By J. Fatima Martins
WATERTOWN, MASS. — Marsha Nouritza Odabashian’s small but mighty solo exhibition “Skins” is on view through June 24 at the Armenian Museum of America.
“Skins” features 3 components — “Reliquaries Series,” “Altamira” and “Galaxy Waltz” — that dialogue together, creating a powerful meditative and revelatory environment containing within a remarkable transcend sacred energy.
The theme of the exhibition engages the idea that the human body mirrors the land and sea from which it emerged, and all is one holistic living organism marked and bruised by human events and the shift of time.
Formally, it is a landscape and figurative exhibition demonstrating the material possibilities of painting with nontoxic onion skin dyes on paper, and the expansive and flexible opportunities found within the practice of drawing and sculpting realism from abstracted forms, and the continued importance of parietal art as a foundational art manner.
The exhibition space opens with a wall panel displaying the “Reliquaries Series”: 20 various sized square wood half-cut box panels onto which depictions of animals, people, land and ocean scenes are built up in bas-relief and partially raised three-dimensional form from model magic clay and painted in earth tones. As the title of the series suggests, these sculptures function as honorific objects that relate memory filled vignettes connecting past to present.
In one panel, for example, there’s a water scene where human faces merge with sea vegetation while a large fish is about to swallow a smaller creature. In this piece, the possible story evokes a fusion of real and metaphoric, consolidating historical truth with fairy tale. Being that Odabashian is Armenian-American, one interpretation of this scene is that it relates to the mythical Biblical story of the great flood and the people of Ararat.
In her curatorial statement, Odabashian wrote: “Reliquaries” [in “Skins”] were inspired by the stone carvings on the 10th-century cathedral of Aght’amar, and the magical drawings of Armenian illuminated manuscripts.” The Cathedral of the Holy Cross at Aght’amar is a medieval Armenian Apostolic cathedral, that is today classified as a secular museum and heritage site. It is famed for its magnificent bas-relief carvings of mostly biblical scenes.
To understand Odabashian’s contemporary reliquaries fully, it’s important to view the 18th-19th century historic and traditional silver metal examples from the Armenian Museum’s collection on permanent display. The permanent display gives us a hint to how Odabashian has used and expanded their traditional meaning and material look into modern times, as well as the mysterious number 20. From the permanent exhibition label: “Every Armenian village had a place of worship. If no church was nearby, a house-shrine would be created with a scared object designated as the village focal point. The reliquary was an elaborate box that would indicate the object was holy, and often a striking work of art in its own right. The silver cross is the means to achieve salvation, the triptych is a doorway to God, the brass arm is literally blessing the viewer, while the innocuous oval plague displayed houses a group of 20 relics.”
Odashsian’s “Reliquaries” are subtle chapters of a larger story and serve as introductions to the narrative within the rest of the exhibition in “Altamira” the large-scale mixed-media painting, drawing, and collage landscape and the triptych figurative drawing “Galaxy Waltz” which moves the viewer from a terrestrial and physical place to a celestial condition. Her grandmother was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and “Skins” is dedicated to the memory of all Genocide victims and survivors.
On Saturday, June 23, during the closing weekend of “Skins,” Odabashian will teach an onion skin dye workshop. Learn about a traditional Armenian art form while making a beautiful piece to take home. Adults, children and families of all ages are welcome; all materials will be provided. The cost is $25 for adults; $10 for children under age 12. Museum members receive an additional 25 percent off. For more details, visit https://www.armenianmuseum.org/events/onion-skin-dye-workshop.
Marsha Nouritza Odabashian received her primary and secondary education in the Boston area. She studied at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the Art Students’ League in New York and Massachusetts College of Art. She received a BFA from the University of New Orleans and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts in Boston. For more information, visit
Q & A with Marsha Nouritza Odabashian
JFM: Tell us about your grandmother. Did she experience the Armenian Genocide?
MNO: I shared a sun-filled bedroom in a small Victorian in Jamaica Plain with my paternal grandmother between the ages of three and seven and became aware as a child that my grandmother had experienced the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. She was always very loving towards me and always made a point of letting me know that I was safe because I was born in America, a continent and an ocean way from the atrocities. In spite of this, I knew that she carried an unspeakable tragedy within her body and a longing for the “old country” and for the family from whom she had become separated.
My grandmother, Armenouhi Dadourian, was born in the latter part of the 1890s in Gurun, a town in historic Western Armenia or current day Turkey. She never knew her birthday and all records were lost. However, she was 19 when all the men including her father, husband and several brothers were hung in the town square. The women and young children of the town: my grandmother, her mother, sister and infant and toddler brothers were forced to leave their belongings and embark upon a death march. In spite of starvation, exhaustion and disease they made it to the Syrian dessert and eventually to Beirut where they settled. My grandmother immigrated to Boston in the early part of the 1920s where she married my grandfather and gave birth to my father.
