Travel sights: Art exhibit shows refugee experiences in Syria

Harrowing journey: Lebanese artist Ginane Makki Bacho’s sculptures, now on display at the Brooklyn Museum, show the trauma faced by refugees trying to flee Syria by boat.
Brooklyn Museum

It’s a tale of two Syrias.

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum spotlights the different experiences of refugees fleeing to and from Syria. “Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart,” now on display at the Museum, contrasts a collection of ceramics discovered in the early 20th century with contemporary sculptures by a trio of Arab artists to trace the country’s transformation from a place of refuge to a war zone, said the exhibit’s curator.

“The exhibit is about the changing stories of refugees in Syria,” said Aysin Yoltar, who works in museum’s Islamic Art division. “Once Syria could be a shelter to refugees; now people from Syria are leaving as refugees.”

The show features several black-and-turquoise 13th-century ceramics discovered by a group of Circassians who fled from Russia and the country’s oppressive government at the turn of the 20th century and settled in the Syrian city of Raqqa — recently the capital of the Islamic State. While building new homes, the refugees uncovered the medieval vases, which were later sold to the Brooklyn Museum.

The elegant ceramics contrast with the work of the three contemporary artists, each of whom used scrap metal and other discarded materials to convey the suffering facing Syrian refugees as they flee their homeland.

Isaam Kourbaj’s “Dark Water, Burning World” features small, numbered boats made from discarded bicycle mudguards, each holding extinguished matches melded together by resin. The artist said his work recalls the decimation of Syria since its civil war began in 2011 and the difficulties faced by those who try to leave, with the resin representing the support network among refugees on their journeys.

“The burned matches represent the trauma the people are carrying with them because of the destruction of the country,” said Kourbaj, who grew up in southern Syria. “The idea is in the time of difficulties and tragedies, people come together much stronger to support each other.”

Lebanese artist Ginane Makki Bacho also creates sculptures of boats, with fleeing figures created from pieces of scrap metal, while Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez uses mixed-media installations to portray life in Syria’s capital city of Damascus before and after the war broke out.

The three artists will discuss their work at “Artists on the Refugee Crisis,” a free, public conversation at the Museum on Oct. 18.

The show’s curator said that she hopes the exhibit creates more empathy towards refugees in those who see it.

“As curators and artists, what we can do I think is bring these issues to the surface with exhibitions and artworks that people pay attention to,” Yoltar said. “Tides could change and anyone could be a refugee one day.”

“Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart” at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, www.brooklynmuseum.org). Open Wed, Fri–Sun, 11 am–6 pm; Thu, 11 am–10 pm. $16 suggested donation.

“Artists on the Refugee Crisis” at the Brooklyn Museum. Oct. 18 at 6:30 pm. Free with RSVP.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

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