Uniquely curated gallery connects history of homeland with modernity of diaspora
By Rebecca Pirayou | Photos contributed
Contemporary Assyrian art exhibition “Diaspora in Bloom: Assyrians in the 20th Century & Beyond” opened at Art Ark Gallery in San Jose on June 1 with over 150 guests in attendance.
The exhibition is a first of its kind, spotlighting contemporary art from the Assyrian-American community and featuring over 30 works including photography, paintings, posters, drawings, pottery, video, and graphic design work.
“The whole goal of this exhibit is to elevate the modern over the ancient, spotlight contemporary Assyrian artists, and create a new experience for our community and share it with the larger Bay Area community,” said Akadina Yadegar, who curated the exhibition alongside Nardin Sarkis.
Yadegar and Sarkis were inspired to create “Diaspora in Bloom” after visiting an art show and realizing they wanted to curate something that not only represented them as Assyrians culturally but also related to their modern generation. They began planning the independent project about a year ago, picking a gallery that could execute their vision, securing financing through crowdfunding, and finding artists through social media.
“The type of art we were trying to curate was very particular,” Sarkis said. “We had a very strong vision for what we wanted included in the show, so it took a lot of time and we ended up finding spectacular artists that totally spoke to our vision.”
Universal themes of identity, community, diaspora, and cultural continuity were highlighted by works from Assyrian-American artists Atra Givarkes, Esther Elia and Rabel Betshmuel. The exhibition tells the story of the Assyrian community in the 20th century to present day.
The exhibition’s title references the Assyrian idiom, ‘Spring does not occur with one flower alone.’
“A movement does not occur with just one person – it takes a field of flowers to bloom in order for Spring to arrive,” said the gallery’s website. “‘Diaspora in Bloom’ brings together the works of a nation that has been scattered around the globe, and has still found a way to blossom into a movement.”
The layout of the gallery was intentional, according to Yadegar and Sarkis, beginning with the ancient culture with portrayals of the homeland and establishing who Assyrians are and moving into the 20th century with depictions of the Assyrian language. The gallery ends on pieces that represent the modern day.
Artist Rabel Betshmuel’s ‘Unadorned’ project takes ancient history and modernizes it through aerial photos of the Assyrian homeland illustrated through lines, shapes, texture, and color. His work is followed by a TEDx program which provides background on who the Assyrians are, giving visitors who do not know much about Assyrians historical context.
The Assyrian language is depicted through the calligraphy work of Atra Givarkes and leads into photos from the Dominican Archives of Assyrian women in the 1960s in the Nineveh plains.
The exhibit ends with ‘objects,’ which curator Yadegar describes as “what you see in your home growing up if you were Assyrian in America, what was in your home that wasn’t in your friend’s home,” paying homage to childhood nostalgia.
Esther Elia, who has been creating art for four years, showcased paintings of refugees and migration from the Middle East. Her work highlights themes of identity, community, diaspora, and first generation. She attributes her paintings to her self-consciousness of being half-Assyrian.
“I felt like I had these narrative that I grew up with about our journey from Iran to America but I didn’t know where to place them and I didn’t know how to be mixed and how to be half-Assyrian,” she said. “It really came out of this journey of self-conscious where I was like ‘How do I be Assyrian?’”
“I felt so proud to be celebrating young, brilliant Assyrian artists’ works that focused on blending our past with our present,” said Eden Kiryakos, who attended the opening reception. “We need motivated young Assyrians such as Akadina and Nardin to keep our culture strong by creating events that are relatable and enjoyable to our generation.”
According to guests of the exhibit, the curated space tells a story that strategically and successfully connects ancient history, migration in the 20th century, and modern day Assyrians living in diaspora. This story connects ancestors, grandparents/parents, and their children.
As for non-Assyrians, the goal is to have a better sense of modern-day Assyrians.
“If you’ve heard about Assyrians it’s because you studied it when you were little and now it’s like ‘Oh they still exist’ and they’re here in this gallery and they’re here in the world,” Yadegar said.
Yadegar and Sarkis hope the exhibit will invoke thought and reflection on the Assyrian identity both past and present. While the art is provocative, they aspire for exhibit goers to leave their gallery feeling refreshed, forging a renewed sense of confidence in their Assyrian identity and a belief that their ancient culture can be very modern.
“Diaspora in Bloom” is on display at Art Ark Gallery (1035 S. Sixth St.) in San Jose, CA and open to the public on June 7, 8, and 14 from 6-9 p.m. and June 9 and 15 from 12-4 p.m.