NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As an unusual exhibit at Bethel College’s Regier Art Gallery winds up this week, there will be special speakers and events on campus in connection with it.
Building Bridges consists of a total of 81 paintings by 15 professional Iraqi artists and nine Palestinian art students. Twenty-nine of the paintings have been in the Bethel gallery, located inside Luyken Fine Arts Center, throughout this month.
The other paintings are at Wichita State University’s Clayton Staples Gallery and SHIFTSPACE Gallery.
People of Faith for Peace, a group of Wichita clergy and laypeople, initiated the Building Bridges exhibit in October 2015, and organized a coalition of Muslim, interfaith and university partners, called Wichita Common Humanity, to support it.
Jan Swartzendruber of Newton has been serving as the coordinator for Wichita Common Humanity. Building Bridges, she says, was planned with two goals: to reduce tension and form friendships between Wichita-area Muslims and non-Muslims; and to sell the paintings by silent auction to benefit the artists.
All were refugees from their country of origin, some of them passing through Syria before being driven out of that country by the ongoing civil war. All have now re-settled in Canada, Europe or the United States.
Mel Lehman, director of Common Humanity in New York City, first saw work by the artists featured in Building Bridges in 2008 while on a visit to Damascus, Syria. He later began arranging to buy paintings and then set up exhibits at which viewers could purchase the art. Common Humanity returns 80 percent of sales to the artists.
Lehman will be on the Bethel campus this week, talking about the genesis and work of Common Humanity.
Sept. 21, he will speak at 9:30 a.m. to Life Enrichment, and Sept. 23 in convocation at 11 a.m., both times in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center. These events are free and open to the public.
Building Bridges closes Sept. 23 with a reception from 6-8 p.m. outside the Regier Gallery, with Lehman present. The silent auction closes at 7 p.m. with successful bidders (who must be present) announced at that time. There will also be a collection of art reproductions, donated by Shafiq Hasan of Newton, for sale that evening with proceeds to benefit Common Humanity and the artists.
Lehman founded Common Humanity in 2009. A former humanitarian worker in the Middle East, he is also a blogger, speaker and peacemaker. Lehman has worked with a number of groups to stage art exhibitions similar to Building Bridges.
When Building Bridges closes next week in Wichita, special guest Ahmed Fadaam will also travel to Bethel College.
He speaks to the First-Year Seminar groups Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. in the Administration Building chapel. Visitors are welcome to sit in.
Like the 15 professional artists represented in Building Bridges, Fadaam earned his academic credentials at the Academy of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. He is now on the faculty at Elon (North Carolina) University, where he teaches courses on the history, culture and art of Iraq, as well as on the Middle East, the Arab Spring, and 3-D animation.
Lehman’s hope for Building Bridges is that the art will “redress an imbalance in knowledge and correct the media’s negative bias toward the Middle East.”
In the case of the Kansas shows, he says, “You’re lucky to have a highly qualified Iraqi artist, war correspondent, and professor [in Ahmed Fadaam] to communicate a refugee’s experience in words and images.
“There’s more to the people of the Middle East than just the simplistic images of terrorists we see on television.”
Ultimately, he says, “we need to begin a wisdom dialogue for peace, with the vast majority of the people in the Middle East who wish for peace just like we do. We urge the public to come with an open mind, and view the really remarkably beautiful images these paintings offer, that we’re proud to present here.”