Iraqis and Americans: reconciliation through art

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“Mideast Madonna” by James Allen

For the past month, raw, honest artwork by Iraqis and Americans have been presented together on the walls of Tarnish & Gold Gallery in Minneapolis. According the Kathy McKay, Director of the Iraqi/American Reconciliation Project, the exhibition was created by her non-profit to stimulate dialogue around the war in Iraq.

The Iraqi/American Reconciliation Project came together to facilitate connections betweens Iraqis and Midwesterners, connections that break down the stereotypes we’re fed through the media. The primary image Americans are presented with are suicide bombers, while the primary image Iraqis get are of people in military uniforms with guns coming to their front door.

For some years the IARP – created by a bunch of self described peace-niks in their 50s and 60s – has been showing and selling traditional Iraqi art in the United States. But McKay says it wasn’t until some new young blood got involved in the organization that the idea was hatched to bring Iraqi and American artists together in an exhibition about the war.

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“Airport Village Diptych” by Aaron McLeaod

One of those relative “young bloods” is curator Tricia Khutoretsky, who sifted through submissions from artists all over the country wanting to lend their voice to the conversation.

I was expecting a broader range of artwork about conflict in general, but people were very focused on the Iraq war. I thought most people would be numb to it by now, but the work we got was very charged and very specific. The artists weren’t all necessarily involved directly in the war, but as Americans they wanted to say something about it.

Images range from paintings of destroyed mosques and war-inspired fashion to a woman holding a child, overshadowed by an approaching helicopter.

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“Mosque” by Matthew Lawler

Khutoretsky says she was interested to see how the work by Americans differed from those pieces submitted by artists in Iraq. On the whole, Khutoretsky said, the Iraqi artists dealt much more in abstraction, while the American works tended to be “in your face.”

Perhaps the Iraqis are so close to the war and its atrocities, that abstraction is more palatable, while Americans are trying to make the war more real for themselves and their audiences, and so they focus on the harshest images?

One artist, Fatin-Al-Jumail, who came to the United States for the opening of the exhibition, painted a piece titled “Iraqi women” which at first glance appears to be an assemblage of colorful dots and lines. During a panel discussion she revealed that for her, the dots represent women, and the lines, fencing. It is only where the women are clustered densely together -supporting one another – that they can break through the binds that oppress them.

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“Iraqi Women” by Fatin Al Jumail

The exhibition, titled “The Art of Conflict,”

got a bit of a rocky start when it opened with out the work of its Iraqi participants, due to visa and passport issues which delayed their arrival. But a few days later their work was up, and the show had a four-week run, featuring panel discussions with the artists and movie screenings on related topics. By the end of the week the exhibition’s website will have a gallery of images not just from the show, but from those artists who submitted work, but didn’t make the final cut. “They all had something they wanted to say,” said Khutoretsky, “and we want to honor that.”

Once the exhibition is over (it closes tomorrow) the American art will be returned to its owners, but the Iraqi/American Reconciliation Project is looking for other places to show the work by the Iraqi artists, to keep the dialogue moving forward.