Assyrian Art and Artist By: Ann-Margaret "Maggie" Yonan
From a lecture in Los Angeles, California-1992
The Assyrians are the indigenous people of what is known today as Iraq and what the Greeks called Mesopotamia, (Between Two Rivers). The Assyrians call their homeland Bet-Nahrain, also meaning "Between Two Rivers", and today that land is also referred to as the Fertile Crescent, the Cradle of Civilization, and the Garden of Eden.
The Assyrians formed the first civilization and empire, which stretched over Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. But today, only traces of the Assyrian Empire remain in the Middle East. Most of Assyria is in exile today. And those of us living in exile or away from our homeland, Bet-Nahrain, have created a culture and a community called, the Diaspora.
The simplest definition of ART is a complex one, to the extent that art serves so many functions within the spiritual as well as the physical form of life. Art is esoteric and spiritual because like life itself, although it is everywhere, it is not always understood, and no two individuals experience it in the same manner. But, as esoteric as art may be, it is also scientific and physical in so far as it can be expressed and experienced by the senses. So like life, art forces you to think, feel and change, by virtue of its existence.
Art is the expression and reflection of an idea, a thought, a feeling or an emotion. So that when art is expressed, it is a reflection of how you feel, what you think, what you see and what you hear. By using our senses, we automatically engage in interaction, motion and change. So we are constantly evolving, creating and producing tangible and intangible attitudes and ethics. These attitudes and ethics translate into mores, (pronounced morays) better known as CULTURE.
Whatever the attitudes of a society may be, it will always be reflected in the culture it creates. The method by which we express these attitudes is ART. So as soon as art is created, so is culture. The two are symbiotic, meaning one creates the other and one cannot exist without the other.
Then by virtue of its existence art creates dialogue, discussion and interaction because it documents what is going on in society. It is why art has been used through time immemorial to communicate, educate, influence and shape. Art creates images that not only reach deep into our psyche but also affect our behavior toward our self and to our environment.
In ancient times art was used to communicate primitive images such as evil spirits, fertility, love, war, fear and death. As man became civilized, these images became more sophisticated and art became a tool of a bigger purpose. In ancient Assyria for example, art was used to construct cities, palaces, libraries, hanging gardens, sculpture, reliefs and stellas. Assyrians used art to not only educate and shape their own society and to establish human identity, but also used art to influence other societies around them. Assyrian rulers found that if a society engages in creating and preserving culture through art, the society flourished internally and spreads its influence to other regions.
One of the chief reasons why the Assyrian nation became unknown to the modern world is due to the fact that Assyria stopped producing art and, therefore culture. By this act, Assyria reduced growth, development and existence. Being slaughtered and displaced so often, we gave up the production of art and culture. Once we stopped producing art as a society, we contributed to our own genocide. The world thinks we do not exist because they can not see, hear and feel our culture. There are no academic or artistic institutions of Assyrian culture anywhere. There is not much to discuss or pay attention to, if Assyria is not expressing its thought in literature or showing its face through art images or vocalizing its rage in song and music.
There was a time when there was so much art being produced by ancient Assyrians, no one in the world could miss the power and intellect of the Assyrian people. Assyrian rulers created the most powerful images and civilization by commissioning artists to create art that:
- Reflected the Assyrian culture and contribution to the world.
- Preserved and validated the Assyrian identity and existence.
- Promoted this existence by communicating its influence to other nations.
The Assyrians, more than any society, used art to establish the emergence of a super-culture and used it to influence world opinion. But of course it was the same with other great empires such as the Greek, the Roman, the Egyptian, the Ottoman and later the Western Empire. All world powers have used art to create and validate their existence. The Ottoman Empire for example, used Islamic art to shape an entire continent. The British Empire used art to form an iconic image of the Church of England to colonize the whole world. After England colonized Bet-Nahrain, for example, you will remember its first step was to steal all Assyrian art and hide it in the basement of the British Museum. This one transaction served many purposes.
-England wanted to hide the Assyrian identity and existence and to invalidate our expression.
-England wanted to dismantle the walls that identified Assyria so that it would not have to contend with territorial disputes.
-England did not want to leave Assyria as it found, (all in one piece) so it dismantled Assyria piece by piece and took its unity to Europe to scatter.
These "transactions" were symbolic gestures to strip power from the East and shift it to the West, and this is how England crowned itself the "Next Empire". The looters and robbers of Bet-Nahrain, having stolen our art, returned to England as Lords and Sirs, owning the most exclusive and the most powerful world commodity from our fossilized ancestors.
