Dating back to the 5th century, pages of manuscripts were often reused by scraping away the text from a page before using it again to create a new document. These palimpsests often left faint traces of earlier writings. Occasionally, multiple layers of phantom text could be seen, leaving visual reminders of what had once been but was now transformed.
Badaskhan “Betty” Zakoian, a self-taught Armenian artist, documented the extraordinary trials and triumphs of her life through art. Born Badaskhan Ermoyan in 1908, Betty’s story is marked by the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which the Turkish government does not acknowledge to this day. Between 1915 and 1923, over one million Armenians were killed in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Zakoian’s parents were victims. Betty and her brothers were slated for evacuation by train but following a bathroom break, the train departed, leaving Betty completely on her own. Just seven years old, she walked along the train tracks until she arrived in Greece. Taken in by an orphanage run by American missionaries, she stayed there for ten years. Eventually, Betty found work as a domestic and relocated to Alexandria, Egypt, where she worked for four years before joining her half-brother in France. Following an arranged marriage to Mgrditch (Mike) Zakoian, Betty and her growing family immigrated to Chicago in 1937.
In the late 1950s, with her four children grown, Betty began to chronicle her past journeys and memories through art. She illustrated the harassment she faced at the hands of the Turks, the wild dogs she had to compete with for food, and the long walk from Armenia to Greece.
In presenting Palimpsest, the curators strive to tell the untold story of a remarkable outsider artist who persevered in the wake of tragedy and upheaval to live a full and meaningful life. Zakoian’s paintings function as a visual diary, chronicling the events of her past in a manner that reveals a desire to express her personal understanding of identity and experience.
Intuit is grateful to the Thomas McCormick Gallery and the Zakoian family for their generous gift of Betty’s work to Intuit’s permanent collection.