Syria hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees who have fled their home since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Estimates as to how many refugees are huddled in Syria vary, but most organizations estimate that roughly 1.2-1.5 million Iraqis have staked a temporary claim on neighboring soil. “Temporary,” however, is a relative time-frame for the many vulnerable refugees. Of those surveyed, 70 percent of Iraq’s displaced have been in Syria for more than four years; the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that the organization has assisted only 163 refugees who went back to Iraq. For most, home is just too unstable to justify a return.

While in Syria, Iraq’s refugees try to lead a normal life. In their sprawling hovels and camps, they shop, sew, cook, work, attend school, and play. They are doctors, plumbers, tailors, singers, electricians, husbands, wives, and children.

And they are painters.

Mel Lehman, Director of Common Humanity, an organization that seeks to bridge cultural gaps between the United States and Arab and Middle Eastern countries, recently traveled to Damascus to procure a number of works by Iraq’s refugee artists. The results—28 paintings by 27 artists—are on display and are up for auction at Gallery35 in New York City.

The exhibition, “Artists in Exile: Forgotten Iraqi Refugees in Syria,” is not a traditional show in that there is no unifying theme across all the work (save for the fact that they were all painted by Iraqi refugees living in Syria). Most of the artists are men, and subjects range widely from abstraction to motherhood to Arabic calligraphy to domestic life, and everything in between. There is even one watercolor amongst the collection of oil on canvas paintings. The artwork also varies in quality, from craft-like renditions to museum-quality work.

Yet, the miscellany of “Artists in Exile” is charming, and for a very serious reason. The aim of the exhibition is not to showcase Iraq’s versions of Andy Warhol or Cai Guo-Qiang (though one can’t help but wonder if that very artist lies hidden in this exhibition). Rather, it has three objectives: 1) to raise money for Iraq’s starving artists exiled in Syria; 2) to remind Americans and the world of the very fact that there are 1.5 million Iraqis living in substandard conditions in a country that, while hospitable, is not home; and 3) to share the beauty of Iraqi art, thereby removing the demon mentality Americans too often ascribe to people who, in more ways than not, are just like us.

Does “Artists in Exile” achieve its goals? Certainly it is a nice (and sometimes surprising) showcase of art and talent. And just by the very nature of the artists on display, as well as supplemental information provided in the gallery, awareness about the refugee issue in Syria is elevated.

The crux of the exhibition, however, is to raise money for the artists so that they can continue to pursue their passions and crafts. The success of this crucial element rests on the shoulders (and the wallets) of the show’s patrons. The wonderful element of “Artists in Exile’s” is the auction system. All of the art on display is for sale; minimum bids range from zero to $250, depending on the artist. Novice art collectors or those with an interest in assisting Iraqi refugees through a unique medium can walk away with some terrific art at a cost that, while minimal for Americans, can be a godsend for the displaced artists. The hodgepodge of styles and subjects on display ensures that everyone will find appeal in at least one or two paintings.

Salvation Through Beauty

There may be no unifying theme to the work on display, but there is a thread that runs through most (though not all) of the paintings. When one hears of a show centered on artwork from Iraqis displaced by war and violence, one can be forgiven for assuming that the show would be full of doom and gloom. One might expect paintings depicting chaos, destruction, despair, dark colors, pessimism, moroseness, bombs, fire, and death.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of work features bright colors and displays “normal” life: present are domestic themes (rooster, cats, children), urban life (architecture, cafés, music), Islamic and Iraqi heritage (Babylon, crescent and star, Arabic calligraphy), and nature. Why should this be? I put the question to the curator, Mel Lehman, who suggests that while these artists are experiencing real pain and suffering, the art they are presently creating reflects a hope and optimism that life can get better; instead of those negative themes being apparent in their work, the emotions are being repressed and will come out later when they return, if ever, to their home country.

Let’s face it. If you are interested in fine art from Iraq, you are better served to pay a visit to Pomegranate Gallery in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, where some truly exquisite work by established artists like Oded Halahmy, Qasim Sabti, Ismail Khayat, Hassan Massoudy, and others is up for grabs.

Yet “Artists in Exile” has its gems.

Take, for example, a haunting pair of paintings by Ahmad Abdulrazzak and Abd al Rahman al Musur. It’s a shame that al Musur leaves his painting untitled, for it truly is a hypnotic and startling work: a parade of ghostly, disembodied faces approaches the viewer bearing lamenting looks and chilling stares. The colors are bold, cold mixes of green, yellow, purple, and orange. Are they the dead? Are they lost children? We are left to wonder; the images are hard to shake.

Abdulrazzak’s “Country of Iraq” is simultaneously playful and solemn. A panoply of Crayola colors provide the background for the chalky-scratched images of a sun, a happy child, a house, and a bird resting on the shoulder of what appears to be a sad mother figure. The mixed signals demand a head scratch: is this a positive and hopeful rendition of Iraq? Or has Abdulrazzak painted a mask that hides deeper, emotional ruin?

“Artists in Exile” is peppered with eye-catching work, though sadly much of it is untitled; the non-initiated is often left to guess at the greater meaning of a piece. Dehea al Jzaery and Jassim Mohammad’s untitled works stand out—their bold renditions of the Arabic language are arresting, but for those who don’t read Arabic, we are left to simply admire their calligraphy.

Works by Mohammed al Moosleh, Muhaned Waleed, Duha Awad, Riyadh al Jbory, and Omar Al Shalabi—all frustratingly untitled—also stick out. Perhaps the most striking painting in “Artists in Exile” is done by one of only a few women featured. Mary Yahya’s “Motherhood” (2010) features a child draped over her mother’s head in a Gustav Klimt fashion of crooked embrace. Their faces are serene and the gaze of their eyes teeters between serenity and sadness. The vivid image commands its space and somehow dwarfs the neighboring painting, even though the latter is four times as large.

My favorite painting in the collection is an untitled café scene (2010) by Waleed Hassan. The work has a vibrant, kinetic feel, even though a gray/white sidewalk takes up much of the painting. A waiter zips through a crowd of tables and chairs, bringing two coffees to a pair of unseen men I imagine to be deeply engaged in a conversation about the latest political scandals. We can practically hear the conversational murmur and the clunking of coffee cups and pounding of fists onto the pine tables.

There are echoes of Leon Kossoff in Hassan’s untitled work: it is a typical urban scene in a tucked away corner and there is a fine balance between people and architecture; all elements are chunky but they are not burdensome. And just like Kossoff’s oil on board “Outside Kilburn Underground, Spring,” (1976) the fine mix between just-enough-detail and just-enough-vagary tempts the viewer into guessing at the table side jokes and pontifications of the cast of characters.

Unlike Kossoff, however, Hassan uses a quilt work of bright colors that entice the viewer and demand a dance from left to right, top to bottom, and back again. Also in contrast to Kossoff’s solid, heavy subjects, the figures in “Untitled” are outlined, if at all, with a thin black pin stripe, giving the subjects a lightness which suggests that at any moment they could stand up from their tables and mosey off toward home or university. Hassan’s work, like the collective work in “Artists in Exile,” is simply joyous.

Shaun Randol is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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