In childhood, many of our first exposures to famous works of art are through puzzles. We tinker and toy with 300-piece reconstructions of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night before graduating to a 1000+ piece puzzle of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Playrooms and elementary school shelves are stocked with iconic works of art that introduce our young and curious minds to the greats. Piece by piece, we reassemble artwork and are introduced to the world around us through the eyes of Picasso, Klimt, and Matisse.
After a childhood full of puzzles, my teenage years involved dutiful pilgrimages to the famous museums which housed the original works I grew up admiring: the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, and Stedelijk — each a temple of human experience, a shrine to enlightenment, and most importantly, the home to puzzles solved. By visiting and revisiting museums around the world, I collected lessons and assembled my own views, piecing together the puzzle of my identity.
Salvador Dalí showed me how to transcend beyond notions of reality to the surreal. Frida Kahlo helped me become empowered by my vulnerabilities. From Andy Warhol I learned to embrace my personal flair, while Egon Schiele opened my eyes to the beauty of lust and adoration. Artists became my private tutors, instructing my adolescent and impressionable mind on the lessons of life. As I came of age and pieced together my sense of self with their help, there remained a gaping hole in my puzzle. As a first-generation Assyrian-American, I found so little of myself reflected back to me through these artists.
In order to complete my mosaic, I was forced out of the Tate Modern and LACMA and into the Pergamon and the Louvre. There, I could see the ancient carvings and magnificent statues my ancestors left the world. Where Piet Mondrian fell short, King Ashurbanipal stepped in to reflect my heritage back to me. Separated from René Magritte by nearly three millennia, the Lamassu attempted to fill in the remaining gaps in my puzzle. Despite their brilliance, something was missing. Ceci n’est pas un puzzle.
Ancient Assyrian artwork remains a foundation of world heritage. The Lamassu’s stride, represented in the colossal statues with an additional, fifth leg, is one of the earliest depictions of movement in art. The expression of the Dying Lioness from the palace of Ashurbanipal is widely recognized as the first artistic example of agony and tragedy. Yet however significant these examples may be to art history, they remain separated from my lived experience by 3000 years. My reality is far more similar to Jeff Koons’ than to that of King Sennacherib. Torn between a canyon of time, space, and culture with no bridge across it, my puzzle looked more like a scrappy collage than a masterpiece.
Unsatisfied with the pieces I had to work with, I took to the internet to search for what I was missing. #Assyrian #AssyrianArt #Mesopotamia #MiddleEasternArt #Lamassu. I perused hundreds of pages, posts, and hashtags in search of something I wasn’t sure was out there, until one day, I discovered the artwork of Rabel Betshmuel.
Like an exhausted miner seeing a golden glimmer of yellow at the bottom of a pan after hours of sifting, I first saw Rabel’s artwork years ago. His Instagram grid offered neat rows of puzzle pieces to choose from. I hadn’t known those pieces existed, let alone that I needed them to complete me. Seamlessly bridging the growing gap between ancient and modern, his artwork was a breath of fresh air. I knew immediately that I had found a new personal tutor to add to my school of life. I took in each piece and description from his portfolio like an assignment, an instruction manual for the modern Mesopotamian. To young Assyrians like me, Rabel’s work offers respite and understanding; the opportunity to make us whole. To the world, he challenges traditional notions of Assyrian imagery and effortlessly combines the (very) old with the new.
It is worth noting that Rabel’s unique style is the latest addition to the canon of contemporary Assyrian arts. The 20th century saw many celebrated figures approach this divide of identity and create artistic reinventions of their own. He stands on the shoulders of artists such as Andre Gualovich, who infused western traditions of fine art into the Assyrian visual language; Ashurbanipal Babilla, a multidisciplinary artist ahead of his time who was unafraid to push boundaries; and the renowned artist and poet Hannibal Alkhas, whom Rabel cites as one of his greatest inspirations. It is Rabel’s continuation of this artistic tradition that marks his significance. Just as those before him were products of their times, Rabel reveals to a new generation the beauty that the Assyrian arts hold and the fluidity they can contain when reimagined.
My hope is that the collection in the next 270 pages will find its way into the homes and hearts of art-lovers everywhere. Regardless of our backgrounds, heritages, religions, or identities, Rabel’s catalog contains forms and perspectives to comfort and challenge us all. An ancient deity with wings spread poses in solidarity with native Americans. Ceramics that appear to have been discovered yesterday in Nineveh are adorned with 3D printed details. Ancient patterns that would make Diane von Fürstenberg swoon are configured in such a sleek manor that they look just at home in a Scandinavian café as they would in a Mesopotamian citadel.
Assyrian idioms infused with humor and wit capture a life lost in translation. In his most recent series, Collected Fragments, Rabel offers an intimate look into his personal family history, navigating the loss of memory and cultural heritage. Across inventive media, employing his signature use of vivid colors and geometric designs, he keeps us guessing, reflecting, and waiting for more. Seeing his collection of work in one place is immensely satisfying and a testament to his versatility as an artist.
After I entered Rabel’s world of Assyrian modernity, I felt compelled to share it as widely as I could. His portfolio was one of three that drove Akadina Yadegar and myself to curate the first Diaspora In Bloom exhibition, subtitled Assyrians in the 21st Century & Beyond, in 2019. The premiere exhibit featured Rabel’s work at the Art Ark Gallery in downtown San José’s Arts District. It is no coincidence that he not only exhibited in the show but designed the logo for it, as well. We knew early on that we wanted his visual style to reverberate through the logo, encapsulating his philosophy of thrusting Assyrian arts into the present day; its constant evolution and progress represented through the mandala design.
On opening night, amidst a buzz of spotlights, champagne flutes, and a flamboyantly dressed crowd, Rabel introduced gallery-goers to the term reverse assimilation. It refers to his creative process of identifying ordinary modern objects and infusing them with ancient Assyrian motifs. The result, in his own words, “is artwork which modernizes Assyrian culture while holding onto its ancient charm.”
There is surely no shortage of modern perspective or ancient charm in this book. I invite you to forget about everything you think you know about Assyrian art, allow Rabel to reintroduce this ancient culture to you, and experience reverse assimilation firsthand. The 2010’s saw a resurgence of contemporary Assyrian arts, with many bold artists joining what feels like a renaissance. Chief among them is Rabel Betshmuel, leading the charge. There is much to be gleaned from the pages ahead, and I will be exploring this book of puzzle pieces by closely inspecting each one — turning the pieces this way and that, matching up familiar faces and histories to mine, and improving the ongoing puzzle of myself.
The beauty of life is that it is not a 1000+ piece puzzle that can be solved accordingly. Unlike a completable puzzle of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, our sense of self is an ongoing riddle that requires attention and contemplation in order to improve it. Rabel Betshmuel’s collection of work is sure to offer you the opportunity to do just that.
(Rabel Betshmuel: Selected Works 2000-2020, 165 piece puzzle, ages 3 and up).
Available for purchase at rabelbetshmuel.com