Why do you think England was so interested in Assyrian art? Why not the Egyptian or Islamic, or even Roman art? Well, for one thing Assyrian art communicated and validated the greatest, the most powerful civilization on earth. Secondly, England knew that all other civilizations and empires were erected on the foundation of the Assyrian roots. England could not afford to remind the world of that image. Thirdly, if Assyria could rise to that level of power, it could do it again, (if its foundation is still in tact). So the best England could do was to steal and scatter the Assyrian identity to keep it from ever uniting.
I am sure you have all seen traveling art exhibits. In my lifetime, I have seen the Egyptian, the pre-Columbian, the Mexican, the Peruvian and just about everything. But can anyone say they have seen a traveling Assyrian art exhibit? The Western Empire could never afford to show our art to the world, for fear that it would prove it stole our identity, and committed genocide against us. It would also reverse the course of history the world has taken in relation to the loss of its own humanity.
In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, art historians were buzzing about how New York stole art from Europe. You might say that never happened because Europe never relinquished it willingly to the United States. But what the U.S. did was to open its arms to all émigré and exiled artists and once they arrived, it commissioned them to produce art that reflected the newly emerging American Super-Culture. The Public Works Agency of the U.S. Government commissioned famous artists like Arshille Gorky, Vasily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera and others, to produce art that validated this new culture and to promote its influence to other nations. This is how America stole art, culture and power from Europe and crowned itself the "Next Empire".
It is difficult for the average person to understand how art can be such a valuable commodity. But ask yourself this: Is there anything in the world that is more valuable than a work of art? No oil, gold, diamond or any other precious gem has the same value. One piece of art is worth millions!
We can begin to see how art is more powerful than any political propaganda, because it shapes the hearts and minds through effective and long lasting images. Art changes your environment by changing your needs and desires. The American Mass-Media know this very well, and use sophisticated art images to control our thoughts and behavior. They tell us what's in and what's out, what is beautiful and what is ugly, who's the good guy and who's the bad. They can control the very culture we create and live, by manipulating our senses, (our thoughts, desires, feelings, emotions and buying habits.)
Since there is a strong correlation between art and the creation of a super-culture, human society has used this relationship to develop power and maintain their identity and strength. Most societies build structural institutions from which this power can function. If a society hopes to be represented and acknowledged in the world arena, it must give priority to the creation of institutional spaces where power is negotiated. If the Assyrians for example, do not take this important step we will be allowing some one else to use that space and create another culture.
This has already happened to the Assyrians in their own homeland. Assyrian space has been replaced by Turkish, Arabian, Persian and now Kurdish space. We have run the risk of replacing our literature with other types of literature, our music with other type of music and our identity with other images. If we do not engage in the creation and promotion of our own art and culture, we will be forced to create someone else's culture.
Earlier we mentioned the reason why Assyria stopped producing art and thus promoted the death of our culture. Why did this happen? After their genocide, the Jews and the Armenians frantically set-up institutions of academics and art to express their outrage and used those institutions as spaces where they can unite, strengthen and validate their culture, and to negotiate in the political world arena. But not the Assyrians! Abandoning the arts, we forgot who we are for lack of visual images. We became dependent on the mercy of other cultures that used us as pawns in the game of cultural survival.
Today's Assyria should take a lesson from Saddam Hussein, whose colossal image can be seen and felt everywhere in Iraq. Why is Saddam painted, sculpted and plastered everywhere in the country? Because he knows the presence of his image is more powerful and more effective in putting fear and familiarity in the hearts and minds of Iraqis than any political propaganda. Art can be destroyed, but you can never destroy the image once it has entered the human subconscious.
In today's Iraq, Saddam has rebuilt Babylon, only to rewrite world history on ancient and eternal Assyrian walls:
"I Saddam Hussein rule the greatest civilization on earth." He writes this to replace the letters that were written thousand of years ago by an Assyrian king, on a wall that was once an Assyrian wall. By actually making a claim on an Assyrian space he buys himself a piece of history.
By owing art, you own a world commodity, which means you own the means and methods of its production. This gives you access to institutional spaces where power is negotiated. This is how all the powerful families of the world accumulated wealth. The Rockefellers, The Ahmansons, The Hughes, The Vanderbilts, The Hursts and The Kennedys became the Bourgeoisie of America because they bought and sold a substantial amount of art. They became the 1% of the American population that owns the means and methods of production. They are the Oligarchy, the owners and negotiators of power. They set artificial prices on priceless art. They can make an artist starve or they can make a Van Gogh worth 40 million, (as they recently did). They decide who lives and who dies.
