Ottawa galleries team up and create exhibitions about Syrian refugee crisis

Several Ottawa galleries are teaming up to put on exhibitions relating to the current Syrian refugee crisis and conflicts around the globe.

Gallery 101 is curating There’s Room, an exhibition highlighting the plight of refugees. There’s Room is presented in collaboration with the Enriched Bread Artists’ Left Behind and the Research in Art (RIA) Artist Project Room exhibition, War, Recycled.

Petra Halkes, the curator for There’s Room, says the idea for the exhibit came to her from Zivana Kostic, a Serbian artist who told her about her experiences with refugees, and said she wanted to make art about their plight and show it in Ottawa.

Halkes says she thought an exhibition about the refugee crisis would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the works of local artists and the themes of displacement and building a new life, and spread compassion and awareness about the refugee situation.

“A lot of the artists want to do what artists do best – which is make people aware of the situation. They can show things that maybe touch people just a little bit more deeply, or differently –- make them think about things a little more differently than what they hear about in the press,” she adds.

She says the variety of perspectives in the gallery – from artists who have just come to Canada, to those who’ve never left the country – was a deliberate choice to highlight the theme of integration and put a mix of different styles together. Halkes says she hopes this integration between new and old Canadians will be reflected in the Ottawa community as refugees continue to arrive.

Michael Davidge, one of There’s Room’s artists, will have a text-based installation called Letters to Juliet, which quotes lines from the Elvis Costello song, “Who Do You Think You Are?” He says the exhibition was important to him because it offered a way to respond to the refugee crisis. 

“We see these horrible images of the suffering of people – what they’re going through – on a nightly basis when we watch the news, and the scale of it seems so big that it feels hard for one person to do anything about it. And the work that I made for the show, is essentially about that feeling.”

There’s Room will also feature several events, including a roundtable discussion about national borders. Organizations that help refugees will also be sharing information.

Halkes also contacted fellow artists and curators Mana Rouholamini and Svetlana Swinimer and proposed that they have three exhibitions with a variety of artists that tackled inter-related concepts like war, leaving things behind, and migrating.

All three women agree that the proximity of the different exhibitions is one of the reason’s the collaboration is a good idea. Gallery 101, on Young Street, is within walking distance of both the Enriched Bread Artists’ gallery, on Gladstone Street, and the RIA Artist Project Room, which is nearby in Halkes’s basement, allowing for visitors to view all three galleries at once if they choose to. 

Rouholamini, whose pieces will be on display in the RIA Artist Project Room for War, Recycled, says her pieces were inspired by wars. 

“It’s gonna be a wall filled with drawings. The drawings are black and white. A bunch are of feet,” she says. “I had seen a photograph of a body at the side of the road where all the body was covered and the foot was not covered, so I’d done 10 or 12 drawings on feet, and some of them are more general drawings inspired by war.”

Rouholamini says the Canadian public’s current awareness of global conflicts and the refugee crisis has made her work more relevant than it has been in the past.

“There is this openness now, and I think it’s because we’re being touched directly by the people who are going to come because of the situation in Syria,” she says. 

Swinimer says she proposed the idea for Left Behind to Halkes when she suggested collaborating. 

“All of us left something behind and sometimes it’s painful to think about them, sometimes you’re happy you left something behind, she says, adding that she wanted to show visitors that migrating was often a traumatic experience, and that migrants deserved more tolerance and love.

Artists in her exhibition tackled different aspects of leaving things behind, like the people left behind, and leaving behind not only the physical, but also leaving behind one’s language and culture.

She also says that the world needs to unite to solve the crises’ all over the globe. 

“I strongly believe the world is one, and we have, in any nationality, good and bad people. We are friends with good. We need to understand that nobody wants war, and we need to stop wars. All of them. All at once. We have to think environmental. We have to think about how to save humanity in general,” she adds.