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Exhibit seeks to build bridges between Western, Middle Eastern worlds

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The Regier Art Gallery at Bethel College is hosting an exhibit unlike any seen there in recent memory, if ever.

“Building Bridges” consists of 29 paintings – some oil on paper under glass, mostly oil on canvas – by refugee artists from Iraq and Palestine.

The art is for sale by silent auction, with the proceeds to benefit the artists, all of whom now live in Canada, Europe or the United States.

Thumbnails of all 29 paintings, with their minimum bids, are online at

The exhibit will be at Bethel through Sept. 23 as part of a wider effort called Building Bridges that includes Wichita and involves a number of groups and organizations. Building Bridges also received a grant from the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA.

Jan Swartzendruber of Wichita-based People of Faith for Peace, one of the cooperating groups, has been doing publicity for the broader Building Bridges.

In a press release, she writes, “By offering Kansans a unique opportunity to appreciate and purchase works by these artists, Building Bridges hopes to challenge stereotypes about Muslim and Arab worlds, convey a human experience and balance the negative portrayal of Middle Eastern refugees by U.S. politicians and news media.”

“Jan contacted the Bethel art department last fall, looking for partners,” says Rachel Epp Buller, associate professor of visual art and design and Regier Gallery coordinator. “It seemed like a project in line with Bethel’s mission of building community – and interfaith community.”

Building Bridges is an initiative of Common Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.

Mel Lehman, a member of Manhattan (New York) Mennonite Fellowship, founded Common Humanity in 2009 and is its director. He started out organizing medical delegations to Damascus in which North American doctors shared their medical expertise with Syrian colleagues.

After three delegations, however, the war in Syria stopped the exchanges. In the meantime, Lehman, through contacts made during his two decades working with the National Council of Churches, met a group of Iraqi refugee artists who had fled to Damascus.

Common Humanity began buying their paintings and bringing them back to New York for exhibition and sale to benefit the artists. Lehman is now putting his efforts into “taking the show on the road.” Building Bridges was at Bluffton (Ohio) University in late April and early May of 2015, and this past May, Raleigh (North Carolina) Mennonite Church sponsored an exhibit of the paintings.

For the Wichita-North Newton version of Building Bridges, says Epp Buller, “Lisa Rundstrom drove to New York and picked up about 80 paintings. She and I went through them to make sure there was a range of styles [for each venue] and that when there were several paintings by one artist, we spread those out.”

Rundstrom is the director of Wichita State University’s SHIFTSPACE Gallery, where some of the paintings will be on display Sept. 14-30. The rest are hanging in either the Regier Gallery or the Clayton Staples Gallery in the McKnight Art Center at WSU (through Sept. 30).

The silent auction is open for bids during gallery hours – at Bethel, those are weekdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays 2-4 p.m. The exhibit closes the evening of Sept. 23 with a reception at which Mel Lehman will be present. Final bids must be made by 7 p.m. that day. Most paintings have a minimum bid.

Another special aspect of the closing reception will be a collection of Middle Eastern art reproductions donated by Shafiq Hasan of Newton, to be sold that evening with the funds also going to the Building Bridges artists.

There are a number of special activities taking place in conjunction with Building Bridges at Bethel College.

Epp Buller’s art classes will be visiting the exhibit to observe and write about the paintings. First-Year Seminar groups (first-time freshmen) will be doing the same, since all of them are reading Outcasts United, about a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees.

At least two other professors plan to have their classes engage with the exhibit as well.

Lehman will talk about Common Humanity and its mission at Bethel’s Life Enrichment Sept. 21 and in convocation Sept. 23. The next week, Dr. Ahmed Fadaam will be a guest at Bethel.

Fadaam is associate professor of communications at Elon (North Carolina) University. He created the broadcast series Ahmed’s Diary – Life in an Occupied City, produced by American Public Media, and served as a foreign correspondent for Arabic, French, British and American news services in post-2003 Iraq. He was trained in sculpture and taught at the Academy of Fine Arts at Baghdad University, where many of the Iraqi painters included in the Building Bridges exhibition also studied.

Fadaam is giving a public lecture Sept. 28 in the Staples Gallery, right before the closing reception and final bids for the Building Bridges exhibit there. He will visit Bethel earlier that day to speak to First-Year Seminar students.

The Building Bridges exhibit, Epp Buller says, should make viewers reconsider their ideas about “Middle Eastern” art.

“We might have a preconception of what art from a certain place might look like,” she says. “This is a group of artists from roughly the same age group, mostly from Iraq, and yet there is a wide range of art here, from realistic to abstract.”

Building Bridges is open through Sept. 23. The closing reception, to which the public is invited, will Sept. 23, 6-8 p.m., at the gallery, which is located inside Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus. Silent auction bids may be made at any time during regular gallery hours, up until 7 p.m. Sept. 23. You must be present to purchase.

Regular gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 2-4 p.m. There is no admission charge.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2016–17 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.