Tatik and Papik’s Second Life: an interview with the Dilakian Brothers13 min read
I was able to sit down with one of the most prolific duos to illustrate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – the Dilakian brothers. Hovik and Gagik are New York-based Armenian-American artists who created Gtnvats Eraz [Found Dream], Armenia’s most popular and recognizable animated film, in 1976. Their most recent work are digital collages that feature the iconic faces from the We Are Our Mountains monument in Artsakh [the Armenian term for Nagorno-Karabakh].
The original heads, carved from volcanic rock, are better known as Tatik [grandmother] and Papik [grandfather]. The Dilakian brothers’ light-hearted collages bring new light to Armenian identity amidst a global pandemic and a traumatizing border conflict. The Dilakian brothers were able to give me a tour of their art studio, with over fifty completely original and hand painted Art Boxes, and talk about their latest digital works, the series titled Artsakh.
Your recent works are a part of a series called Artsakh, featuring a man and woman subject with faces and imagined bodies of the famous monument We Are Our Mountains, by 20th century sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan. Other than the geographic relevance of We Are Mountains, why have you repurposed Baghdasaryan’s figures in your recent artwork?
Hovik: We go to Armenia quite often, and we’ve been invited many times to Karabakh but never made the trip. When you think about Artsakh, there aren’t a lot of images. It’s mostly beautiful mountains and churches. The only image that more or less represents Artsakh is that statue.
Gagik: We tried working with those heads and it worked surprisingly well.
Hovik: First of all, they are very photogenic. Tatik’s face – even if you put it on Meryl Streep’s body – it would work. We made Papik kind of cool. Everybody thinks he’s an old man, a grandpa. We get a lot of comments from people saying, “you made Papik look too young!” But then others will respond “it’s because he knows how to keep in shape!” (laughs). But it’s the same principle with us. I’m 70 years old –
Gagik: You’re that old?
Hovik: – and Gagik is going to turn 69 next month, but we’re like kids. All our friends in Armenia are young people. We wanted to give some of that to Papik, which is why he’s in good shape. He plays Rolling Stones music, he’s fit, he’s cool. They’ve turned into very likeable characters, with tons of comments on social media mostly in Armenian and Russian. The reactions and comments we’ve received are very touching. One viewer said, “How did I live before seeing your figures?” Someone has said, “Your artwork has made this tragedy easier and there is hope.”
That’s the way it starts. Art used to give people hope, but then it disappeared. Now it doesn’t always represent people’s emotions and lives. People are confused about what art is today. They don’t understand it. We are trying to give new meaning and new power through our artwork.
Family is a recurring theme in your artworks, as seen by happy and playful Tatik and Papik hugging sweetly, and cooking and caring for one another. Plus, as brothers you have always made art together! Can you talk more about the theme of family in your recent works?
Gagik: Family is very important to us because we grew up in a very friendly, fun-loving family. Our parents were creative people and that influenced us. Family is an Armenian tradition. Our mothers are like saints to us. We even gave some of our mother’s characteristics to Tatik – she can cook, she can sew, she can do anything. She lived for us all of her life. She gave up her career as a stage director to raise three children. Our sister died last year. We were thinking that now that Papik went to war and Tatik is alone, she should keep herself busy trying to create things. She has animal friends around her, not to feel alone. For example, her cat. That cat has unofficially become the cat of Armenia (laughs).
You use animals in a playful way in all the recent images from your Artsakh series – birds, dogs, kittens. Can you talk more about this symbolism?
Hovik: These are mostly house pets and typically, people who live in villages, in mountainous areas have sheep, chickens, dogs to guard their sheep and houses. We wanted to add something extra to each composition. We didn’t want to add another person or another statue, even though our followers have suggested we have the Tatik and Papik meeting with Russian officials. Maybe we could have Papik spending the night with Kim Kardashian (laughs).
You superimpose soldiers in battle gear often with photographs of real children. Can you talk more about this?
