Berge Ara Zobian
Originally of Armenian descent, Bérge Ara Zobian’s grandparents were deported to Syria in 1915 during the Turkish massacre of Armenians. Both his parents and him were born in Syria and eventually moved to Lebanon where he grew up.
Bérge left Beruit, Lebanon at age 14 and arrived in New York on August 17, 1971. His cousin, an Armenian newspaper publisher in New York City sponsored him and his family to come to the United States.
His family settled in Queens, New York and Bérge went to high school there. The English language wasn’t that difficult for Bérge because he went to a private British Armenian school in Beirut – but the accent, dialect, and the culture were still foreign.
“I remember the first time I took the bus with my sister to go to school and we missed the bus because we didn’t know how to ring the bell for the bus to stop at the bus stop. It was a transition.”
His sister and he returned to Lebanon in the summer of 1972 and spent the summer with family and friends. After high school, Bérge studied at Queens College in New York and then went to the School of Visual Arts where he studied Photography and Sociology. He worked at Camp Hayastan, an Armenia summer camp in Franklin Massachusetts for a few years and finished his graduate degrees at Rhode Island College in the early 1980s.
In 1983, Bérge moved to Providence and got a part-time teaching position in the arts department at Rhode Island College. After a couple years he opened his photography studio and settled into Providence helping to curate and hang art exhibits within little cafes and restaurants around the city. “Back then, Providence was a big settling point after New York and the Armenian community in Providence was well established with many churches in the area.”
Bérge got married in 1990 and lived in Richmond in South County, RI for close to 15 years. “We have 5 children – four boys and one daughter. The youngest, our daughter, is 8 and our oldest son is 20.”
In January 2001, Bérge opened his own art gallery – Gallery Z located on Atwells Avenue after a year of research and preparation.
“We had the first large exhibit on January 2001 and are currently running our 117th exhibit as we speak.”
Bérge recalls some challenges at the beginning. “We were the first fine art gallery in Federal Hill. During the first year, even though I knew the circles in Federal Hill, everyone kept their distance. Two years and $100,000 in improvements to our building later, I started to slowly see acceptance from the community. Now I get along with everyone and partner with local businesses for our exhibits.”
Bérge credits his mentor at Rhode Island College, Professor Larry Sykes, and good friend Michael Manoog Kaprielian for inspiring him and encouraging him to continue with his work in the arts even in the realities of the economy.
Over the years, Bérge has helped others start their own art galleries in the area. “For me, growing up in NYC, the philosophy was not competition. It was, what I have, what they don’t have, and what they have, I don’t have.” Bérge explains that the other very important thing is the nitch of the gallery. Gallery Z is all original art and 20% of artists are of Armenian descent representing about 120 artists internationally.
Bérge has been back to the Middle East many times, mostly for work but also once with family. “I covered many international events so I went back between 1977-1981 and published many photographs, especially from the civil war in Lebanon.”
Despite extensive traveling, Bérge calls Providence, RI his home. “Yes, it is an old fashioned industrial mill town but it is just beautiful. Having the ocean, accessible highways, and academia with schools like RISD and Brown University, I made Providence my home.” He also loves the weather, nature, history and the people of Rhode Island. “It’s a small town, very quaint with architecture and a lot of positives.”
Bérge admits that once migrating to the United States it is easy to assimilate and forget your people. But he urges others to stay close with their community, take part in it by bringing your assets and helping others. “Acquaint yourself to the community but don’t get lost in the waves.”
Bérge and his family reside in the Edgewood neighborhood of Cranston.