Nancy & Sam Sweezy

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The role of folk art in the formation and expression of Armenian cultural identity was the topic of an illustrated lecture by Nancy and Sam Sweezy on September 20 at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research Center in Belmont, Mass.

Nancy Sweezy and her son Sam Sweezy, both of Arlington, Mass., are the co-editor and photography editor, respectively, of the newly published Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity (Indiana University Press), the first English-language work devoted to the topic. It contains essays by nine Armenian scholars who explore the origins and meanings of Armenian identity as expressed in traditional art forms of all kinds down through the centuries. Levon Abrahamian, visiting professor of anthropology at Yerevan State University, is co-editor of the book.

Scholarly Book for the General Reader

Nancy Sweezy explained that the goal in creating the book was to produce a scholarly work which was still accessible to the general public and gave a sense of the “long sweep of Armenian cultural history” since “one of the ways a people know and identify themselves is through their culture.” To achieve this goal, “we have looked at the history of Armenia through material culture created by exceptional and unexceptional artists who are part of the general community of people and at the myths that are communally generated rather than through political and economic events.”

As a non-Armenian and specialist in American traditional crafts, she explained that her interest in Armenia arose during a 1988 visit to Yerevan as part of the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association tour of the then-Soviet Republic. She recognized that there was still a vital and distinctly Armenian traditional culture in existence there and that it “would not last long in a changing society” although efforts were being made at the Folk Art Museum in Yerevan to preserve it.

In her talk, which was accompanied by slides taken by Sam Sweezy, Nancy Sweezy followed the structure of her book which is divided into six sections: Armenian origins; symbols of Armenian identity; settlements, dwellings, and inhabitants; artifacts and artisans; personal adornment; and fight, feast, and festival.

Armenian Origins and Symbols of Identity

Among the earliest physical evidence of visual culture on the Armenian plateau are megaliths such as the Zorakarer (literally “army of stones”) Monument, which is thought by some to have a kind of astronomical significance similar to that of Stonehenge in England, and the numerous vishap or dragon stones which sometimes have the carved outline of a bull on them. Although there are numerous conflicting theories of Armenian origins, it is clear that by the sixth century B.C. Armenia as a distinct political entity was firmly established.

Among the representations of Armenian identity shown and discussed by the Sweezys were those of the world as garden or vineyard, the sacred mountain, and the temple. Each is present in Armenian art from earliest times down to the present. Significantly, Nancy Sweezy noted the continuity of expression across the divide that separates pagan Armenia from Christian Armenia, pointing out that, while the Christianization of Armenia unquestionably had an impact on visual culture, it did not wholly expunge that which preceded it.

Another important symbol of Armenian identity discussed by Sweezy is the khachkar or cross-stone, which may be related to the ancient pre-Christian megaliths and which have traditionally been the objects of remarkable devotion in Armenia from at least the ninth century A.D.

Traditional Dwellings and Objects

One of the less familiar aspects of Armenian folk culture for many Americans are traditional dwellings known as the glkhatun or head-house whose antiquity in the region is attested to by Xenophon, writing around 400 B.C. Although mostly supplanted by more modern houses, there are still examples in Armenia today, as were seen in photos taken by Sam Sweezy.

The traditional household objects, home decorations, and personal adornments of Armenians can still be seen in homes in current-day Armenia, but they too are becoming increasingly objects made for museums or tourists than for everyday use. One slide showed a 105-year-old woman in Karabagh wearing the striking traditional costume of her region. Nancy Sweezy noted that even this woman does not dress this way all of the time; but she is surely one of the last authentic wearers of this clothing which, as she observed, was “expected to empha- size their fertility and, at the same time, de-emphasize their sexuality.”

Feasts and Festivals

The concluding portion of the Sweezys’ presentation focused on Armenian feasts and festivals, some of which are pre-Christian (although almost all have taken on at least the trappings of Christianity) and most of which continue today. Among these are the feast of Vardavar, fourteen weeks after Easter, which is related to the Feast of the Transfiguration but which has pagan origins; Hambardzum, or the Ascension, celebrated forty days after Easter; and the blessing of the grapes at the Festival of the Virgin Mary in August, which has its origins in a festival devoted to the goddess Anahit.

During the question-and-answer period following the talk, one of the topics that Nancy Sweezy spoke on at length was the Folk Art Museum in Yerevan, which she praised for its exceptional efforts to preserve vanishing aspects of traditional Armenian culture. Unfortunately, as is the case with all of the museums in Armenia, the Folk Art Museum is badly underfunded. Following the question-and-answer period there was a reception with refreshments, during which the Sweezys signed copies of Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity.

Nancy Sweezy is the Director of Country Roads, an organization supporting traditional arts, and has studied folk crafts of numerous cultures. She is also the founder of the Armenian Cultural Project, which develops and markets worldwide crafts made in the Armenian Republic. She was the prime mover behind the definitive book on Armenian folk arts, the first major study in English on this subject. Sam Sweezy, has specialized in the photography of art, architecture, and cultural artifacts for more than 25 years.