Thursday, April 10, 2003

Exhibition puts 'human face' on Arab artists

By Todd Dvorak
The Associated Press

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Some paintings capture the simple beauty in a complex and chaotic land: a patio and garden in splashes of vivid color, or a lone cactus in shades of grays and purple.

Other images are more stark. A watercolor done by a boy shows a tank with its gun barrel trained on four men prone on the ground. Another, using bold colors, depicts the muted shapes of men with ladders for legs - metaphors for a people rising in defiance or triumph.

The collection of 70 contemporary paintings by Iraqi and Palestinian artists on display at the CSPS gallery may vary in style and message. But curators and exhibitors say the collection aspires to one simple goal: putting a human touch on the war in Iraq and an Arab culture too often misunderstood.

"From our point of view, it's about making individuals of artists living in terrifically stressful situations," said Mel Andringa, co-director of the CSPS gallery, operated by the nonprofit group Legion Arts.

"In a time of war, there is so much of a homogenization of things with the uniforms, the military and the distance of the conflict. This artwork really puts a human face on the artist."

The pieces were collected by Meg Novak and Flo Razowsky during a humanitarian aid visit last summer to Palestine and Iraq, and brought to America in parcels cleared by U.S. Customs.

Some artists were paid, but Novak said most of the paintings were donated. She is aware that both her unlicensed visit to Iraq and acquisition of such goods were most likely in violation of American and international trade sanctions.

"It was an act of civil disobedience," said Novak, 28, an artist and political activist. "Part of what we're trying to do is raise awareness and the effects of the sanctions ... that they influence all aspects of life in Iraq, including culture and art

"The sanctions virtually make it impossible to create or buy any art or have any kind of cultural exchange ... without breaking the law."

A Treasury Department spokesman said art is not exempt under the trade sanctions imposed against Iraq after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Offenders can be fined as much as $250,000 for each violation. But he would not comment on whether a specific case is under investigation.

The collection had its first U.S. showing in Minneapolis in February at the Babylon Art and Cultural Center, where Razowsky is co-director. The exhibit features a mix of works that hews closely to traditional Arabic techniques and a variety of familiar Western styles.

Several of the works incorporate calligraphy that curators say has been a staple of art in the region for centuries.

Andringa said the reaction from visitors to the exhibition has been positive. Nearly 30 of the paintings have been sold, with prices ranging from $150 to $1,500.

Andringa said many visitors have been surprised at the absence of political messages, overt propaganda and the diverse depiction of women, with some appearing as peace symbols and others without the traditional veils.

"I've found that many who have come with an obvious patriotic view as if they were hoping to be offended by the work," Andringa said. "But it's all much more complex than that. You'd really have to bend over backward to find the exhibit controversial."

The exhibit will be on display at CSPS through April 27. Exhibits have also been arranged in Toledo, Detroit, Providence and Milwaukee. Novak is also arranging a tour in West Coast cities.

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