Syrian newcomers express themselves through art

Displayed at Daniels Spectrum on Apr. 11

Ousama Alkhatib is a Syrian newcomer who came to Canada looking for a fresh start.

He fled Syria near the end of 2013 to Lebanon. From there, he moved to Turkey before coming to Canada in July 2016.

When he arrived, one of his dreams was to be able to work with his people and create a safe space for them.

“A space where there’s no judgment, there’s no limits or rules to narrow down their ability to speak on their canvases. A space where they can gather, have fun, and create art,” Alkhatib said to a crowd gathered at the Syrian Night: Our Art, Our Stories art show on Wed., April 11 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park.

The event displayed canvases of art that were up for sale, with the proceeds going to fund the project.

Syrian newcomers participating in weekly art classes as part of the art project (Courtesy of Donna Tranquada)

Every week, newcomers would gather and take free classes on painting and creating art. Each was able to select a few paintings they had done to be sold at the exhibition.

The project targeted newcomers age 19 to 29. In the future, they hope to have children and seniors participate as well.

Alkhatib co-founded the project.

A newcomer creates a painting during an art class for the art project. (Courtesy of Donna Tranquada)

“For me, art is an international language where you don’t need translation to see what people are saying on their canvases,” he said. “It means a lot for people who have trauma that they can express themselves and speak on their canvases. So that’s why I’m interested in creating these safe spaces where people can express themselves and speak freely.”

The project is a joined fund between Artheart in Regent Park and Fairlawn Avenue United Church.

“We will reach out to any organization who would like to fund us,” Alkhatib said.

Alkhatib also had many connections in the newcomer community that made it easier to get the word out about the project.

Musa Talluzi, 25, is one of the newcomers whose art is displayed at the art show.

One of the newcomers was Musa Talluzi.

Despite having never done art in his life, Talluzi picked up the skills pretty easily. With the help of the volunteers, he learned the basics of painting and from there, began creating his own art.

The 25-year-old came to Canada three years ago, starting out in Winnipeg. He was privately sponsored through the Syrian Refugee Program, which helped students get to Canada to get their post-secondary education. The Settlement Program helped Talluzi get his acceptance to a university in Winnipeg where he studied for a year before transferring to Toronto.

Now, Talluzi is studying computer science at University of Toronto.

Talluzi chose three of his artworks to display. The painting, titled Dreamless Haze, portrays the functionality of the brain and represented all the education and studying that he was doing.

His other painting, Infinite Dimensions, showcases the techniques he has learned.

With his other painting, Dawn of Colours, he was able to experiment to see what he could do with the colours.

“While painting, it’s really interesting how you can go into this state of flow. You have at least two hours where you don’t have to think about anything else,” he said. “I’m a full-time student and most of the time is spent studying so this is something to do to relax and de-stress.”

It was a big turnout at the event with many people taking photos and enjoying all of the artwork.

“Most of us didn’t have art experiences before, and the fact that we can build something like that is really inspiring,” Talluzi said.

Ghina Abdulwahed, 19, had four paintings displayed at the art show.

19-year old Ghina Abdulwahed is another newcomer who has only been in Canada for six months. She came from Damascus, Syria and also lived in Cairo, Egypt for five years.

Growing up, Abdulwahed always loved art. “I always liked to draw mandalas,” she said. “I always knew how to paint but they teach different things in the classes too.”

She had four paintings on display at the art show titled Space, Strong Woman, Untitled, and Infinity.

As for the process of creating the paintings, Abdulwahed said she gets ideas in her head and draws them out before painting them.

Meanwhile, 29-year old newcomer Reem Alhaj lived in Beirut, Lebanon before coming to Canada in late 2014.

She only joined the project four weeks before the workshop ended but she was able to work on two pieces that were displayed.

One of her two paintings titled Syria’s Independence, portrayed the Syrian revolution flag.

The other painting titled Melancholic Happiness featured a portrait of a woman.

Reem Alhaj, 29, joined the project four weeks before it ended and had two paintings displayed

As a child, Alhaj would do drawings but fell out of it when she grew older.

“This workshop was more of an awakening of that child that stopped doing that,” she said. “It wasn’t that I felt the need to draw or anything of that sort. It was more of an expression.”

Alhaj perceives art in two ways, public art and personal art. She explained that public art makes people feel something when they see it. It represents something for them. Personal art, on the other hand, is personal to the artist. Some people may like it and some may hate it.

“I’m not sure if these categories are part of what people were taught. It’s just how I perceive art,” she said.

She leans more towards public art.

“I refuse to call myself an artist because it’s a big responsibility and you need to put so much thought into what you’re doing, not just thinking because you’re portraying some type of feeling therefore it’s a piece of art,” she said. “It’s not my take on it. So I would say I practice painting but I wouldn’t call myself an artist.”

Meanwhile, Ousama Alkhatib contributed three of his paintings to the art show as well. One titled Barda, one titled Wahj, and one titled Freedom.

The Freedom piece means a lot to Alkhatib. “It’s very close to my heart because we paid a lot to get our freedom,” he said.

The piece Barda looks like a river with trees is based on Alkadid’s hometown of Damacus where there was a wide river and huge trees.

His third piece is a display of techniques that he tried which combined both orange and red colours and looked like a flame so he named it Wahj, which means ‘flame’ in Arabic.

As one of the leaders for the project, Alkhatib explained why it was so important for newcomers to have this opportunity to express themselves through art.

“Newcomers, especially refugees, came with traumatizing experiences,” he said. “So the art is very important, it’s a way for them to express themselves.”

Alkhatib is looking ahead to expand and continue this exhibition for years to come.