Obaidah Zorik, "Untitled," 2015
Obaidah Zorik, "Untitled," 2015, acrylic on canvas, 63” x 47”
Tragic news stories about warfare in Syria started Paul Crawford, the director of the Penticton Art Gallery in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, thinking about that country’s artists – who they are, how they are managing to work and what they are producing.
That curiosity eventually led him to Humam Alsalim, a young architect in Damascus who runs the online Cyrrus Gallery. The two have been working for a year to bring together 100 works by some 15 Syrian artists for a show that will run in Penticton from July 8 to Sept. 11.
“Life here is really hard now,” says Alsalim. “Everything is expensive. Not all artists can easily get their materials, or can sell work.” Other problems include a lack of electricity, fuel and, sometimes even water. “Nothing is easy at all. We’ve lost our friends, those who died and those who travelled – most of the people I know have left the country.”
Crawford, who last year organized a similar show with work from Afghanistan, says such projects, while complex to organize, encourage local residents to take a deeper interest in global affairs. “The rewards far outweighed the costs,” he says. “The dialogue it brought into our community was tremendous.”
Still, Crawford is aware of the risks of plunging into a far-flung culture with high-stakes political realities he often knows little about. There could be controversy – or even harsh repercussions for participating artists – in ways that might not even occur to him. Even logistical tasks, like shipping work, can be challenging.
The artists are a varied lot. Omran Younis, for instance, has been active since the late 1990s, and has exhibited across the Middle East since earning an MFA in 2000. His work is expressionist and offers social commentary. But Obaidah Zorik finished art school only in 2012. He also paints in an expressionist style and bases his work on personal experiences.
“Paul told me that the gallery wants to introduce our society to Canadian society,” says Alsalim. “This was our first concern – thus why we are choosing a lot of artists from different areas and different ages and lifestyles. We want to express about life here, and the Syrian people, with or without war.”
Although art from the world’s troubled places can be challenging, Crawford says it can also affirm life. “The work itself is incredibly positive in a lot of ways,” he says. “It has a sense of beauty that was a total surprise to me.”