“Displaced 3” by Syrian artist Lina Malki, currently on display at gallery 2. (COURTESY OF J. KATHLEEN THOMPSON)

Exploring art behind the lines of war at gallery 2

gallery 2’s new exhibit explores Syrian art, on until July 8.

By J. Kathleen Thompson

Lina Malki is a Syrian artist, age 26, living in Damascus, Syria. She tells me via e-mail that creating art whilst in a country at war is more necessary than ever, intensifying an artist’s role as a catalyst of truth.

Two strong collectives of Syrian artists in Syria and France — Cyrrus Gallery and Syria Art — share that sentiment and ensure that her work is both protected and promoted to the world at large.

Amazingly, Malki’s work, and that of 18 of her colleagues, is on display at gallery 2 here in Grand Forks.

A ‘gift’ of curator Ted Fogg, and curator of the Penticton Art Gallery, Paul Crawford, Malki’s work is part of a touring show which made its Canadian debut one year ago in Penticton, B.C. In a curator’s talk at the gallery 2 on June 14, Crawford shared the daring, innovative, and above all, profoundly human story behind the genesis and acquisition of this extraordinary show.

The inspiration for this exhibit, and one Crawford hopes will be engendered by it, is the power of human connection.

Remembering the profound effect that establishing international connections with people via pen pals had on his life, and moved by the crisis affecting the Syrian people, Crawford simply reached out to a Syrian artist through his online gallery.

A correspondence sprung up between Crawford and Humam Alsalim, and through Facebook and Skype, Crawford was introduced to a variety of artists working in Syria and the European diaspora today.

Most were recent alumni of the fine arts department of the University of Damascus (considered the ‘hotbed’ of emerging artists in the Middle East), and all were keen to have their work disseminated to a wider audience, not for commercial reasons but for artistic and cultural ones.

As one could well imagine, getting the work out of Syria and into Canada required a whole lot of creative thinking. Commercial couriers were no longer operating in Syria so one had to rely on what could be sourced on the ‘the black market’.

With $5,000 wired to cover the costs, and no guarantee that the canvasses would arrive in Canada, let alone in time, the whole process became, in Crawford’s words, a ‘feat of trust.’

The last and largest shipment of canvasses arrived the day before the advertised opening of the exhibit in Penticton, with just enough time to mount, frame and display them before the doors opened. The exhibit proved to be powerfully resonant with residents in the Okanagan, dovetailing ramped-up media coverage about the crisis in Syria that had been sparked by the image of little Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up onto a Turkish beach.

Leaving Penticton and moving onward to Vancouver Island and then to Whitehorse, Yukon, the exhibit was to garner the same intensity of interest.

Embracing the experimental ethos of contemporary art, many of the works in the exhibit address the social, political and religious issues ‘behind the lines’ of a civilization ruptured by a devastating civil war.

A series of pieces entitled Cultural Beheadings starkly illuminate the nihilistic consequences (such as the wide-scale destruction and looting of ancient city of Palmyra, the treasured Pearl of the Desert) of a country torn by conflict.

In a series entitled Displaced Lina Malki powerfully depicts, by using a mirage of colours and light and forms, the suspension of time and continuity in lives immobilized by nation-wide turmoil. Perhaps the most plaintive of all is Aya Al Medani’s voicing of a child’s perspective when normality and the future are put on hold. In What War Hides Behind It, all that war brings with it — misery, poverty, illness, hate, ignorance, sorrow, destruction, anger, revenge, etc. — truly brings into focus the extent to which hostility poisons a child’s world.

Coined by Crawford as an exhibition not for the faint of heart, for those who venture to view it, you will nonetheless find it uplifting by the sheer edifice of spirit that has created and brought this potent documentation of time and place to our community.

To further the conversations between viewers and artists, contact information — in the form of websites, facebook contacts, or emails — is provided for each artist.

We have until July 8 to make the most of this testament to creativity and courage before it continues its North American tour. gallery 2 begins its summer hours July 1, opening Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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