My exhibit of paintings, Along the Road to Freedom, remembers and honours the journeys of Russian Mennonite women who led their families to freedom in Canada, mostly in the 1920s and 1940s. It also acknowledges those thousands who did not escape. It’s a story that is familiar to many cultures and faiths.
During Along the Road to Freedom’s opening in Saskatoon on March 6, 2016, a Syrian refugee listened intently as I introduced the exhibit. She nodded as I described some of the trials Mennonite refugees experienced, wiping tears from her cheeks.
At the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery in Winnipeg, where I am curator, the trials of displacement are shared through a new exhibit, Stories in Art from Iraqi Kurdistan. This emotionally powerful, honest and intimate collection consists of more than 70 artworks from Syrian refugees; internally displaced Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Muslims; and resident Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of the pieces were brought together by Kathy Moorhead Thiessen of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraqi Kurdistan. Eight were added by Rasen Haddad, an Assyrian Christian artist who is a refugee in Amman, Jordan.
The exhibit overflows with themes similar to those found in Along the Road to Freedom: horror, resilience, love, faith and hope.
The gallery seeks to tell stories from many faiths and cultures, times and regions. Although it is an openly Christian-Anabaptist institution and a self-funded ministry of Mennonite Church Canada, it has a reputation across cultures and faiths as a place to share stories through art.
The stories in Along the Road to Freedom and Stories in Art from Iraqi Kurdistan point us to honouring, remembering and even to action, while reminding us that many of us come from refugee or immigrant roots. We share stories to help create a better community of understanding, respect and acceptance. With our new fellow Canadians or soon-to-be Canadians, we join in thankfulness that we were able to come to Canada.
Through those who have not or did not make it, like Mennonites who did not escape the Soviet Union and the people in Iraq and Syria represented in Stories in Art from Iraqi Kurdistan, we are reminded to pray and to act, to stand beside those who anonymously suffer as our own ancestors may have suffered. As our ancestors searched for hope and a new home, people in places of uncertainty and war do the same today.
Haddad, formerly from Qaraqosh, not long ago the largest Christian community in Iraq and one of the oldest in the world, wrote in an e-mail to me that his art is no longer just a pile of papers. It has been freed and given a voice in Canada: “Thanks from all the victims who share their suffering with you, who really want our stories to help people appreciate love and peace, and how difficult it is to have these values in this part of the world.”
Art can tell stories, ours and those of others. It can make a difference.
See more about “Along the Road to Freedom.”