Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 20th November 2015

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Kurdish art exhibition highlights art by refugee children

Exhibition is special because it shows not just horror of what is happening in Middle East but how people are coping, and managing to find hope and something positive.

Kurdish refugee child's art

A colourful drawing by a Syrian refugee child in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan

London - Syrian refugee children were given papers, pens and coloured pencils to draw pictures of their memories. They came out with bright, colourful drawings reflecting hope and dreams, despite the terror of what they had fled.

The children at the Barike refugee camp in Iraq’s Kurdistan had the chance to express their visions through drawings under the Colouring the Dream Project developed by Rebwar Saeed, dean of Fine Arts at Sulaimani University, and his students.

The drawings were displayed in a London exhibition of Kurdish art – Conflict and Hope: Art in Troubled Times, at the Ismaili Centre as part of the Nour Festival of Arts sponsored by the London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to shine a light on contemporary arts and culture from the Middle East.

“When I was a child, I was a refugee in Iran so I had the same experience as the refugee children from Syria,” Saeed recalled in an interview with The Arab Weekly. “It is like seeing your reflection in the mirror. That is what inspired me to create this historical art project.”

For Saeed, refugees are always passionate to find hope despite hardships and grief. “In these drawings, the kids express all their hopes and imagination through bright colours and the way in which they draw beautiful nature, the sun and birds,” he said.

An outpouring of grief and sorrow is totally absent from the children’s art, he noted. “This is the power of art… to colour life even in the darkest times,” Saeed said. “It gives hope for the future and is certainly a part of therapy and a great way of seeing how the children express their feelings through art. It is like a second language.”

The exhibition organised by Gulan, a UK-based charity that promotes Kurdish culture, also featured the works of Kurdish artists, including Saeed and Jamal Penjweny.

Most of the Kurdish artists portrayed grim realities and heart-wrenching works from the experiences of ordinary people but the underlying message was that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel.

“Everybody can take pictures but not everybody can make pictures speak,” Penjweny said. “I go among the real people and I interpret their dreams which they don’t care to express. They are ordinary people living in the shadow of war.”

In Penjweny’s Pink Dream series of photographs, a pink line drawing takes the reality of the black-and-white picture and gives it a new dimension by expressing a dream.

“All the stories are ones of unhappiness, but instead of listening to their sad stories I want to give these people hope,” he said. “I don’t let them be sad which is everyday life for them, but create some sparks of happiness, some hope for a different future.”

Saeed’s Colouring Memories draws on his experiences when inspiration comes from dark times.

“My art tries to help make sense of people’s feelings during troubled times. To fight the darkness, I use bright colours. In the background of the pictures are patterns that reflect arabesque and other cultural symbols. War destroys a people’s material culture but these backgrounds show that culture is still there. The beauty of the past is saved and shared,” Saeed said.

Richard Wilding, Gulan’s artistic director, displayed photographs from the Mam Al Yan camp in Aqrah, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, and from Father Nageeb’s Hotel in Erbil. The Dominican priest converted partially completed luxury flats into a vertical camp housing refugees. The fight against the Islamic State ended the economic boom and the flats’ new residents reflect the plight of nearly 2 million refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mariwan Jalal, a mixed media artist who specialises in prints and ceramic works, takes a critical view of social, political and cultural issues. He says he is concerned about what he sees as the curse of oil and his art works reflect stories from the daily lives of the Kurdish people.

Ali Raza, who endured frequent aerial bombardment during his early life, has produced a stark representation of the consequences of the Anfal campaign of the extermination of the Kurds in northern Iraq in a large work, The Story of Sand.

The exhibition also featured the work of Syrian artist and architect Tareq Razzouk, who is studying humanities at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.

“My paintings encapsulate complex human feelings through simplified lines and shapes with a limited palette of colours. Some of the works are an expression of my own personal escape from the place that was once my home and is now a world of conflict. Some of the paintings are dramatic while others allow an accommodation of multiple interpretations. I want to inspire others to contemplate those broken lives,” Razzouk said.

According to Gulan trustee Sarah Panizzo, the exhibition is special because it shows not just the horror of what is happening in the Middle East but how people are coping, and managing to find hope and something positive.

“They are showing through their art and colour, that there is hope for the future,” she said.