To most of the world, countries like Iraq and Syria are known only by the violence that has destroyed their lands and devastated the lives of millions of people. The attacks on the Nineveh Plain in 2014 and just months later in the Khabour Region in 2015 specifically have had a profound impact on the Assyrian people, many of whom found themselves reliving the stories of their ancestors. The crises impacted both the Assyrians who lived through them and the Assyrians who watched them unfold from miles away. Many were moved to action.
Here are seven Assyrian artists around the world who responded to the conflict with art.
Bakhdida, Nineveh Plain, Iraq
Nenous Thabet is a 19 year-old Assyrian artist from Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, in the Nineveh Plain. His family fled to Erbil in August 2014 as IS advanced north and eventually captured his hometown after the local populations were abandoned. They took refuge in the Assyrian suburb of Ankawa, waiting for the day they could return home.
When videos surfaced in 2015 depicting IS terrorists destroying ancient Assyrian heritage sites, Thabet and his father, who is also an artist, were deeply affected. They made a promise to each other and to their community that they have kept: They would return home and rebuild.
As they waited for the day they could return to Bakhdida, Thabet created stunning works of art, recreating iconic Assyrian artworks in his own individual style. His work attracted the attention of the likes of CNN and the Independent, and millions of people around the world heard his story. Even Ashton Kutcher was moved by it—sharing a video of Nenous to his official Facebook page writing, “Keep up the honorable work, Ninos [sic].”
The Nineveh Plain was finally liberated in early 2017. Many families had already left Iraq, but Thabet and his family were among those who refused to leave. They returned to find their home in ruins, but they were discouraged. “After what we have seen—after what IS did—destroying our heritage sites and erasing our art in Nineveh, it’s our duty to rebuild,” he says. “What IS did was not small. They destroyed our Winged Bulls. We can say they wiped Nineveh clean. We will rebuild what they’ve destroyed, even if in a small way. We want to preserve our identity and heritage.”
In 2017, Thabet’s father led a team of Assyrian artists in Bakhdida in an effort to eliminate IS graffiti in their hometown. They covered hateful messages with vibrant murals depicting hopeful images, including Christian symbols and the Assyrian flag. Their artwork brought life back to the historic town. Thabet says it’s only the beginning.
Upwards of 25,000 Assyrians have returned to Bakhdida since its liberation, but the number of returnees is only about half of the town’s pre-IS population. Thabet remains hopeful that more will return. “Of course our dream is to see our people return to our villages in the Nineveh Plain like we have in Bakhdida. Thank God, people are returning to rebuild, and I have hope that maybe our future is brighter than our past. This is our land. After 7,000 years, it’s our duty to protect it. We want others to return as we have to rebuild together.”
Noora Badeen is an Assyrian artist native to Baghdad, Iraq. She lived through almost a decade of war before joining her parents in Chicago, Illinois in 2012.
Her work primarily focuses on marginalized women and children in the Middle East, and the challenges they face trying to navigate life in conflict-affected areas. She is currently a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Earlier this year, she won second place in an art competition honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “Until Justice Rolls Down like Waters.”
Badeen painted her piece “Never Give Up the Hope, Prayers & Discrimination” in 2015, after IS invaded the Nineveh Plain and the Khabour Region. She views art as a way to raise awareness about human suffering and promote social justice for all people of the world.
Follow Noora on Instagram @noorabadeen
Reni Stephan was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1981, but his family would later make the difficult decision to leave their homeland due to persecution. They resettled in Detroit, Michigan when Stephan was twelve years-old, where he would discover his profound love for drawing. His talent was undeniable, even at an early age. As he matured as an artist, he developed a passion for sculpture.
One of his most famous works is his stunning Assyrian chess board, which swaps traditional pieces for intricately-crafted Assyrian kings, soldiers, and ziggurats.
With each piece he creates, Stephan merges his love of art and his Assyrian heritage. He is committed to recreating ancient Assyrian works that have been destroyed by IS in Iraq and Syria. Stephan has sculpted massive replicas of iconic reliefs and Lamassus which are now proudly displayed in establishments like the Ishtar Restaurant in Detroit, Michigan and the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation community center in Lincolnwood, Illinois.
“As long as we stay true to our nation, no power in this world can destroy us,” says Stephan. “As long as we stand together and work hand in hand, we will rebuild. Let them destroy, we will rebuild. Everyone has something to contribute. I will do all that I can to work for my nation in my own way, through art.”
Fadi Khiyo was born in the Khabour Region in Syria in 1982, and lived through the IS terror launched on the 35 Assyrian villages in the region in February 2015. His aunt and cousins were among those held captive by the terrorist group.
