Meet Hakob Hakobyan: repatriate, patriot, painter

Discovering new forms of expression in an unfamiliar time

by Maria Titizian

Published: Friday February 20, 2009

Hakob Hakobyan in his studio in Yerevan. Grigor Hakobyan / Armenian Reporter.

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Hakob Hakobyan: repatriate, patriot, painter

Yerevan - When I asked a friend of mine, well versed in all things artistic and articulate, if there was anything I should know before interviewing the renowned artist Hakob Hakboyan, he said: "Hakob's main characteristic is that he is the conveyor of the eternal pain of Armenia. The Genocide is permanently imprinted on his essence as a man."

Riding up the elevator to the 10th floor of his apartment building in Yerevan, I tried to form images in my head of this Western Armenian painter who had come of his own volition to Soviet Armenia in the 1960s. Would he be candid? Was he bitter? Did his art suffer because of his desire to move to an elusive notion of homeland? Did his nationality, his history dictate his path in life as an artist? Did it make him a better artist?

He opened the door to his spacious apartment/studio and welcomed me in, quickly escorting me through a maze of rooms and corridors to his sitting room. Once we settled in and had spoken for a few minutes, I realized that after 47 years he had not lost his Western Armenian; in fact he had retained most of it and only a few Eastern Armenian expressions and pronunciations made their way into his speech.

Not only was he candid and unassuming, but he allowed me to travel with him back to his childhood, unlocking some of the pain and confusion of his early existence, which undoubtedly led him to become one of the greatest Armenian painters of our time.

This is the story of Hakob Hakobyan.

Fate, loss, destiny

Hakob Hakobyan was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1923, the second of three children. His parents were from Aintab. I assumed that here his story would take the traditional narrative: parents forced on to deportations, barely escaping, make their way to Egypt. But fate had saved them from the tragedy that befell so many. "We were lucky. Only some members of our family were forced on deportation routes and then killed. The rest had left before the Genocide," he said.

At the time of the 1896 massacres, Hakobyan's father, 15 years old at the time, was sent to the United States by his family to live with his married sister. "We don't know much about our father because we lost him at a very young age," Hakobyan said. All they know is that he stayed in the United States for 18 years before moving to Egypt sometime in 1913. "In the meantime, my mother's father had moved to Alexandria also before the Genocide. My grandfather then returned to Aintab to bring the rest of his family, but they were killed before he got there. My mother and father then were spared of the Genocide."

After losing his father at the age of seven, Hakobyan was sent Melkonian Educational Institution in Cyprus to continue his education. "I guess they sent me away to school so that I wouldn't be left on the streets, and to receive an education. I wasn't able to continue my education because of the war. That's how my life progressed - with different waves. I really never had a plan," he explained.

The joy of revelation

One day Hakobyan's father took him in his lap and drew a rabbit on a piece of paper. "For me it was like witnessing a miracle. I had never seen anyone draw before. My father asked me if I could draw one. I tried and I was able to draw the rabbit. After that I always drew," he said plaintively. He admits to loving the attention he would get every time he drew. "As a child when I would draw people would compliment my drawings. I guess in a way it was very psychological. When people compliment you, you then want to receive those compliments, so you draw."

His first art teachers who had a great influence on the young student while at Melkonian were Arakel Badrig and Onnik Avedisian. However his tenure at Melkonian was short-lived and he was forced to return to Egypt in 1941 because of the Second World War. "Life was difficult. I was forced to work. It's very dangerous to stop something halfway through," he said, referring to his education, which he never was able to return to. "I always lived in uncertainty. Everything was in disarray, unorganized. Even my painting was unorganized," he admited. But his love of reading Armenian literature and history sustained him through those difficult years.

In 1952 he traveled to Paris. It was during his time there until 1954 that he decided not to abandon painting. "It was a very high ideal - to paint and support my family through my painting."

The journey "home"

The yearning to move to Armenia started at a very young age for Hakobyan. "It was my destiny to move here," he said. He hadn't been able to come during the great repatriation of 1946-48 when over 100,000 Armenians from all over the world repatriated to Soviet Armenia. Even after hearing all the stories of how the repatriates had suffered, his desire to come to Armenia remained the guiding light of his life.

He was finally able to repatriate in 1962 with his wife Mari and their two young daughters, aged five and 11.

He said that even after living here for more than 40 years, people still ask him why he came. "I always wanted to come to Armenia," he put it simply. The fundamental desire for him was to live in the homeland and not in odarutyun. "There is and was only one Armenia. There wasn't a capitalist Armenia or a Bolshevik Armenia. There was only one Armenia. At that time it happened to be under a communist system. Armenia is a much older thing than that regime it was under for 70 years - that regime disintegrated and disappeared but Armenia remained," he said.

Though he is soft­spoken, with kindly eyes, his tone shifted when he started talking about the Soviet regime and its lasting impact on the people of Armenia. "Whoever hasn't lived under the Soviet regime can never understand what kind of a monstrous regime it was. A regime like that has never existed in the history of mankind. It was a regime that wiped out millions of people. Very few heroic people tried to struggle against it. They paid the price with their lives or were exiled. Look at how they killed Charents," he said, as he became more animated.

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Gala Danilova. HALO Trust

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