Gagik: We realized that this was going to be a serious war. Armenia was not prepared for a big time war. The other side was prepared because they were backed by Turkey, so they had all this sophisticated weaponry. Because of this, a lot of Armenian kids were butchered because Armenians just had machine guns and grenades, against serious weaponry. We Googled “Armenian soldiers” and randomly chose pictures of kids. A lot of our images are already being used in postcards to soldiers. We also wanted to show our respect to the kids.
Recently, someone contacted us saying, “in one of your images, the third soldier from the left is my brother who’s been missing for ten days. We don’t know anything about his whereabouts. Where did you find this picture? Maybe it can help us.” Ten days later, his brother left a voicemail, “my son has been missing for three weeks now. Can you tell me where you found this image?” I responded that we had just typed in English “Armenian Soldier” into Google Images. Some people have written to us saying we have used images of their uncle –
Hovik: Or saying, “that’s my cat!” (laughs).
Gagik: Basically, we’re trying to mix reality with fantasy. In our animated film, we do that as well.
You created Armenia’s most influential animated film, Found Dream in 1976 and even gave viewers an Easter egg – artwork from the cartoon is found in a few images from the Artsakh series! Can you tell us more about how the 1976 cartoon influences Armenian life today, and why you choose to pay homage to your cartoon in your latest works, more than forty years later?
Hovik: While working on the cartoon, we had no idea what we were creating. It was so difficult to make during the Soviet socialist communist censors. It was hard to push a screenplay like that, especially a fairytale with imaginary aspects. The characters were required to be pioneers, soldiers or cops. The fact that the movie was released – was an impressive feat in itself. Then, my brother emigrated, and so did I. We didn’t know it took off and became so famous in Armenia.
Gagik: Because of the internet, it took on a second life. It became even bigger than it was. On Youtube, there’s over millions of views. For a small nation of 3 million, that’s impressive. It opened so many doors for us, as we were the creators. We love meeting the kids that watch this cartoon. We’ve been invited to schools. Once we went to a school that made a play based on our characters. There were like hundreds of drawings on the wall of our cartoon. When we visit schools, lots of kids come up to hug and kiss us – and we’re completely amazed that something we did such a long time ago has an impact on children today. A lot of movies and music from that era are forgotten, but our cartoon somehow is still alive for Armenians.
Is it like a Mickey Mouse of Armenia?
Hovik: It’s bigger than Mickey Mouse. Kids might wear a shirt with him, but they don’t watch Mickey cartoons.
Gagik: In Armenia, there is also more Russian influence in art than American. They prefer Russian cartoons like Masha and the Bear, and things like that.
Hovik: The two most famous characters in Armenia are the two main characters of Found Dream, an old man and a little girl. They’re bigger than the most famous poets.
Gagik: It’s so funny for us, because a ten minute movie has left a bigger impact. The standard was that all movies had to be ten minutes back then. Even though it was only ten minutes, it took half a year to make. It was made in old-style animation, with thirty-five thousand individual drawings.
Hovik: It was an unusual concept and we weren’t sure people would get it. But it looks like it worked and people have written books about it. Professors talk about the cartoon interpreting what the meaning is between the lines. But all these interpretations – we didn’t even think about it at the time!
The compositions in your Artsakh series have such a strong use of value and a mix of so many digital mediums. What is your process like?
Hovik: My son gave me a new iPad at the beginning of quarantine. Digital art is a new thing for us. It’s fun because you can take anyone from any century, put it in any position, take your wand, and do anything…. But this whole thing started when Armenia got Coronavirus. They jumped on it right away and took it seriously. They closed everything and wearing masks was mandatory. There was a city-wide curfew. The whole city for a couple of months was totally empty.
