By Joe Snell | January 2022 | Photos provided
Mary Shamaon, a student at Niles North High School in a suburb of Chicago, looked across a 16-foot-long blank canvas with a paintbrush in hand. Along with 30 Assyrian students, staff and alumni, she was about to embark on a month’s long project to create a mural for her school that would bridge ancient Assyria with its modern history.
It was an intimidating moment, recalled group leader Ramina Samuel, because in a few months the canvas would be unveiled to administrators, other students, and the local community in a hallway leading to the school’s library.
And their artistic experience as a group included a few virtual workshops.
“How can you trust us to hold a brush and put something on this canvas,” Samuel recalled Shamaon saying to Noora Badeen, an Assyrian artist in Chicago tasked with helping the group complete the artwork.
THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE BOX
The coronavirus pandemic brought to the suburban high school of about 2,000 students a new reality of remote learning and online meetings. The school’s Assyrian club sponsors Samuel and Carmen Albazi had to think creatively about getting the students together.
Their first few attempts were fruitless, Samuel admitted. In the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, they tried a cooking show and discussions on Assyrian history. But attendance waned. They even began combining activities with nearby Niles West High School. Nothing seemed to work, she said.
It was during this moment of desperation that Samuel and Albazi discovered the LatinX club working on a unique project of their own: a mural that showcased their community’s history. The project sparked an idea in Samuel and Albazi to paint an Assyrian mural.
Caroline Benjamin, the school’s student activities director, jumped at the idea. The group was paired with Noora Badeen, an Assyrian artist in the city that had experience painting murals. Badeen was asked to help the group come up with a theme, teach ancient Assyrian patterns and then apply those skills to a mural that would live permanently inside the hallways of the school.
And she had to do most of the teaching virtually.
“We were dealing with the pandemic and with getting vaccinated or people getting sick,” Samuel said. “To complete such a large scale project during the pandemic, I think that’s a highlight.”
BRIDGING ANCIENT WITH MODERN
Drawing has been a hobby of William Yonadam’s for a long time, he said. That’s why he was eager to participate in the project.
Yonadam, an Assyrian custodian at the school, along with Assyrian alumni and staff, were extended an invitation to participate in the project early in the process. They joined students for virtual meetings hosted by Badeen twice a month to identify a theme for the mural and how to include their Assyrian American experiences.
They settled on blending ancient Assyria with its present and future. The mural wasn’t just something for them to relate to, a participate told The Journal, it was an opportunity to share their culture with others.
“As Assyrians we are now visible,” said Ghanima Birkho, an Assyrian custodian who joined the project.
As coronavirus restrictions loosened, meetings turned into weekly in-person workshops. The group learned ancient art patterns and a small scale of what the mural could look like was created before paint was put on canvas.
But it was difficult to pull the project off, Samuel recalled, as artists had to work in shifts.
“We had limitations of how many people could work on the project and we had to be careful about space and wearing masks and gloves and disinfecting,” she said.
INCREASING ASSYRIAN VISIBILITY
Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, founder of the world’s first known library, stands at the center of the piece, a nod to the group’s educational theme. And it’s purely by coincidence, Samuel said, that the mural now leads students to the school’s library.
“The process of creating the mural taught me a lot more about my people and my ancestors and my culture,” said Oliver Albazi, a former student at the school. “If it can teach me more, it can undoubtedly teach anyone who has the pleasure of passing by it in the halls.”
The name of the mural, “Upstream, We Take Flight” came at the very end of the process in May 2021. Blue waves blanketed against the bottom of the canvas represent going against the flow of a river, a brief on the document said, and an eagle soaring among skyscrapers is seen “flying toward the future.”
“We usually go to museums and see this art from a bigger scale, a larger picture of what relics we have, but to see the details, for example the beard of Lamassu and the features, Badeen really helped us see the art from a new perspective,” Samuel said.
A small ceremony to unveil the mural included the principal and staff. In September, the group showcased the work to other students and teachers. That same month, parents and the wider community were invited to a grand ceremony.
“The mural achieves visibility of the Assyrian students and as a result, their culture,” Samuel said. “A piece of the students became visible to others. It’s a visual for them to relate to and also convey a message.”
Assyrian Club of Niles North High School
Founded around 1993, the Assyrian Club of Niles North High School meets weekly and organizes trips to libraries, museums and cultural events including a cooking workshop at the Assyrian Kitchen to experience the “world’s oldest cookbook.” Membership is open to all students, not just Assyrians, because Samuel said it’s “a way to spread our culture and celebrate our identity.”