The incident affected him so deeply, he wasn’t able to work on his art for months. When he was finally able to start again, he found his style had changed. Many of his works are reflections on the experiences of the Assyrian people. “[My art] is inspired by all of the horrific things I’ve seen, all the stories I’ve heard,” he says. He also says his work was influenced by the passing of his father.
Known for his large and unique expressionistic portraits, disoriented facial expressions, limited use of color, and strong emphasis on form are the hallmarks of his work. “The face mirrors the person’s soul,” he says.
Khiyo says the Assyrian people changed as they lived through the war in Syria. “I started seeing people’s inner conflicts and fears on a deeper level. Their grief forces them to be enclosed within themselves to a point where they’re unrecognizable and unreachable,“ Khiyo explains, “These paintings are how I see them now.”
His artwork was featured for the first time in the United States as part of the Assyrian Arts Institute Fine Arts Gallery held at the 2017 Assyrian American National Convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. The artist was also one of the main subjects of Sargon Saadi’s 2016 documentary Silence After the Storm. He has since been forced to leave Syria and is now among tens of thousands of Assyrian refugees in Lebanon.
“Part of their goal was to stop us from creating,” Khiyo says of the terrorist groups that destroyed his country. In this way, he has triumphed.
His original work as well as reprints are available for purchase online at Fine Art America.
Larsa Kena is an Assyrian artist from Chicago, Illinois. At 18 years of age, Kena has committed herself to a life and career in the arts. She looks to pursue artistic studies as she continues her education. Kena is diversely influenced, and enjoys experimenting with different styles of artwork. Kena is often inspired by Assyrian traditions and artistry, and brings a modern twist to iconic Assyrian pieces.
In 2017, she painted a massive mural at the Urhai Community Service Center in Chicago, recreating a traditional Assyrian relief known as the “Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal” in her own style.
That same year, she created a stunning piece which she called “Fractured Roots.” It was her way of responding to the Islamic State’s destruction of Assyrian cultural heritage—by gathering the pieces to rebuild something new. She recreated the traditional Lamassu in her own way, each unique shape within the painting symbolizing an individual Assyrian.
Follow Larsa on Instagram @larsakena
Nederland, Overijssel, Netherlands
Nahrin Malki is an Assyrian artist native to Qamishli, Syria where she completed her graduate degree in artistic studies. Though she moved to the Netherlands in 2001 to continue her studies, her country continues to be the source of her inspiration and the central theme of her work.
Her extraordinary paintings utilize her signature stamp technique. Her process always start with black and white, working in vibrant colors, though black is always dominant. Malki’s use of color enables her to create multiple paintings within a single painting as she tells stories of suffering.
In 2013, Malki was selected to represent modern arts from the Netherlands at the Galeria Miejska Arsenal in Poland. On the opening day of the exhibition, renowned art historian and curator Dr. Elvira van Eijl said, “Nahrin comes from a very old culture and remembers the stories told by elders about the genocide of her people-stories of abuse, war, starvation, and the persecution of thousands of refugees. She realized that this misery is not only part of her personal life story but also that of so many other people around the world. The suffering of human beings is a continuous universal problem.”
Malki’s piece, “Khabour” was inspired by the February 2015 IS attack on the Khabour Region. She says, “It represents the darkness rolling in, causing death and the migration of Assyrians, and all so quickly.” Her piece “The Sadness of Mother Assyria” depicts an anguished Mother Assyria unable to protect its future generations.
Of her central theme, Malki says, “Suffering does not discriminate.”
Nahrin Malki’s work is available for purchase through the Assyrian Arts Institute.
John Malk is an Assyrian artist known for his realistic sketches and portraits. Native to the village of Tel Hurmiz in the Khabour Region in Syria, Malk’s work is inspired by human experiences from ancient Assyria to modern Syria.
He studied art in the Syrian capital Damascus, later continuing his education in Poland. In 1992, he resettled in Chicago, where he continues to create magnificent pieces, capturing the Assyrian spirit in many of his works. His extraordinary attention to detail brings his portraits to life. Malk’s stunning and ambitious piece “Assyrian Folklore” won the first ever AUAF Fine Arts Competition in 2017.
The distance and the time he has spent away from Syria did little to quell the pain he felt watching as Syria fell apart. He says it’s painful to know that the land of his childhood no longer exists as it does in his memory.
Malk says his family was devastated when photos of Tel Hurmiz emerged after it was ravaged by IS terrorists in 2015. His portrait “Death of Humanity” captures his father’s sadness upon seeing the devastation, with Tel Hurmiz burning in the background.
He believes all Assyrians have a duty to fight for their homeland and the survival of their people, regardless of where they are in the world or what experiences have shaped their identity as an Assyrian. “Some of our fighters carry guns,” he says. “But my weapon is art.”