The cast bronze work of Khaled Dawwa is part of the exhibit of contemporary Syrian art. Photo by Mike Chouinard/Campbell River Mirror

Syrian art show in Campbell River has roots dating back to pen pal days

Show’s co-curator gives lecture on early inspirations and contemporary concerns

The current Syrian art exhibit at the Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) had its origins, of all places, in childhood stamp collecting.

That’s according to Paul Crawford, the curator from the Penticton Art Gallery, who is co-curating the show, Behind the Lines. On Tuesday, he gave a lecture at the gallery about the show and how it came together.

For Crawford, his interest in the wider world started when he was young, as he collected stamps and established pen pal relationships with others around the world. It left him with a sense of curiosity and wonder about these far-flung places and why some countries no longer existed, and as he got older, a feeling for geopolitics.

“You’re learning about all these things,” he says.

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Naturally, this influenced his career in art. As he outlined in his lecture, his world view was influenced by travelling, learning about little-know minorities like the Karen people fighting for their rights in Burma. More recently, he put together a show that paired contemporary artists from Afghanistan with Canadian war artist Allen Harding MacKay.

“I was looking to reach out to countries that our government was politically involved in at the time, mostly militarily,” he says.

Subsequently, Crawford became interested in art from Syria. The war there had already started, and so had the refugee crisis. Following high-profile incidents such as the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, Crawford saw the need to go beyond the headlines and show a larger world view of what is happening the embattled country.

The process of putting the show together was not easy, but he was intrigued by the Syrian works he found on the Cyrrus Gallery online.

“There’s no places for them to show their work in Syria,” he says. “It was just a way to let people know that there was this creative, vibrant community that’s still alive and thriving.”

He started communicating online with artist and co-curator Humam Alsalim, now based in Germany, and he admits he had concerns at first but these were soon allayed. The pair still faced many obstacles. At one point, Crawford had to wire $5,000 (US) to Lebanon to help Alsalim with accessing the artworks and shipping through underground shipping companies. Ultimately, the art was sent out via commercial carriers through Kuwait.

“There’s no Western companies doing any business in Syria at all,” he says. “That whole spring we had to figure out how to get the work out of Syria.” Even leading up to the opening of the first exhibition in his gallery in Penticton in 2015, he had only received some of the shipments, so the gallery worked well into the night before the opening to prepare paintings for hanging in time.

The show has had runs at galleries throughout B.C., Yukon and Alberta, and he says there is also interest in bringing it to other museums and galleries in Canada and the U.S.

Taking a cue from his days of pen pals, Crawford has made a point of including artist photos, biographical information and contact information in the show catalog.

“I wanted the public who are coming to the show to sort of look at and be able to self-identify with these individuals, and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I can reach out on Facebook or through whatever means,’” he says. “Let them know someone in a town they’ve never heard of before and probably will never come to … is paying attention to what they’re doing or or has an interest in what they’re doing.”

The beneficiaries of Crawford’s interest and efforts are gallery-goers in communities like Campbell River, who now have the privilege of getting a glimpse into a world beyond the headlines they might never see. People will also have the chance to see the second part of the collection soon. Because of the size of the collection, the CRAG will display the other half starting with a second opening on June 13, with a reception set for 5 p.m. The show is in Campbell River until July 3.