Curator Neery Melkonian died of cancer on the evening of July 2nd. Is it possible that there is such a thing as a good death – even when surrounded by the love of family and friends – when one’s life work is left unfinished? Neery was the creator of Blind Dates, an infinitely extensive, ongoing, network project grouping Armenian nationals with diaspora artists as a means to merge the disparate cultural sensitivities into collaborative projects. Her purpose was to breathe life into stagnant cultural dialogue and feature, loud and clear, muted creative and political communities – conversations silenced by marginalization. She championed the work of artists from Beirut, Palestine, and various diaspora communities long before they were included in biennials or major museum venues, her cultural politics (shaped initially through the mentorship of Lucy Lippard) focused not on a singular local but a broad sweep of multiple locals shaping global perspectives.
In the winter of 2010-11, Neery organized an exhibition and symposium, at Pratt University here in New York City, which presented a detailed spectrum of poetic, philosophical, and aesthetic accomplishments in the context of post-genocide cultural oblivion. She continued her international project by inviting artists and cultural thinkers to her Strategies of (un)Silencing conference held in Yerevan, Armenia in the fall of 2012 and later wrote the contextual catalog essay for the Armenian Pavilion, winner of the Golden Lion Award for the 2015 Venice Biennale. This last achievement was accomplished in spite of on-going treatment, suspended for her participation at the Biennale, for the cancer that eventually claimed her life, if not her voice. For Neery was a uniter, continually and consistently entreating others to join her in imaginatively disseminating cultural production under adverse conditions. An ardent feminist, she unflinchingly argued for political, social, and economic justice for anyone silenced by power systems that maintain privileges for a select few. Her speech is now left to our voices.
Beyond cultural practice, Neery was a remarkable friend, a persuasive debater, capable of listening, willing to pull back to yield space and opportunity for a true dialogue. We met at her Pratt symposium in February 2011. I was one of few non-Armenians attending the event but introduced myself to express my appreciation for a jewel of an exhibition. Just a few words were all it took for a friendship to enfold over the next five and a half years…years too few to fully show appreciation for a woman who was offered little space in an increasingly stratified and star-conscious art world, yet who infiltrated the cracks of opportunities not to garner rewards but to extend them to others. I’ve had the good fortune to meet a few of those others, first in Yerevan in 2012, and most recently in easing the end-of-life process when Neery’s force was slipping from her and moving on to be taken up by others…a sharing that was the grit of her karma and the momentum of her legacy.
No power structure dare silence what death itself fails to accomplish! Blind dates may be in mourning but strategies of (un)silencing continue to unfold among those with courage to continue.