Formative Experiences

Formative Experiences

At the end of a short passageway in the New Haven Museum, a school of origami boats hangs by thin strings at varying heights, as if suspended in animation. Each boat, symbolizing Syrian refugees fleeing for Europe, is pierced by a fishing hook—a real one, and very sharp. Below each vessel is “a heavy weight… shaped like a missile falling from the sky… pulling the boats down,” as the artist, Mohamad Hafez, puts it. The piece, he continues, is meant to “ a fault in our global consciousness.”

It’s called Mama I Don’t Know How to Swim, and the shadows of the boats represent the thousands of refugees who’ve died attempting to flee Syria by water between 2014 and 2016. Taking the emotionality even further, the paper boats used in the installation were folded by Syrian refugee children now living in New Haven.

Hafez himself is not a refugee, but the other six artists whose work is display in Stories From Far and Near: Refugee Artists in New Haven are, with origins ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq and Mauritania. “The work is powerful but the stories clearly have an equal weight to them,” artist and Stories curator Susan Clinard says. In order to collect pieces for the show, she worked hand in hand with Hafez and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), searching for local refugee artists open to sharing their work.

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The types of artwork in the gallery vary widely, from black and white photography to earthy clay masks, found-object collages, glazed tiles and foam and wooden sculptures. In a glass display case in the center of the second room, you can find images and personal relics of the artists in their home countries. Painter/sculptor Dariush Rose is pictured working in his home studio with his wife; Congolese sculptor Johnny Mikiki Bombenza’s diploma from his native country’s Beaux Arts School is enclosed. The contents serve as a reminder that the artists were once established in their homeland, both personally and professionally, and would’ve stayed if it had been safe to do so.

The artists were eager to share not just their work but also their stories. Maher Shakir’s photos occupy the same room as the refugees’ relics, recounting powerful tales through simple images. In one black and white photograph a young boy sits alone in a doorway, covering his ears with his hands with a perplexed look on his face. Shakir explained to Clinard that this image is representative of the post-traumatic stress disorder that affects refugee children exposed to deafening warfare in their native countries. The photographs on display in Far and Near are only a tiny sample of Shakir’s printed work, but most of the rest was abandoned when he was forced to flee Iraq.

After relocating to New Haven, the majority of the artists adopted minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. “There’s an Uber driver” among the artists, Clinard says. “One gentleman was an architect in his country and is now a prep cook, and has delivered pizzas. Another gentleman worked at Edible Arrangements. You name it, it runs the gamut.” Clinard, who’s established personal relationships with many of the artists, remembers pulling up to a Dunkin’ Donuts and seeing sculptor Bombenza in a uniform sweeping up cigarette butts. Bombenza is the man behind the richly expressive clay masks in Stories, and was previously a full-time artist and performer in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The humility is profound,” Clinard says. “I’d like to see some of us in this country do the same thing.”

Wurood Mahmood is a female Iraqi artist whose evocative paintings range from traditional portraiture, to more abstract, emotionally charged works—an evolution which is apparent in Stories. An early painting of hers features a traditionally dressed Iraqi man gazing stoically at the viewer, using muted colors. In juxtaposition, a more recent, more emotionally charged painting depicts angry orange flames burning abstracted houses, while small, desperate hands reach up from the flames towards the top of the canvas.

In the context of past trauma, sharing can be very difficult, so Clinard was careful when asking artists to open up about their experiences. For some of the refugees, “I felt like it was the first time they were ever given a quiet open space to really try and explain it,” she says. The therapeutic and healing element of what it means to hone in on an emotion or concept and “just make,” as Clinard puts it, is a common thread between the otherwise disparate pieces on display.

Like a phoenix rising from ashes, something beautiful is sometimes created from destruction. “The true resilience of these incredible individuals is just awe-inspiring. We need to see this, we need to be aware of those who struggle and who are finding that resiliency and that passion” to keep creating, Clinard says. Stories From Far and Near is about refugee art, but more than that, it’s about refugee artists, and their extraordinary spirit.

Stories from Far and Near: Refugee Artists in New Haven

New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm and first Sundays 1-4pm through Sept 10
(203) 562-4183…

Written and photographed by Emerson Smith.

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