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Exhibition And Auction Showcase 'Special' Refugee Art

Two Wichita galleries are holding auctions this week featuring artwork from 16 Iraqi and 9 Palestinian artists.

The pieces have been on display around the city in an exhibition titled “Building Bridges,” whose goal is to showcase the common humanity between the Middle Eastern artists and their American audience. KMUW’s Nadya Faulx spoke to some of the people involved with Building Bridges and has more.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
The Clayton Staples Gallery is one of four venues that have shown the rotating Building Bridges exhibit.

The stark white walls of the Clayton Staples Gallery at Wichita State University are lined with abstract paintings and portraits in rich, vivid hues.

The 20 or so paintings here are all the work of Middle Eastern artists living in exile in one form or another—most of them refugees who fled Iraq, some of them Palestinians living in Gaza.

“The artists there, they do special art, because they have special life," says Iraqi artist Ahmed Alkarkhi, whose work is featured in the exhibition.

Credit Courtesy Wichita Common Humanity
Ahmed Alkarkhi.

Alkarkhi lives in Washington, D.C.; he resettled in the U.S. after fleeing the situation in Iraq and spending a few years in Syria. He says refugee artists have a unique story--and their art has a unique message.

[Listen to a 2010 NPR interview with Ahmed.]

The exhibition brought 80 paintings to four venues in Wichita and Newton. Most of the proceeds from the auctions will go back to the artists.

The show was organized by Wichita Common Humanity, a collaboration of different religious and interfaith groups.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Three of the paintings on display and for auction at the Clayton Staples Gallery.

Lisa Rundstrom, director of WSU’s Clayton Staples and SHIFTSPACE galleries, was instrumental in bringing the Building Bridges exhibition to Wichita. She and a member of the national Common Humanity group visited the country of Jordan—which borders both Iraq and Syria--to meet with refugee artists living there.

“You knew the stress and existence of day to day was extremely high," she says.

She says the strong use of color in many of the paintings seems to contradict the situation the artists have been through.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
One of the exhibition's darker works contrasts artist Nidaa Risan's vibrant "Iraq Sunrise."

"Not to say that there is not sadness in the work, but generally you’re seeing things that are very vibrant," she says. "And I think that’s very hopeful. To me it shows that kind of spirited nature that we possess as humans, we share that. And I think there’s a time when art needs to provide that for people.”

That vibrance is one of the first things you might notice about artist Nidaa Risan’s paintings. Her work reflects her optimistic personality.

“[I] always turn my back to the sad memories," she says. "I’m always looking for the bright side.”

Nidaa and her husband, also a featured artist in the exhibition, live in Toronto. They both attended the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts. Their family fled Iraq in 2006 and spent about 5 years in Syria before resettling in Canada.

Credit Courtesy Wichita Common Humanity
Nidaa Risan.

The decision to leave Iraq was difficult. Nidaa says she had a lot to give up: a nice home, and a job that she loved, working for Iraq’s Ministry of Culture.

“I like[d] living all my day between the paintings and sculptures, and artists," she says. "It was like my dreamland.”

Nidaa says Iraq has seen a lot of war—but she wants her audiences to know that it’s also a country rich in civilization and history.

“I always like trying to give this image about the city that I love. It's my passion," she says. "I like to see my city that's very colorful, full of happiness, full of peace. I always draw the city I used to live in as the city of hope and peace.”

That’s the message she wants to send to those who see—and perhaps take home—her vibrant artwork.

WSU’s Clayton Staples Gallery will have a closing reception at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, with a silent auction ending at 8 p.m. The SHIFTSPACE gallery’s closing reception and auction is Friday at 6 p.m.


Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.