The Double Life of a French Armenian Photographer
In a psychologically-charged series, Rebecca Topakian reconstructs her dual identity from object-clues, collecting traces of herself in virtual and physical geographies.
There are two Rebeccas. One Rebecca has two more days of rain a year. The second Rebecca lives in a place eighteen times smaller than the other’s. The first sleeps soundly in the cream-colored Haussmannian morning of France’s Paname. The second has long showered and eaten, and is out in the Pink City of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital with rose-stone Soviet-era buildings that radiate in the sunlight. The day advances with a three-hour air bubble between the two women. Parisian Rebecca walks on the living-room floorboards of an apartment built on land that has been independent since 843 CE. Yerevantsi Rebecca crosses a cobblestoned street of a recently independent Armenian nation. Nearly one thousand years of freedom between their feet.
A midday yawn starts in one mouth and finishes in the jaw of the other. Every now and then, their fingers move in unison, wrapping themselves around a coffee cup, as the women take a sip, swallowing with the same throat. Western Rebecca has run out into the chilled autumn day without her scarf. Eastern Rebecca’s neck prickles. Bisous are given on the cheeks of an old friend, two café crèmes on the round table in the eleventh arrondissement. Arms around the neck of a new friend who has been called to war on the Nagorno-Karabakh border of Armenia.
In this series, we enter a Kieślowskian world of the double self: French Rebecca Topakian and Armenian Rebbeca Topakian are joined at the hand and through the Instagram handle @rebitopi. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, she receives spam proposing a deal for the purchase of a driver’s license or legal aid for French paperwork. At Zvartnots International Airport, threats pop up with photos of mutilated Armenian civilians, ads to join the army. Topakian collects these traces of herself in the virtual and physical geographies. Side-by-side portraits of two women are staged against the backdrop of a white light—an administrative absolute. An identity card, books, cigarettes, two sets of outfits rest against the blank wall like stark souvenirs. The seemingly flat visual hides a third dimension, a glaring airport walkway from one Rebecca to the other.
Dual Identity stems from another, more tactile approach to the same subject. Working with the Paris-based Armenian Spanish transdisciplinary artist and translator Araks Sahakyan, a carpet mapper, and two weavers, Topakian created a traditional Armenian rug bearing a glitched image of slaughtered Armenians she was harassed with on Instagram. She and Sahakyan cataloged their process in a new book, titled Rouge Insecte (Editions Sometimes, 2022), which involved retracing the decline of vordan karmir, a red insect indigenous to the Ararat valley used for its carmine tint—a native species facing extinction, a haunting echo of the Armenian people.
In both works, Topakian overlaps the historically displaced with the daily misplaced. Yargekov writes in her novel, “To be born in France is always an accident.” Nationality as chance or choice. The citizen as identity or identification. This is the morphology of the Rebeccas, eyes that peer out with a double gaze, at times one affirming the other, at others, putting her into question. When authorities stopped Topakian at the Georgia-Armenia border, they scrutinized her Armenian passport. The face doesn’t match the age. The height doesn’t fit the name. “He thinks I have a fake passport,” Topakian thought, panicking. “I need to prove that I am me.”
It is not proof, however, that Topakian assembles. It is doubt, intimate and unresolved, that allows the twin strangers to finally meet.
Rebecca Topakian’s photographs were created using a FUJIFILM GFX50SII camera.