Celebrating what keeps us human – contemporary art of Syria in the exhibit “Behind the Lines”

Editor’s Note: The following is an exclusively written piece by Andrew Kosorok (of ’99 Most Beautiful Names Project‘ fame) for Ismailimail. Andrew runs Ghostriver Studios; is a trained stained glass artist, and have studied traditional bookbinding techniques. He is an ordained interfaith minister, has received degrees in sculpture from Brigham Young University, and has studied philosophy, comparative religions, hermeticism, alchemy, and the Western mystery traditions. Andrew will be regularly blogging at Ismailimail on the matters related to arts and interfaith.

Celebrating what keeps us human – contemporary art of Syria in the exhibit “Behind the Lines”

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(More remarkable Syrian art at the Aga Khan Museum Canada here and here)

Years ago, a young man was filled with dreams of other countries.  He made many friends around the world as he invited complete strangers to exchange ideas through letters – building friendships which lasted years.  “It was magic,” he said, “as I got to see the world of far away places through the eyes of other people my own age.”

One of these magical places, Syria, has an incredibly long and active history because of its location along so many trade routes between East and West, Africa and Asia, the Mediterranean and the Far East.  The home of many incredible and world-renowned sites of architectural wonder, this is also the birthplace of the dynasty supporting one of the more egalitarian societies of medieval Europe – Umayyad Spain.

A thousand years later the current political climate is far different.  Much of the infrastructure is collapsed or in serious jeopardy, and people around the world with ties to Syria are heartbroken at the prospects of its painful future.  So how can hope continue?

As Syrian refugees started making their emerging presence known in Canada, a gallery owner observed that many people seemed to have strong opinions with little or no information regarding the actual situations Syrians face – he wanted to confront this bundle of expectations and prejudices head on.  “And I want to share some of the magic I felt when I was writing to young people around the world.”

This gallery owner, curator and letter-writer, Paul F. Crawford, noticed immediately that the actual experience of welcoming and living with Syrian refugees was incredibly positive – the direct experience of both hosts and refugees was hopeful and beneficial, flying directly in the face of predictions by populist media.  Paul was also concerned of the disconnect many Westerners hold with the culture and creativity still very much present in Syria, despite the many challenges.

Coming in contact with Humam Alsalim – a contemporary artist living and working in Syria – Paul had a wild idea.  Earlier Paul had put together a very successful exhibit with works by contemporary Afghan artists, and this fueled his desire to repeat the success with contemporary Syrian artists.  Humam still lives in Syria and keeps a close tab on the local art world; he reached out to his contacts and recommended artists to Paul, and the co-curators began communicating with artists and sharing their idea of a show.  With the support of the Yukon Arts Centre and in particular Mary Bradshaw, Rebecca Manias and Jacqui Usiskin, this wild idea emerged into reality.

Through the benefits of social media friendships were built and conversations continued until a roster of 19 artists was selected.  The majority of men and women involved are younger with only three being over thirty, and includes media ranging through sculpture, painting and digital printing; six of the artists are currently residing in Europe while the rest remain in Syria.

Getting works from the few artists in Europe was difficult enough, but Paul said the excitement of shipping works from Syria was a stress he could have done without.  “It was something of a nightmare at times,” Paul understated.  Through a series of what could easily be described as miracles, the works made their way to Canada.

Finally arriving in British Columbia, Paul curated the almost 100 works at Penticton Art Gallery and opened the doors.  “The response has been astounding!”  Attendees were gracious and excited, new fans have connected with the Syrian artists through social media, and an exciting interaction began.

“I had pen pals all over the world as I was growing up,” Paul explained, “and honestly, that was a big part of what inspired me to hopefully bring that same world-opening energy to everyone coming to the show.”  In neighborhoods receiving refugees new friendships have quickly developed simply because people are kind; building on these connections this small “renaissance” of Syrian art has exploded preconceptions unilaterally, building even deeper connections across the planet.

One thing which struck me is the depth and range of the artists involved.  Their works, full of energy, creativity, and vitality, directly fly in the face of media-fueled expectation.  Honestly, I expected something limited to a series of riffs on the millennia-old architecture and art for which Syria is recognized in Western movies, perhaps speaking to the serious turmoil and significant loss of infrastructure – instead I discovered contemporary work constructed by artists at the peak of their craft, filled with the hopeful energy of any thriving art community.  It is amazing.

The figurative work of Lina Malki is energetic and soulful, and Aya Al Medani’s paintings make me think of a meditative Francis Bacon.  Strongly emotional pieces interact with thoughtful contemplations; bold tactile work sits alongside beautifully rounded forms.  There are no quaint banalities here – every artist has a distinct and specific voice, unafraid of sincere and earnest expression.  The overall exhibition is a conversation of many artists, and the energy of their communication is a wonder to see.

Currently the exhibit is traveling (Yukon Gallery and Vancouver Island are two locations mentioned) with yet another venue planned for Spring 2017 and more being discussed.  “We want a lot more people to see this artwork, and connect with both the artists involved and their new Syrian neighbors.”  Each of the artists are active on social media, and enjoy visiting with new friends and fans online – you can find their information at the Penticton Art Gallery’s website, connect with your favorites, and make pen pals of your own.

Currently working on a “virtual” exhibit for educational purposes and more in-depth study, Paul is also in contact with potential exhibition spaces all the time and hopes for many, many more – anywhere open-minded and forward thinking people wish to learn more about their international neighbors through the universal language of beauty.

For more information about the traveling exhibit and hosting the works, contact Pentiction Art Gallery at info@pentictonartgallery.com.

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Previously on Ismailimail…

Author: Ghostriver Studios

I am a traditionally trained stained glass artist, and have studied traditional bookbinding techniques. In addition to commissioned studio work, designing, building, and restoring stained glass windows, I work with sculptural stained glass. I enjoy looking for opportunities to explore dialogs of pluralism and shared community.

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