By owning art and its institutional spaces, they are able to buy the mass-media, the world court and all the constitutional laws that govern society. By creating these institutional structures from which their identity can function, they validate their existence. Since they own power, they tell us how much we are worth. Having no access to institutional spaces we become alienated not only from ourselves, but the very culture we create. And since we are not engaged in creating our own culture, we are forced to create theirs.
Most of the art we see from Assyrian artists today, expresses that alienation and forces us to face a tremendous contradiction that all Assyrians are struggling with. If contradictions are not resolved, they don't go away. When faced with a contradiction you have a choice:
You either create a new synthesis out of the struggle between the thesis and the anti-thesis, or you will be absorbed by the winner of that fight.
Let us look at how one Assyrian artist is facing his contradictions and the synthesis he is formulating to not only save himself but his Assyrian culture from being absorbed.
Ghazi Assaker was born in Beirut, Lebanon, into a Christian Maronite family. Being born in the Assyrian Diaspora he does not grow up with an Assyrian identity. His people had long been cultivating a new image by which they can survive. The Christian Maornites of Lebanon are the direct descendents of the Assyrians. During the Byzantine slaughter of the Christian Assyrians, the Maronite leader, Mar Maron, began translating all religious scriptures and documents from the Assyrian to Arabic for fear of persecution. He forced the Maronites to speak Arabic only. This helped them survive for centuries, but unfortunately it also helped to eradicate their Assyrian identity. But this small group went on to give birth to two great Assyrian artists; Khalil Gibran and Gahzi Assaker.
Growing up as a Lebanese, Ghazi was able to gain access into Arabian institutions of art. He learns to carve wood and mold copper from master craftsmen. He meets and marries an Assyrian woman from Bet-Nahrain and through her, begins his journey in search of his real identity and ancient past.
In 1979 Ghazi and his wife migrate to the United States and settle in Chicago. He finds himself surrounded by 77,000 Assyrians. He begins to carve wood and mold copper to recreate ancient Assyrian images. The more he carves, the more obsessed Ghazi becomes with his cultural roots. In recreating the past he tries to live an identity he was long ago denied.
By reproducing Assyrian reliefs and friezes, Ghazi desperately tries to bring Assyrian art out of the museum and into the Assyrian community. By carving the Assyrian God Ashur standing before the Assyrian flag, Ghazi tells us the Assyrians worshiped God long before the Jews discovered Yahweh or Jehovah. The Assyrians called God ASHUR, just as the Hindus call him Krishna, the Orientals Buddha, and the Muslim Allah.
In carving the image of Hammurabi Ghazi reminds us that the Assyrians wrote the code of ethics long before the Jews discovered the Ten
Commandments. In depicting Gilgamesh, Ghazi conveys that the Assyrians had written about the great flood long before the Jews invented the story of Noah and his Arc. By recreating the story of the Tree of life, Ghazi maintains that the Assyrians had already illustrated the story of Creation long before Adam and Eve took the bite.
Why then was the Assyrian version of God and Man rewritten using Jewish morality? Could it be that it was done to change the course of history and to wipe out the Assyrian contribution to world civilization and religion and to invalidate our cultural and spiritual identity? Well it worked! No one ruined the Assyrians better than the Jews. Till this day, "Babylon" implies a degenerate and corrupt civilization that was destroyed by God. How could a degenerate and corrupt society produce such a magnificent culture and civilization? Assyria was known as God's handiwork, but our enemies resented the magnificent culture we had created through our literature, sculpture and science and called for Babel's destruction. The Jews wrote that Assyria built the Tower of Babel to fight with God when in fact we built the tower of observation to study the stars and to perfect the science of Astronomy.
Assyrian kings and monarchs knew very well that other groups were operating to destroy our image, our space and power, which is why they commissioned such an incredible amount of art to preserve the Assyrian legacy. The only way to preserve a legacy is to leave a lingering image.
With the destruction of Assyria, the Jews were able to tell different story to the world and scar our name for centuries. This is the reason our art is so well hidden. Our art tells the real story of humanity.
Ghazi's art is an attempt to set the record straight and to change the course of history the Assyrians have taken in relation to the loss of their identity.
I hope that you will continue your support for the arts in general and Assyrian artists in particular because they can help our nation create a visible culture by which we can define our identity not only for ourselves, but for the entire world.
And please remember:
WITHOUT ARTISTS THERE WOULD BE NO HISTORY TO REMEMBER AND TO TALK ABOUT