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Syrian art collection brings the conflict to Penticton Art Gallery

Penticton Art Gallery Curator Paul Crawford spent more than a year bringing Behind The Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art to the Penticton Art Gallery, which is being presented until Sept. 11, 2016.
September 01, 2016 - 4:30 PM

PENTICTON - The calamity and chaos of the Syrian war is being portrayed through an exhibit at the Penticton Art Gallery.

A collection of Syrian art, part of an exhibit running until Sept.11, has attracted national attention thanks to a recent article in the Globe and Mail.

It has also brought new perspective into the conflict for museum director and curator Paul Crawford, who began work to bring the exhibit to Penticton a year ago.

Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art features the work of Syrian artists caught up in their country’s present turmoil.

Crawford says he wanted to create a dialogue between the art gallery’s three exhibit spaces, blending the themes of Judith Foster and Kurt Hutterli with the Syrian artists’ works.

"Judith Foster is an American artist who spent her final years in Oliver where she died in 2000. Her work, The Consul, is based on an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, the story of a family of a freedom fighter in an undisclosed nation fighting against a totalitarian regime while the family faces endless paperwork and bureaucracy in an effort to leave the country for a better life,” Crawford says.

Crawford tracked down two lost pieces from the opera and put the show back together for the first time, looking for a way to pair up the exhibit.

“The whole idea of being a refugee seemed to be really relevant to the Syrian project. I finally found the right match,” he says.

"The third work is by Kurt Hutterli, a Swiss-Canadian artist, well known in Canada for his sculptures. His work The Museum of Unknown Civilizations is a light hearted look at what present day artifacts might look like to future archaeologists,” Crawford says. “He takes found objects and plays with museum practice. It’s supposed to be a museum of the future.”

He included The Museum of Unknown Civilizations to balance the serious nature of the Foster and Syrian exhibits.

Getting the work from the Syrian artist's was quite the undertaking.

Crawford reached out on Facebook to Syrian artist Humam Alsalim in Damascus who put him in contact with a number of other Syrian artists who ended up contributing to the show.

He says the artists have no place to show their art in Syria so opportunities like the Penticton exhibit are rare.

“They’ve been really happy with the response and I’ve been looking at other venues in Canada after the exhibit is done here,” Crawford says. “It’s a shame to bring it all the way over here and not go beyond our walls here."

All the work from Syrian artists was shipped out on the black market. Crawford says it was the ultimate test of faith in getting the art here when he had to send $5,000 to Alsalim to ship the pieces.

Alsalim hitchhiked across Syria — a war zone — to Lebanon where Crawford sent the money. The art was stuffed into tubes and shipped by a "black market guy" to Kuwait and it was sent to Canada.

"We got (the art) the afternoon before the exhibit was to open," he says and the staff had to pull an all-nighter to get the exhibit ready to open.

The art is also for sale, but with prices based in American dollars, the art seems to be encountering some price resistance.

“We don’t normally sell art, but they are in much more dire need than we are. I’d rather see the works here on people’s walls perpetuating their story long beyond our show here, than sending it back to Syria where it will be forgotten,” he says.

The exhibit — made up of sculpture, video, painting, print-making and photography — runs until Sept. 11.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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