Photo exhibit traces genocide’s impact on traditional Assyrian garments

By Joe Snell | November 2022

A photo exhibit showcasing traditional Assyrian clothing from the early 20th century premiered on Oct. 19 at the State Parliament of New South Wales.

The collection of black and white portraits, titled “Assyria: A Woven History,” traces the changes in clothing styles brought on by the SEFYO genocide of 1915. That period during World War I saw the mass slaughter and deportation of about 250,000 Assyrians by Ottoman forces and Kurdish tribes.

“A lot of people don’t really know much about the genocide,” said Ramsin Edward, the exhibit’s curator. “They’ll know there was loss of life, but they don’t think that deep into what else it impacted. We wanted to demonstrate the impact that the genocide had on folk garments, particularly in influencing certain elements and motifs, and also show how displacement has impacted the transmission of traditional knowledge.”

LOSS OF HISTORIC STYLES

Each Assyrian village maintains a unique clothing style with its own history. For centuries, it was up to these villages to pass their styles on to the next generation.

But as World War I approached, Assyrians were uprooted and moved to larger cities or overseas, leaving behind resources for handcrafting their clothing.

Some Assyrians abandoned the practice entirely, distancing themselves from their identity as newly-built nation states pressed for assimilation. 

Others continued the tradition, but replaced handmade fabrics and natural dyes with machine-made textiles and imported materials, often of cheaper quality. 

Edward said the patterns and motifs relevant to communities before the genocide also began to fade from the clothing.

Assyrians today continue to wear the traditional clothing, known as julet khomala, often for large celebrations including weddings and Kha b’Nissan (New Year), but Edward said these outfits no longer are identical to those worn before SEYFO.

“There were a lot of technical things that we lost as a result of the genocide,” Edward said. “Photographs from Alqosh or Baghdeda show the textiles, the tapestries and the headpieces are the same, but the actual dresses themselves, with all of the different colors and shiny fabrics, these are things that wouldn’t have been worn about 100 years ago.”

EXHIBIT REVISITS TRADITIONS

Edward was approached in late September by MP Hugh McDermott to produce a cultural exhibit at the State Parliament. The regional group of bi-partisan politicians included New South Wales Labor leader Chris Minns, the Minister for Multiculturalism Mark Coure, and the Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism Steve Kamper. 

Edward utilized the extensive photo archive of the Assyrian Cultural and Social Youth Association (ACSYA), which digitized a series of photos from different libraries. The photos he selected showed Assyrians in julet khomala across different villages in Mesopotamia. 

The exhibit was hosted by the Assyrian National Council of Australia (ANCAU) and McDermott, who represents the New South Wales District of Prospect that is home to a large Assyrian community.

McDermott co-chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Assyria Initiative, established in 2009 to advocate for the rights of Assyrian communities in Australia as well as those in the homeland.

Along with the photos, the event showcased Assyrian paintings of former Australian Prime Ministers. Assyrian community leaders gave speeches and the Ashur Dance Group performed traditional dances accompanied by live singing.

“This was a fantastic event celebrating the history of the Assyrian people, discussing their right to self-determination and paying respects to Assyrians who were victims of persecution of genocide,” McDermott wrote after the event. 

CARRYING ON HISTORY OF JULET KHOMALA

Traditional garment making today is confronted by a number of challenges.

Increasing globalization has chipped away at indigenous group’s uniqueness, according to a statement by ACSYA. That’s why documenting traditional processes, the statement continued, is so important to keeping the culture alive.

Exhibits on the history of julet khomala have traveled across Australia. Traditional clothing was featured last month at the Assyrian Music and Cultural Festival in Sydney. Mannequins posed in modern-made garments from different villages.

That collection is now headed to Greenacre in New South Wales in a collaborative project with the Babylon Cultural Association to showcase garments specifically from Tur Abdin. 

“Culture is in a constant state of flux, influencing and being influenced,” ACSYA wrote on their site. “Prioritizing the documentation of Assyrian folk garments and traditional garment making is not to confine it conservatively, but to invest in the social and economic development of indigenous Assyrians, as well as maintain this rich heritage for present and future generations.”

ACSYA is still looking for a semi-permanent home for the exhibit, Edward said. 

And its mission to retain traditional garments and pass on their knowledge remains. ACSYA next March aims to launch a new book project titled “Garments of Assyria” that photographs modern Assyrians in the traditional clothing.

“A lot of the work that we do when we promote our culture is done within our own community,” Edward said. “It’s very important that we branch out, that we connect with diverse communities to share culture.” 

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