Black News of an Absent Bantoukhd Son: Garabed Nichanian’s 'The Reading of the Letter'

By Vazken Khatchig Davidian
Submitted to Session P4831 (Circulation and Migration: Armenian Migrants in the Ottoman Empire and Beyond, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper introduces the narrative painting 'The Reading of the Letter' (1897) by the respected Constantinople artist Garabed Nichanian (1861-1950) as an important contemporary visual comment on the exchanges between bantoukhd (migrant worker) sons in the imperial capital and dependants in the homeland, desperate for news, that criss-crossed late nineteenth century Ottoman Anatolia in their thousands.

The figure of the bantoukhd from Ottoman Armenia was a major preoccupation of Constantinople Armenian intellectual elites. The presence of thousands of provincial (mostly) men in the imperial capital, the most visible among whom worked as hamals (porters) on the streets of the imperial capital and lived in slum-like conditions in the city’s hans (inns), ensured that these migrants’ difficult living conditions in the city, as well as the prevailing social, economic and political situation in Ottoman Armenia, always remained at the forefront of these intellectuals concerns. A popular theme for many leading Constantinople Armenian painters, representations of the bantoukhd, most commonly naturalistic academic portraits utilising an ethnographic visual language, often acted as conduits that also conveyed, during periods of stringent censorship, allegorical messages upon the situation in the homeland.

Nichanian’s The Reading of the Letter stands out from this body of work in that he directly addresses those left behind in the homeland. In the painting, the artist imagines rural Ottoman Armenia, without ever having set foot there, yet his brush renders a realist scene depicting the reception of a letter from, or with news of, an absent bantoukhd son, in which an illiterate elderly couple in provincial dress are listening to a young man, perhaps the village teacher, also in native garb, reading a letter to them. The letter, the central focus of the painting, would most likely have been penned by a literate fellow villager in the city or a friend, or even the son himself who may have attended one of the numerous Sunday schools, set up by charitable individuals in Constantinople to help spread literacy among the bantoukhd population. The expressions on the faces of the parents suggests that Nichanian’s letter would have been one of the so-called ‘black letters’, a term often used by Ottoman Armenian writers.

This paper provides a close reading of surviving examples of ‘black letters’ alongside Nichanian’s painting, and, through the utilisation of contemporary sources and materials, aims to delve into the hopes, expectations, fears and disappointments contained within and pinned upon them.