“I must tell you what I saw”
Objects of witness and resistance
Adjacent to “Memory Unearthed” in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, is a special installation of objects and works of art that bear witness to efforts to erase, displace, and silence peoples.
Don’t be afraid. I must tell you what I saw,
so people will understand
the crimes men do to men.
--from The Dance (1910) by Atom Yarjanian, known as Siamanto
These words by Armenian poet and intellectual Yarjanian were written in the early 20th century in response to massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule; Yarjanian himself was killed by Ottoman authorities in 1915. The diverse works in “‘I must tell you what I saw’” open conversations around historical acts of violence, mass displacement, and the erasure of culture, from an ancient Assyrian relief depicting deportation of the Babylonians to Good Hope Road (1945) by Armenian genocide survivor Arshile Gorky. A highlight is a 19th-century Chinese altar vase painted over during China’s Cultural Revolution with characters praising Mao, protecting the object by disguising it in plain sight. Also included are such powerful works as J. M. W. Turner’s famed Slave Ship (1840), and Every One #2 (1994), French artist Sophie Ristelheuber’s photographic response to violence in the former Yugoslavia.
Poem excerpt from Siamanto, trans. Peter Balakian and Nevart Yaghlian, Bloody News from My Friend: Poems by Siamanto, Wayne State University Press, 1996.