Gagik and I talked about how it’s hard for us to imagine the capital where we grew up, totally empty. Gagik suggested a fantasy of statues coming to life. In our capital, there are over three million statues, and only one female statue, surprisingly (laughs). We gave all these statues of old philosophers and warriors life. For Armenians, these statues are sacred and loved heroes, but we drew them in a café, working, doing normal things. There’s only one female statue, called Mother Armenia, and by the way, it’s a horrible statue. It doesn’t have the charisma of Tatik and Papik.
Gagik: But we use it a lot!
Hovik: So that’s how it started. When the Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict started, the Tatik and Papik statue was already being used all over the place to raise awareness of the crisis.
Can you talk more about what programs you use?
Gagik: We use Procreate. Hovik is better at doing the faces and positions. I’m better with backgrounds.
Hovik: Usually, Gagik will go home and call me later with ideas for what Tatik and Papik should be doing in our next composition. We’ve created so many of these images. When this war started, everyone was so pumped up, saying, “We’re going to crush Azerbaijan!” So we created a lot of pieces that we can’t use now anymore. Like Papik getting a medal, there is no use for it now.
Gagik: But we still have it, just in case. People have suggested that we make an animation or book with Tatik and Papik, but we are more interested in spreading positivity. Right now we are working on an image of Tatik and Papik cleaning up the destruction, with a broom and shovel.
You are also the sons of Soviet actor Tatul Dilakian. Although you both now live in the United States, you never really left Armenia. You keep the culture alive in the States. Can you talk more about your identity?
Gagik: First of all, we were lucky to have a man like that as our father. He was a comedian and a comedian in life as well. We grew up really happy, comfortable, and learned a lot from him. The biggest thing we got from him with the will to create. Our mother and father were the biggest critics of us. There was no, “That artwork is amazing” – it was more, “What is this? Go change this!” That’s how we learned. We didn’t have any formal art education and we are entirely self- taught.
Hovik:: When we were little kids, our mother would sharpen all these pencils and put paper down, and just have us paint and draw.
How are you connected to the Armenian diaspora?
Hovik:: I left Armenia in 1978. It took me ten years to get my brother out of the Soviet Union. My wife is American and was working in Moscow when we met. When we got married, she brought me to this country. Even though I did not speak any English, I was lucky enough to end up in an American family, not unlike Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It was basically like that! How surreal it was, from the mountains of Armenia to end up in New Jersey.
Then I realized that as an American, I didn’t want to bring my baggage from Armenia. It was a hard adjustment, but my brother and I dreamed of America our entire lives. It’s still very dreamlike for us. We decided that if we are in America – we should integrate, instead of sticking only with our tribe. There are over one hundred thousand Armenians living in Los Angeles. They still eat Armenian food, watch Armenian TV, hire Armenian lawyers. Instead, we wanted to embrace our American identity. In our family, we have Asian and Black people, even people from Jamaica. My brother has four grandchildren that are half Black, which is unusual for Armenians. But that’s how we prefer it. That’s why we’re not in touch with the Armenian diaspora or organizations. Being in New York helps a lot too – we are surrounded by all different kinds of people, ethnicities, and religions.
You’ve always worked around censorship, from producing a cartoon in the Soviet Union to now, creating artwork about a war that Azerbaijan and Turkey would like to ignore. Can you talk more about why it’s important that Armenian artists speak out?
Gagik: I don’t speak for all Armenian artists but we feel like it’s our obligation to be involved. The only way we can be involved abroad is with our creations.
Hovik:: Art used to be a chronicle of time. When you look back centuries, when there was a war, when there was peace, when people went hunting, people made art about it. That’s why we know how they were dressed and how they lived. Art was probably the CNN of that time. Now, how can art compete with television and the internet? We’re trying to chronicle the events in a different way, not necessarily coming at you with all these facts and information that people are sick of. Information is even crooked, depending on who is reporting the information – you don’t even know which side is telling the truth. We still don’t know who started the war – Armenians or Azerbaijan? We don’t know the specific figures for casualties. It’s crazy times.
You can follow the artwork of Hovik and Gagik Dilakian on Instagram @dilakianbrothers and all sales inquiries can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.