With the curtains on most cultural events and performances worldwide drawn by the coronavirus, artists, curators, critics, and fans alike have had to radically reimagine how they produce, exhibit and support art.
Curators Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis have taken on this challenge by organizing the first virtual exhibition of contemporary Assyrian art, entitled 'Diaspora in Bloom'. Rather than showing the works of the six featured artists on a still website, they have used an online simulation to recreate the experience of walking through a gallery.
Stepping over the gallery threshold, visitors use their mouse to guide themselves beneath the exhibit's bright lights. While the emptiness of the virtual space is characteristic of this very particular time, the upbeat soundtrack by Eden Danilo and a wider celebration of Assyrian life and culture breathe life back into the room.
This virtual meditation on the art of a globally dispersed Assyrian community comes at a time when many people are exceptionally wary of physical proximity and need new ways to connect with others.
"In a world on lockdown many are just discovering the harshness of borders that Assyrians have always known. Yet digital spaces designed for computerised community help us blur the reality of man-made boundaries," reads a message from the curators on a wall at the gallery's entrance.
Rudaw English spoke to San Francisco-based visual artist Esther Elia, whose work features prominently in the exhibit. In an interview conducted by email, the Assyrian-Irish-American illustrator explains how she uses Assyrian histories both broad and intimate to understand not only her identity, but her place in the world.
Rudaw English: In a way, quarantine might be the perfect circumstance for an art show on a diaspora, which is dispersed by nature. I know you recently took part in a physical exhibit -- how do you feel a virtual exhibition will change the way people engage with your work?
Esther Elia: The biggest change for me is starting to rethink my art for a virtual audience -- my pieces created in the past were huge paintings meant to engulf the viewer, overwhelm them with colour and scale just as I am overwhelmed when attempting to tell the stories of my people, of my family. The oral histories of our people are complicated, colourful, painful, large. The question I'm asking myself is, how do I create a sense of largeness online? When someone is viewing my pieces potentially from a screen as small as a phone? How do I communicate a 3D sculpture effectively on a 2D screen? A big part of me just wants to wait until things return to "normal" so I can continue in the path I've been on, but another big part of me is excited at the restrictions and new rules -- forcing me to find a way to thrive artistically in an online setting.
Ultimately I don't have a concrete answer, other than to say that some of my favorite artistic work came from post-war Poland at a time when as a country, they had little access to supplies, current art technology, or freedom of expression, yet managed to create some of the most innovative art posters, writing, music, and surrealist animations. Though we don't want limitations, they ultimately force us to rethink and grow in ways we wouldn't be able to if things are functioning normally.
You, like many other Assyrian artists, use symbolism from antiquity in your work. What do they mean to you?
The history of the Middle East is muddled at best, and at worst told from the wrong perspectives. As a region, it's been really difficult for me to find concrete, unbiased histories, which is why I have been relying on oral histories to be the foundational research for my work on being Assyrian. As a minority group within the Middle East, finding any sort of history becomes even more of a challenge, which I think is why so many Assyrian artists use ancient works as a jumping off point to talk about being Assyrian -- the antiquities can be found in museums and are identified explicitly as Assyrian -- some of the only objects in our world that we can grasp onto and say with confidence, "This is ours!!"
Our struggle is identifying in this day and age similar things that we can claim as "ours." With no recognised country, with a huge number of our population living in diaspora, it is comforting to look to antiquity as something that is ours -- not only because we say so, but because institutions and academia corroborate that specific history. A huge part of being Assyrian for me has been a lifetime of saying, "we exist." Antiquities verify that just as we exist now, we existed historically as well. Ancient symbolism is kept alive because it has been necessary for our survival, for evidence to maintain the connection to our indigenous land.
What is Assyrian art to you? How do you see your work within its trajectory?
Assyrian art is any creative expression by an Assyrian person.
I see my work as a sort of diasporic prophecy for immigrated Assyrians. My family fled Persia in the early 1920s, and were in America by the mid-1930s, which makes me a third-generation American. I grew up in a mixed household that no longer spoke Assyrian. Though I was born in America, raised to speak English, and was a mix of two ethnicities -- effectively the American dream incarnate, completely assimilated -- there was something I felt that was still missing.
My work addresses Assyrians in diaspora -- kids who were born outside of the Middle East and feel the ache of a culture they belong to but don't know intimately. Who feel like there is something missing inside of them that they either run to or run away from. My work is the new reality of being Assyrian -- that it's not something that will continue to be handed to you by the place you live in, instead that it's a choice. There is a lot of fear from immigrant communities that their cultures will be lost, that their kids won't care about the traditions associated with ethnicity. My work explores the reality of that and transforms fearful speculation to relaying stories of an actual lived experience, that talks about my pursuit of being Assyrian in America.
Among your larger body of work, I've noticed two strands -- one depicts moments based off family photographs and stories, with more muted and cold colours, and the other has less specific narratives, utilises symbols in brighter colours, largely on objects or of objects. What prompted these two different series?
The series based on family photos is supposed to have a certain coldness, other-worldliness. This series is based on the struggle of trying to get to know who my ancestors were through black and white photos. The search is not rewarding, I only get snippets of information about them from my family members that knew them. I'm trying to see where I fit in with our history, and feel a block, an inaccessibility. I think this block comes from my ancestors not talking about what they went through, instead shutting themselves down when it came to the genocides. It created a river between them and their offspring, fueling decisions out of trauma, choosing assimilation out of fear. I ask them my questions on top of the paintings, and they stare, not answering me. In a lot of ways, it is conveying the relationship to Assyrian history -- there are so many questions and very few gratifying answers. The most poignant question is, "who am I, and how did I end up here, the way that I am?"
The brighter, more folksy paintings draw inspiration from the colour and design of Persian carpets. These works address the pieces that still feel accessible to me -- the food being a big one! Growing up with Persian carpets covering the house is an accessible memory for me, a tradition that I continue in my own life. The food is also something that wasn't assimilated out, a piece of the homeland that I feel intimately connected to. The colours are brighter and happier because it is conveying places of comfort for me.
Diaspora in Bloom runs through August 30. You can visit the show here.