Ahmad AlKarkhi knows a lot about how a picture can change. In the past six months his paintings, as well as his worldview, have altered dramatically.
AlKarkhi, 40, is a refugee from Baghdad. When civil war broke out in Iraq, he fled with his wife and two sons across the desert to neighboring Syria. There he waited, allowed only a three-month visa of residency, fearful it would be rejected the next time he reapplied.
“I was really caught, because if I returned to Iraq, I could face the militias again that caused the civil war and killed people,” he says through a translator. “The militias that made trouble for me in Iraq were supported by Iran. They focused on the intellectuals and artists.”
The United Nations was a firsthand witness to this flight. It recognized the more than 2 million refugees and their need for a new permanent life. The U.N. also recognized AlKarkhi's talent — his paintings are in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus, and he's received both Arab and European recognition in Syria — and nominated him as a candidate to receive permanent residency. AlKarkhi thought he would find a new life in another Arab nation where he better understood the language and life patterns. Instead, the State Department nominated him for residency in the United States. He was approved, and arrived six months ago in the suburbs of Riverdale, Md.
He knew nothing about America. “The picture I had gotten of the United States through Iraqi media was that it was a country of crime and of criminals,” he says, laughing. His picture is completely different now. He's become the United States' biggest spokesman to his Iraqi friends.
“The civil war pushed me to leave Iraq and to exert more effort as an artist,” says AlKarkhi. “My life became much more pressured and focused by having to leave. … My paintings tell the story of peace and war. Some of my paintings go back to talk about the thoughts about the past. Some of my paintings talk about the civil war and the flight.”
AlKarkhi is one of 20 Iraqi refugee artists on display at Gallery5's Lucent Phoenix Resource Center in a show called “Artists in Exile: Forgotten Iraqi Refugees in Syria.” All the artists are professionally trained, and are mostly from Iraq, but now displaced. Many of the fleeing artists maintained contact with each other, forming loose collectives when they arrived in Syria. Most strove to continue creating despite their hardships. Then through a nonprofit, the New York-based Common Humanity — which promotes friendship between the United States and the Middle East — change started to happen.
“Rather than painting pictures of refugee life, they bring hope to themselves through remembering the great beauty that artists can do,” says Mel Lehman, Common Humanity's director. “Why talk about my misery when I can talk about my beauty?”
When looking at the paintings on display, a viewer will be drawn in by familiar methods taught through art schools. The study of the great masters and their techniques influences the world over. Expression through art is a personal pursuit that's universal.
“The fact that I had to leave Iraq and visit other countries and experience other cultures has made me a much broader, more sensitive person,” AlKarkhi says of his new life. “One can think of becoming a world artist in the future. I think of this … it is an inspiration.”
“Artists in Exile” runs through March 25 in the Lucent Phoenix Resource Center downstairs at Gallery5, 220 W. Marshall St. More info at www.gallery5arts.org.