Refugee Art Inspires, And Shakes You Up

Allan Appel Photo Ridha Ali Ahmed travels light.

His suitcase contains only an always-sharp pencil for the endless forms to be filled out, a demure but sturdy heart locket full of love, and a long-stemmed rose. The valise is only about two by three inches, is open to the air on both sides, and has a black handle almost too tiny to see or even grasp.

Yet this “Refugee Suitcase,” and creative work like it, have enabled its creator — a member of the persecuted Turkmen minority in Iraq — to travel very far, eventually settle in New Haven, become a U.S. citizen, and, most importantly, stay sane through the healing powers of art.

Ahmed is one of six inspiring artists whose works of sculpture, photography, oil painting, ceramics, and mixed media are on display in “Stories From Near and Far: Refugee Artists In New Haven,” the new show tJune 8 at the New Haven Museum. It runs through Sept. 10.

Museum photo Darius Rose fled his native Iran due the severe restrictions of the Islamic Republic. Johnny Mikki Bombenza spent nine years in Moscow, having fled there after personal death threats and the deaths of friends in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photographer Maher Shakir received multiple death threats from al-Qaeda for having worked for the United States during the Iraq war. Mauritanian-born Moussa Gueye was imprisoned for speaking out against discrimination in his country, and fled for Senegal before coming to New Haven, via Iowa.

Museum photo And Wurood Mahmood fled with her family from her native Baghdad, via Jordan, to New Haven. As she wrote in her artist’s statement, she wants through her work to “change the harmful and fear-mongering narratives about refugees.”

This show does that and a lot more. The formal opening, to be attended by the artists, will be on July 8. That’s the day following the end of Ramadan; the long delay until an opening reception is so that Ramadan observers can attend, said Susan Clinard, the show’s curator.

On June 20, World Refugee Day, the museum will be free for all, and that too would be a good time to attend. Complementary activities on that day also include a performance by IRIS refugee clients who are musicians and a 6:30 p.m. screening of the documentary After Spring at the Whitney Humanities Center, also sponsored by IRIS>

The art on offer in the show stands on its own powerful feet as art, yet the artists’ biographies are essential. Their accomplishments in their countries of origin — architect, assistant to the nation’s most notable artists, graduates of academies — are important context. Having saved their lives through flight, most now are working low-wage or minimum-wage jobs, in the midst of a great struggle to raise families.

And yet the art comes, sometimes after silences or periods of inactivity, but it asserts itself as a stable source of energy. It anchors the artists, helping them make the rapid transitions from one culture and language to the next. Or, as Rose said, it is just an expression of pure joy at being alive.

Museum photo. That latter sentiment is one we all too often take for granted, at our peril, in the relative safety and security of our lives in New Haven; for me, that was one of the exhibition’s most important take-aways.

From these stories and the art that emerges from them you get the feeling, with maybe a little help from the inspiration panels that adorn the walls between the art works, that art is a necessity — if not on the level of a visa or passport, or the right documents, then still very much as a life preserver.

The artists are all friends or colleagues of curator and award-winning sculptor Susan Clinard, a long-time volunteer with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), who assembled the work.

The project’s origins date back to when she arrived in New Haven from Chicago in 2007. An artist with a social work background, Clinard said she always found inspiration in the stories of refugees but had never worked with any. On the way to the Elm City she happened to hear a National Public Radio interview with IRIS Executive Director Chris George, and Clinard determined to involve herself with that organization.

“I need to get to know them,” she said during an interview before the exhibition’s opening.

Since Clinard did not have cash to contribute, her involvement took the form of working with some of the refugees who happened to be artists. The first was Johnny Mikki Bombenza.

“I met Johnny in 2007. I didn’t have money to give, but I had something. Johnny would come to my studio, I’d give him clay, and fire [his clay masks] for him,” she said.

She helped him with some sales, and through him, she got to know four of the other artists in the show.

New Haven Museum Executive Director Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky came to know Clinard when the artist, having been given an Arts Council Award last year, thanked IRIS and detailed her work there in remarks.

The plan for curating an exhibition on New Haven refugee artists’ work was hatched then, Clinard said. Given that the exhibit would be held in the New Haven Museum, Tockarshewsky was adamant that the history — that is, the stories of the artists’ lives and the roles of art in them — be a part of the experience.

“We have so much to learn from people from whom so much is taken away, and still they have to give [and create as artists]. I find it inspiring,” Clinard said.

In addition to the art and thumbnail biographies of the artists and their experiences of threat, flight, exile, and then settlement in New Haven, Clinard has provided one vitrine in the second of the exhibition’s two rooms that displays travel papers and snapshots of the artists with their families, in their homes, or at exhibitions they had in Iran or Iraq.

The idea is to show them for who they are, not as people on the margins or outsiders, but as individuals whose lives were ripped apart by war or tyranny, and who are now starting over again in the Elm City with us.

“Art is cathartic and the making of it can keep the spirit from crumbling,” Clinard said.

Bombenza’s clay masks are especially powerful in that regard, as is his invitation to speak to them and to listen to what they have to say back.

“In the end this is not refugee art but art by refugees. It just so happens this exhibition has come about when there’s so much rhetoric about walls and separation. This is a visual reminder of our common humanity,” she added.

“Stories from Near and Far” runs at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., until Sept. 10. The exhibition will have a closing reception on Sept. 8, during which the artists will also participate in a panel discussion about their work.

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