March 2021 | By Joe Snell
WASHINGTON — Three digital billboards in Arizona on Tuesday unveiled displays recognizing the Assyrian New Year, also known as Kha b’Nissan.
The billboards were born out of a nation-wide art competition sponsored by the Assyrian American Cultural Organization of Arizona (AACO). They aim to educate the wider community about Assyrian culture.
“We’re not just sharing our culture amongst ourselves, we’re spreading it out throughout different communities in Arizona,” said AACO President Ninorta Kasso.
The Assyrian New Year, commonly referred to as Kha b’Nissan and Akitu, is a twelve-day festival culminating on April 1. It marks the first day of the new year and also the start of Spring. The holiday is a symbol of revival. Today, the celebration is marked by festivals, parades and parties.
This year, however, many of these events have been cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. Assyrian organizations are now forced to think outside of the box to celebrate. That led AACO to brainstorm a billboard art competition.
The competition began on Feb. 3. AACO publicized the event online and also reached out to local art students. After a month, submissions had arrived from across the nation by both Assyrian as well as non-Assyrian artists.
“It was great to see that different mindset,” Kasso said. “When you tell a non-Assyrian about who Assyrians are and explain this is what our history is, this is the Tree of Life, the Ishtar Gate and the Assyrian flag, you give them all of this information and say create something, and then for them to create a billboard design that matches exactly that… it was really amazing to see.”
Four judges, two Assyrians and two non-Assyrians, reviewed the entries. On March 18, winners were announced: Elizabeth Tullo from Phoenix for her submission of the Tree of Life, and Rabel Betshmuel from Chicago for his submission of the Ishtar Gate. Each winner received $250.
“The billboard’s scale and location will reach a massive amount of people, giving them a good introduction to our culture,” Betshmuel wrote to the Journal. “Great design has the ability to reiterate our existence.”
The billboard designs, funded primarily through AACO with one-third of donations coming from within the community, will run from March 22 – April 11.
AACO was founded in 2012 to promote cultural education across social and educational events. The group has hosted lectures, festivals and social mixers in order to “spark an interest and love for Assyrian culture and heritage,” the organization’s site reads, including building strong networks within the community.
Part of that network building includes a recent proclamation by the Arizona House of Representatives recognizing March 21- April 1 as the Assyrian New Year across the state.
“I think it’s important to share our struggles and also share our celebrations,” Kasso said. “This is to promote that celebration and to educate others about what is Kha b’Nissan, what is the history of the new year, what is going on this particular date of April 1, what does the number 6771 represent, so all of those things tie into not just keeping our traditions to ourselves, but expanding it to other communities and other people.”