JFM: The onion skin color process is extraordinary in mimicking human skin tones. Tell us about the history of this process in Armenian art. How was it used in the past?
MNO: The similarity to skin tones was a later discovery, after I began working with the dyed paper, which I began to use metaphorically. The tones may also be compared to the Armenian and Turkish mountainous landscapes. In keeping with centuries of Armenian tradition, my mother used to dye Easter eggs by boiling them with the skins of yellow onions to create a bright reddish maroon color to represent blood or grief. Typically, it was the job of women to dye the eggs and only during the week before Easter. I have recently begun reading about how onionskin dye was used to dye fiber, especially wool.
JFM: “Altamira” is a remarkably emotive piece evoking the physical look and feeling of ancient cave paintings with almost mirror-like duplication: there’s a fantastic horse and lioness as protective motif at the top. At the same time the drawings depict more recent human memory. It’s a picture of history as well as fairy tale. We see events: some joyful and others tragic. There are depictions of human processions, water scenes, women with children, ancient figures in dance like movements, possible birth scenes, and chase scenes. There are also many female forms, some direct and powerful, others more shadowy and abstracted. Tell us about the various stories emerging from the complex layers of paper and onionskin textures.
MNO: I created “Altamira” immediately after returning from an art historical tour of Historical Western Armenia or current day Eastern Anatolia when I was still in awe over the voluminous mountains and still contemplating the horror that occurred in such a magnificent, beautiful landscape. Impressed upon me was the desolation of the area and yet I was fully able to imagine pockets of isolated vignettes connected through various forms of repetition.
Women appear throughout the piece in an attempt to dispel myths and expand beyond the stereotypical views of women. Most of the women defy standardized depictions of beauty.
The strong diagonal in the center of “Altamira” refers to a dramatic and often volatile landscape, a scissor that opens and closes, but also creates a nook of quiet repose. Many of the motifs, such as the goat headed figure in the lower center come from medieval Armenian manuscripts. The horse and lioness at the top of the composition face one another similar to those in cave paintings, but also similar to the top register of the canon tables in medieval Armenian manuscripts.
Together, the motifs that comprise the stories are metaphoric. They shift in meaning and have multiple interpretations: processions appear throughout and may be interpreted as references to the death marches and may also be people standing at a beach watching the waves, waiting for a traffic light to change or might evolve into a parade. Often animals engage in procession. Are they being chased or heading toward shelter or a land of fantasy?
The water scenes stem from my maternal Grandmother’s origins in Istanbul from where she fled to come to the US. I was in awe of her relationship with water creatures. Once at a herring run, she reached into the stream grabbed a fish and put it into her pocketbook. She loved to tell stories, especially Aesop’s fables displaying a strong connection to the mythic character of anthropomorphic animals.
JFM: Will you continue expanding “Altamira” or create another large in scale narrative piece and how does “Galaxy Waltz” fit within the series?
MNO: For the time being, “Altamira” is complete. I began “Galaxy Waltz” before I began “Altamira” and completed it after. I intend to expand upon “Galaxy Waltz”, especially because I have drawn on both the front and back of the paper. “Altamira” and “Galaxy Waltz” fit into the same series in that I used onionskin dye to pigment the paper and to create stains from which I begin extracting images and the hybrid figures emerge from the miasma.
JFM: Your drawings evoke a shamanistic quality, a tonality of working within what we call a ‘magical state of mind’ in which the artist is able to cross time and space to arrive at a new reality. Without revealing all of your unique creative secrets, tell us about the process of pulling out the images.
MNO: The ancient process of steeping the paper in the dye of onion skins automatically transports me in time and space. I use a process very similar to what the Paleolithic cave painters used. They would study the stone of the cave walls and animals would emerge. Were they recording a successful hunt or hoping for one? Was depicting the animal a ritual or a symbolic means of capturing it or its essence? Regardless of the purpose, the animal and the stone are fused. I converse with the drawing or painting as I am working and often feel as if I am freeing the creatures, people, animals and object from the onion skins and the paper.
I have been told that my paintings are like oracles. Sometimes, I compare my process to reading tea leaves or coffee grounds, looking for signs or omens or predictions of the future, which are ubiquitous in Armenian folk tradition especially among women. The simplest answer is that the images “just happen.” The ambiguity of not knowing, partially knowing and in meanings obscured through time intrigues me. I am interested in raising questions that may or may not be answered.
(“Marsha Nouritza Odabashian: Skins” is on view through June 24 at the Armenian Museum of America, 65 Main St., Watertown, Mass. For more information, call (617) 926-2562 or visit https://www.armenianmuseum.org/skins.)