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The spiralling dance of survival

Virginia Baxter

Assyrian tribal garments (Tiare & Tkhume) Assyrian tribal garments (Tiare & Tkhume)
photo Samiramis Ziyeh
In From Mosul to Fairfield, a multimedia installation at Fairfield City Museum & Gallery, Samiramis Ziyeh, an artist of Assyrian background picks up lost connections between her displaced and disinherited community and their homeland using as her central metaphor the traditional dance called Khigga.

Before they learn to walk, Assyrian children, held in the arms of dancing kin, learn Khigga.

In her catalogue Ziyeh notes: “Today’s Assyrians trace their origins to Mesopotamia (now eastern Syria and Iraq) known as the Fertile Crescent which stretched along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Assyrians have endured countless persecutions; the most traumatic of these during World War 1 when 750,000 Assyrians lost their lives in massacres and deportations that virtually exterminated entire villages and emptied whole regions. Large portions of the culture are slowly vanishing due to dispossession of traditional land commencing with the tragic impact of World War 1 on the small Assyrian nation.” There are around 20,000 Assyrian-Australians and many have made their new home in Fairfield, Western Sydney.

The gallery is filled with the rhythms of dahoola (drum) and zoorna (flute) that accompany the dance in which a line of straight-backed men and women linked hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, skip and stamp the ground in unison.

With each repetition of the dance sequence they travel only the distance of the width of one foot. With each beat, they touch or step on the ground beneath them, affirming again and again that where they stand, in the body and in the present moment, is home.

The installation is dominated by video documentation of Assyrians dancing Khigga in the many places of their dispersal, the earliest footage from Moscow in 1914. Continuity is evident in the serious, dark-eyed faces of these handsome people—even when the ornately decorated clothing and boots of the dancers in Northern Iraq are replaced by the t-shirts (“I’m with the Band”) and sandals of young Assyrian-Australians in Fairfield’s Neeta Shopping Centre.

Samiramis Ziyeh spent 3 years researching and collecting dance forms, music, costumes and objects for this exhibition. She also “stood by the moving spirals of dancers, listening, observing their conscious and unconscious exchanges.” At the outset of the project in 2003 after the first invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces, she says, there was cause for some optimism amongst the community that they might regain at least some of their traditional lands. As the project developed and the war worsened, despair only deepened.

In the centre of the gallery, Ziyeh reflects on this sense of loss, evoking in response a space of contemplation, “illuminating the unchanging human instinct toward community, culture and art.” Using an overhead projector, the artist goes to ground, creating a “pool” amidst a curving line of leaves, twigs and earth. As you gaze down into the screen, a female figure spins; fingers sift sand and water; old hands pass small clay figures to younger ones who place them in circles on the ground.

While tracing the bodies of local Assyrian community members on the walls of the gallery is a powerful idea, this third element of the installation is less effective in execution. Strangely moving, however, are the beautiful traditional costumes which feature in photographs on the walls accompanying the history of Assyrian struggle. In two tribal garments (Tiare and Tkhume, as pictured) originally made on the traditional land and dating back to WWI, you sense the dancing bodies beneath the cloth.

Clearly, From Mosul to Fairfield is a labour of love, entailing personal as well as cultural revelation for the artist and her community. Beyond this inner circle, the exhibition adds another definition to the dictionary of displacement. The resilience of the Assyrian community is echoed in the voices of waves of other immigrants to Western Sydney that speak from static displays in the Fairfield Museum next door. Like the dance it celebrates, Samiramis Ziyeh’s project is ongoing. As I left I had the sense that the artist hadn’t finished, but had simply downed tools for the day.

From Mosul to Fairfield: in a spiral we dance as the earth moves beneath our feet until we are home, multimedia installations Samiramis Ziyeh, Farzin Yekta, Jim Prisuda; collaborators Nicholas Al-jeloo, John Homeh, Dishoo Ziyeh, Donald Barkho, Maureen Beckett; community facilitators Paul Gorgees, Marlin Babakhan, Lina Ishu; Fairfield City Museum & Gallery Oct 2-30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 53

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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