Diaspora in Bloom: Assyrian-American Art on View in San Jose

By Rachael Myrow for KQED – Originally published on 8 June 2019 by KQED Here

How much do you know about Assyrians? For many Americans, it’s news we have members of the ancient Middle Eastern ethnic group living here in the U.S. today.

Members of the Assyrian diaspora are spread out all over world, most in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. But conflicts modernancient and in between forced hundreds of thousands of predominantly Christian Assyrians to move further afield, and the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau estimate roughly 100,000 live in the United States.

Nardin Sarkis works in government relations at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He estimates 10,000 Assyrians live in this region alone. So it was he got to chatting with fellow Assyrian-American Akadina Yadegar, who works at Plug and Play Tech Center, about the dearth of modern Assyrian art in museums and galleries.

“History seeped through the cracks despite their best efforts,” acrylic on canvas, 2018, by Esther Elia (Courtesy of Esther Elia)

Ancient art there’s plenty of. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia flourished some 4,000 years ago. At its peak, the empire stretched from Cyprus to Iran, from present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan to the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and eastern Libya.

Assyrian kings spent some of their fabulous wealth on palaces full of art, including iconic, muscular stonework. Archeologists continue to pour over the details of of the empire’s sophisticated bureaucracy, detailed in durable clay cuneiform tablets.

All of that said, Assyrians didn’t stop making art after that empire collapsed.

Neither Sarkis nor Yadegar is a professional art curator. But they wanted to show their own community and the wider Bay Area community that Assyrians have “more to offer” the world of visual arts than their admittedly impressive heritage from ancient times.

“The goal for the exhibit itself is to elevate the modern over the ancient, celebrate present Assyrian artists who are looking at contemporary issues,” explains Yadegar.

These two Millennials went looking — where else? — on Instagram, and found artists like Atra Givarkes of Orange County, who gives neo-Aramaic calligraphy a bright, pop art face lift.

Tablet Series by artist Atra Givarkes (Courtesy of Megan White)

Then there’s Esther Elia of San Francisco, who works in multiple mediums. Some of her most striking contributions to this show include paintings she based on her family’s photographs from the early 20th century.

Elia explores the refugee experience both as a psychological journey for generations of Assyrian-Americans, and as an emotionally laden lens through which to view the current state of anti-immigration sentiment in the United States and Western Europe.

“Assyrians that were forced out of their lands and came to America for a new life as so many do; came as refugees and look what we’ve created. We’ve created art. We’ve created culture to give back to our community,” Sarkis said.

Artist Esther Elia writes, “The picture shows my great-grandfather side by side with his brothers, all refugees fresh from Iran. While in Denmark recently, a taxi driver helpfully informed us that ‘the refugees ruined Sweden.’ What he said as pragmatic fact struck me as a personal rejection of my own people. It ultimately led me to ask, ‘At what cost does the happiest place in the world maintain itself?'” Acrylic on canvas, 2018. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

It’s hard to argue, observing more than 30 works of painting, photography, pottery, graphic design and video in this exhibition.

It took the two amateur curators a year to put Diaspora in Bloom together. Naturally, I ask if they’re game to do something like this again. Yadegar pauses for a moment, smiling.

“It’s possible,” she replies.

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