Arts & Culture

Art from Iraqi, Palestinian refugees on display at local galleries

Iraqi artist Khalid Alaani’s painting “Enchanted,” is on display at the Clayton Staples Gallery at Wichita State University. Minimum bid is $350.
Iraqi artist Khalid Alaani’s painting “Enchanted,” is on display at the Clayton Staples Gallery at Wichita State University. Minimum bid is $350. Courtesy

A unique exhibition on display at multiple galleries in the Wichita area features artwork made by refugee Iraqi and Palestinian artists from Gaza.

The exhibition, called Building Bridges: Art Exhibition and Sale, is an attempt to emphasize common humanity around the world and combat negative perceptions of Muslims, according to Jan Swartzendruber, who is helping publicize the exhibit.

“The idea is art of all sorts communicated across cultures and across geography and across religion, and that all builds bridges of understanding in a much more direct way than any kind of verbal lecturing or explaining does,” Schwartzendruber said.

Most of the artists whose work is displayed in the exhibition have been resettled in the United States or Canada. The artwork is from 19 Iraqi artists and 9 Palestinian artists.

One of those artists is Khalid Alaani, a native Iraqi painter.

Alaani had to leave Baghdad in 2006 because of the war. He then sought refuge in Damascus, Syria until 2012.

While in Damascus – which he praised for its generous, “welcoming” people – he met up with other Iraqi painters and put on exhibitions.

He was relocated to Maryland in 2012, and moved to Alexandria, Va., in 2015, where he participates in the local art scene while studying to practice pharmacy.

His paintings, he said, will hopefully make people realize “all people around the world share a lot of common things.”

“There’s no vocabulary in painting – the image itself is the language,” Alaani said. “The acrylics are the same, but ... maybe the landscape is different. ... At the end of the day it’s all human contribution, so when you feel that – the other people are happy with what they have and their culture, their landscape that they live in – I think it really gives that message that we are the same. We’re not different.”

People can bid on the various paintings, and 80 percent of the proceeds from any sale goes to the artist. The rest of the proceeds go to Common Humanity, the New York City nonprofit that created the exhibit and brings the paintings in.

“It’s like a highway, two-ways,” said Ranya Taha, who helped plan for Building Bridges in Wichita. “We’re helping them and at the same time they’re helping us. We learn from them, they learn from us.”

Taha, who was born in Syria and moved to the United States when she was 22, said the focus on art by refugees will inspire compassion for their plight.

She knows how quickly life can change.

“My mom and dad, they’re professionals – one is a physician – and they had a summer house, cars and everything in Syria,” Taha said. “All in one day, two days, three days, they lost everything.”

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen. If you help somebody, somehow the good will come back to you and when you need help, you will get the help in some form.”

Student exhibition

In addition to the main Building Bridges exhibit, which travels around the country, Muslim students at Wichita State University have created another exhibit, “Building Bridges ICT,” currently on display at the WSU Shiftspace Gallery, 416 S. Commerce.

“Building Bridges ICT” features paintings and other art by the students that feature their interpretation of their culture and how it interplays with the West.

Most of the students exhibiting there – only one of which is an actual art major – are second-generation Muslim-Americans, said Maira Salim, a member of the WSU Muslim Student Association.

“It just kind of showcases the culture here,” said Salim, whose work is exhibited at Shiftspace. “I feel like a lot of the art portrayed both of the cultures that many of the artists have.”

How the exhibit came about

Building Bridges was a project of Mel Lehman, founder and executive director of Common Humanity, a nonprofit in New York City.

Lehman frequently had made humanitarian trips to Iraq and Syria since the 1990s, but the U.S. invasion in 2003 caused instability in the region, affecting many.

He began organizing medical delegations to Damascus, in which North American doctors shared their medical expertise with Syrian colleagues.

Soon, Lehman met a group of Iraqi refugee artists who had fled to Damascus. Lehman started cosigning the artists’ paintings and bringing them back to New York to exhibit, with the hope that exhibiting and selling them in the United States “could call attention to the plight of refugees in the region, provide an income to the artists, and build inter-cultural understanding,” according to a news release.

After exhibiting in New York, Lehman began taking his show across the country.

The Islamic Society of Wichita said in a news release that it is “proud to partner with the forward-thinking, bridge-building, and creative ‘Building Bridges.’”

“The artwork focuses on a world few see, but the impact is long-lasting, captivating, and provides hope where there was none,” Islamic Society of Wichita spokesman Hussam Madi said in the release.

Before heading out to the galleries, you can see all of the paintings on display at www.ictcommonhumanity.org. Click on the “paintings” tab, and then select which gallery you want to look at. Along with each picture, the artist and starting bid is listed.

Taha, the Syrian woman in Wichita, is an architect. She said the exhibition helps teach children “to help build bridges and never burn bridges.”

“We’re in a culture where sometimes it’s very easy to just burn a bridge and say something that can be so hateful – it’s harder to build a bridge,” Taha said. “As an architect, building takes way, way more time and calculating and effort than burning or breaking bridges.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

Building Bridges: Art Exhibition and Sale

Clayton Staples Gallery, WSU

On display: Aug. 29 to Sept. 30

Where: McKnight Art Center, Room 215, Wichita State University, 1845 Fairmount

Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday

Closing reception: Sept. 28, with public lecture with guest speaker Dr. Ahmed Abdullah Fadaam from 5 to 6 p.m. Reception from 6 to 9 p.m.

Admission: Free

Robert W. Regier Gallery, Bethel College

On display: Aug. 26 to Sept. 23

Where: Bethel College, 300 27th, North Newton

Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday

Closing reception: 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 23

Admission: Free

WSU Shiftspace Gallery

On display: Sept. 14 to 30

Where: WSU Shiftspace Gallery, 416 S. Commerce, Ste. 102

Gallery hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Closing reception: 6 to 10 p.m. Sept. 30

Admission: Free

Building Bridges ICT

On display: Aug. 24 to Sept. 10

Where: WSU Shiftspace Gallery, 416 S. Commerce, Ste. 102

Gallery hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Admission: Free

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