Visitors to the New Haven Museum this month will be greeted by wooden Congolese masks, hand-painted Persian tiles, black-and-white photographs and colorful multi-media sculptures, each created by a refugee who has resettled in the Elm City.
“Stories from Far and Near: Refugee Artists in New Haven,” featuring six artists hailing from the Middle East and Africa, opened in June and will be on display until Sept. 10. A conversation with the artists, moderated by journalist Jake Halpern ’97, will be held on Sept. 8 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Exhibit curator Susan Clinard said she hopes the exhibit will serve to humanize refugees in the face of heavy political debate.
“We certainly are hearing nothing but turmoil and negative rhetoric surrounding refugees and immigrants right now, and this is really something that is quite beautiful,” Clinard said.
Clinard, a professional sculptor, began volunteering with New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services when she moved to the Elm City 10 years ago. She could not afford to donate money, but realized she could use her background in the arts to help refugees who were artists in their home countries acclimate to the city’s art scene.
When Clinard received an Arts Award from The Arts Council of Greater New Haven last year, she mentioned IRIS and the refugees she was working with in her speech. The New Haven Museum later reached out to her and asked if she would be interested in curating a show.
The exhibit features each artist’s biography and photo and includes a collection of photographs of the artists in their studios and with their families.
Among the artists is Moussa Gueya, an architect from Mauritania who has lived in New Haven since 2008. Gueya said displaying his paintings in the museum gave him the opportunity to use to art to show others what he has felt as a refugee. His colorful acrylic paintings included abstract shapes and various multimedia objects.
Maher Shakir, a photographer from Iraq who has lived in New Haven for two years, said he was gratified to see people taking an interest in refugees’ art stories.
“You can have a gun but not a camera in Iraq because with a gun you can kill one person, or a few people,” he said. “With a camera you can show to the world what is going on in Iraq and how bad the government is.”
He explained that he started taking photos to share the stories of people living in Iraq and Jordan. He persevered, he said, even though police stopped him and broke his camera in both countries.
Also featured in the exhibit is Mohamad Hafez’s piece “Mama I Can’t Swim” which was featured in Silliman College last year. The piece is comprised of small paper boats, each made by a recently resettled refugee child, dangling precariously from fish hooks as they are weighted down by missile-shaped anchors.
Clinard said she was excited to be involved in the collaboration between IRIS, the New Haven Museum and the artists.
“I hope we continue to do this kind of thing in New Haven,” she said. “The resources here are really phenomenal.”