, Prague. Dessel has twice experienced censorship, events that encouraged her to continue to develop her voice and visual vocabulary.Dessel’s professional and personal involvements have been marked by efforts to effect social change. Her art is conceptual, a visual communication of her conviction that each of us can help determine our society’s character. Dessel’s art as an extension of the artist herself encourages viewers to consider their own role in transforming the community—local and global—through their actions and inaction.
This project was funded by Kansas City Artists Coalition, Linda Lightin Foundation, and the US Embassy in Armenia with kind support of the Naregatsi Art Institute.
Acknowledgements: Movses Avetisyan and his associates at the Mekhitar Sebastaci Educational Complex Ceramics Studio, Levon Eskenian (Naregatsi Art Institute), Thomas Mittnacht (PAO US Embassy), and Proffessor Michael Stone.