Shortly after the Orontes Guitar Quartet, a group of musicians from Syria, performed at the Tidemark Theatre on May 28, the four young men visited the Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) across the street.
Nazir Salameh, one of the guitarists, was astonished when he entered the gallery, which is currently hosting a travelling exhibition called Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art. He instantly recognized the artwork on display.
“I’m so surprised,” Salameh said. “I came to Campbell River and I (didn’t) know anyone here, and suddenly we go the gallery, and I found them.”
Some of them are friends from Syria, and at least one taught in the fine arts faculty at the University of Damascus, where Salameh met his wife. (He was studying at the nearby Higher Institute of Music at the time.)
Salameh phoned her from the CRAG (they now live in Victoria) and gave her a tour of the gallery via Whatsapp video call, excitedly showing her the paintings, sculptures and other artworks one by one.
“She was surprised as much as me,” he said.
Salameh told me that seeing those Syrian artists featured in an exhibit on the other side of the world made him feel “so proud, and so happy for them.”
Salameh has other reasons to be proud, as do his bandmates. All of them are virtuoso guitarists, as displayed during their performance in Campbell River (a benefit for the Immigrant Welcome Centre), which featured pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
The four musicians also survived life inside a country ravaged by war. Salameh sustained an injury to his right arm during shelling in Damascus at one point, as he waited for his bandmates to arrive for a rehearsal. At the time, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to play guitar again.
The band relocated to Lebanon before gaining safe haven in Canada through the Artist Protection Fund. The New York-based program sponsored their one-year fellowship at the University of Victoria.
The magic of art and music is the ability to transport people into another world. It’s something universal among humankind, this desire to share a vision, to make people see what you see. I often wonder how our lives would change if more of the space dedicated to advertising in our lives was instead occupied by artwork.
CRAG contemporary arts curator Jenelle Pasiechnik has spoken about how the current exhibit reveals the humanity of the people of Syria. Of the 20 artists featured in Behind the Lines, most of them are refugees.
There’s an astonishing level of hostility expressed on local Facebook forums against refugees and migrants, particularly Muslim people. According to the Globe and Mail, members of the Orontes Quartet were unable to enter the United States because of the travel ban ordered in 2017 by Donald Trump affecting several countries, most of them predominately Muslim, including Syria. The presence of these Syrian artists in Canada is truly America’s loss and our gain.
Artwork doesn’t have the power of bullets, mortar shells or the walls of international borders, but it does have the power to evoke human feeling, which can transform the world. I encourage people to visit the CRAG and to bring someone who wouldn’t otherwise go. And take a moment on June 20, World Refugee Day, to consider ways to stand in solidarity with the millions of Syrians and other people forced from their homes.