Originally published in the Assyrian Star, August 2019
Growing up as a first generation Assyrian-American in Diaspora, I was like most, instilled with a great pride in our ancient heritage. A Lamassu statue sat on my bookshelf and relief replicas of ancient lion-hunts lined our hallways, reminding me of my 6000 year old roots. My friends were named after ancient kings and queens and a day wouldn’t go by without being reminded of the countless inventions that originated from the cradle of civilization.
Knowing and honoring our history is important, but too often our understanding of what it means to be an Assyrian stops at ancient times. We hark back to a lost empire instead of reflecting on who we are as a people in 2019. We are taught about Ashurbanipal, Shamiram, and Sennacherib; what we aren’t taught is pride in our present and not just our past.
It was this realization coupled with a desire to see more modern displays of Assyrian identity that led Akadina Yadegar and myself to curate Diaspora In Bloom. The show was a first of its kind art exhibition which spotlighted contemporary Assyrian art.
Held at the Art Ark Gallery in downtown San Jose, over 1000 visitors, Assyrian and non-Assyrian alike, visited the show in the month of June. Where first-generation Assyrians were able to see their identity reflected back at them in a way never experienced before, others were able to connect to the universal themes of immigration, identity, and cultural continuity that were integral to the show. While Akadina and I had a strong vision for what we wanted Diaspora In Bloom to accomplish, it was the phenomenally fresh artwork of Atra Givarkes, Esther Elia, and Rabel Betshmuel that brought the show to life. These three millennial Assyrian-American artists are each teaching us as a community how to reflect on and celebrate the Assyrian present. Through their provocative art, they successfully shift their audiences perspective towards the future. That is ultimately the significance of Diaspora In Bloom.
When a headline reads that our language runs the risk of extinction, Atra Givarkes paints vibrant pop art Assyrian calligraphy that compels us to adore our living mother tongue.
When textbooks confine Assyrians to the past, and refuse to mention our current plight, Rabel Betshmuel creates contemporary forms and drawings that inextricably tie modern Assyrians to our rightful history.
When family stories of trauma stoke fear and extinguish hope, Esther Elia creates larger than life artwork that validates our collective experience and inspires any viewer, paving a path forward.
Thanks to these artists, we can celebrate what we have been told to mourn. We can appreciate the beauty in that despite all odds, we are a people who survive and create community. There is nothing wrong with being proud of our rich history, but how empowering it is to also be proud of our present and to have confidence in our future.