Syrian Art Coming to Penticton

by  Dale Boyd – Penticton Western News, Jun 28, 2016

In the midst of a conflict that has gripped the entire world, a connection created through art is bringing Penticton and Syria closer together.

Humam Alsalim, a Syrian architect and co-founder of the Cyrrus Gallery, an online art gallery for young, contemporary Syrian artists is co-curating the latest exhibition at the Penticton Art Gallery.

The exhibition, hosting 18 artists with just over 90 works across multiple formats including video, photography, painting and sculptures opens July 8.

The art is an inside look into the minds of those affected by the devastating war, including Alsalim.

“Like everybody else, the war has made everything much harder. We lost our friends, people from our families, our families got shattered,” said Alsalim, currently living in the Syrian capital of Damascus. “My parents now live in another city, my brother in Austria and me in Damascus … we barely see each other.”

Studying, working, everything became much more difficult as the country descended into war, however he still defers to those suffering further.

“Here in Damascus we are separated from the war, we see a few things from time to time.”

It’s been about a year since Penticton Art Gallery Curator Paul Crawford contacted Alsalim, and they have been working together online and over the phone since. The two have been selecting artists, contacting them and jumping through an obscene amount of regulatory hoops to find a way to ship the paintings from Damascus and different countries where Syrian artists currently live abroad.

Embargos, sanctions and constant checkpoints made shipping the art a massive challenge.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like,” Crawford said. “Even just going to the store to get packing and shipping stuff, he would get stopped and people say ‘what the hell are you doing?’ It’s been a real test of faith because he had to trust me, entrusted with all these people’s art work, and I had to trust him sending him $5,000 for shipping.”

— image credit: Dale Boyd/Penticton Western News
— image credit: Dale Boyd/Penticton Western News

Crawford was connected to Alsalim by Kabul Art Project founder Christina Hallmann who lives in Germany. Hallmann was critical in bringing art from Afghanistan to the art gallery last year, and Crawford wanted to explore more. Curating international exhibitions is tricky territory when organizing through Facebook messages.

His desire to bring the cultures and concepts from another country to Canada circles back to the many pen pals Crawford kept as a kid.

“It was always neat to learn about some far off place and correspond,” Crawford said. “It just boggled my mind, like a month ago I was wondering is this really going to come through, but it’s amazing.”

Alsalim credits social media for making the international connections much easier. He is part of a team including

Syrian photographer Khaled Youssef, who manage the Syria Art Facebook page, connecting Syrian artists in the largest Syrian art archive in exsistence. He has done international collaborations before, but this is a big step up for Alsalim.

“This is the most important event I’ve worked on so far, and it’s really exciting,” Alsalim said. “The event is mainly about trying to connect our society to the Canadian society.”

“The event will be transferring the feelings and the pain of a whole country, these artists are imaging the current Syrian dilemma, each in their own way,” Alsalim said. “Even those who are not speaking with their art about the current situation, they had to be affected by what’s happening and they do represent a wide amount of people from this place.”

It’s a whole different world from Penticton, the furthest thing from a war-torn country, but Alsalim has demonstrated the resiliency of the human spirit for Crawford.

“I guess you just sort of cope, that’s the whole thing, when I talk to him on Skype it’s sort of ‘life goes on,’ you adjust your daily routine to accommodate that madness in which you live,” Crawford said.

Like last year’s Afghanistan exhibit, Crawford hopes to cultivate personal connections to the other side of the world, with the artists contact information and social media sites displayed next to the pieces. Not only to connect, but to add humanity in the hopes that the next violent news headline won’t be met with indifference, but concern for a friend from a world away.

“We’ve become somewhat numb to it all and I don’t think we feel the human toll and cost,” Crawford said.

While he doesn’t want to come to Canada as a refugee, Crawford is currently aiming to help Alsalim come to Canada on a work visa.

“He was absolutely invaluable. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without him. He was the guy on the ground,” Crawford said. “I can’t express enough of my gratitude for the work that he’s done.”

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