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New Haven Museum Celebrates Refugee Artists in New Exhibit

Monday, June 20, is World Refugee Day. A new exhibit at the New Haven Museum shares the compelling stories and works from refugee artists who have resettled in the New Haven area.

The six artists represented in the exhibit, Stories From Near and Far: Refugee Artists in New Haven, fled some of the most repressive countries in the world.

With the help of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, they found a new home in the United States.

"It's unimaginable, I think, for most of us to think of having been in prison, or being persecuted, or death threats," said artist Susan Clinard, curator of the exhibit. "And yet these artists are so resilient, and are a rich part of the cultural life of New Haven."

For all of these artists, the nightmares and scars of their former lives figure prominently in their art.

Take, for example, a work called "End of the Tunnel" by artist Moosa Gueye, who fled Mauritania, a West African country with serious human rights concerns, including slavery and child labor. The painting is awash in red except for a small yellow dot and a much larger yellow circle.

"This small spot just symbolizes the entry point of this claustrophobic -- like he experienced persecution in his country, and then at the end of this tunnel is this larger opening, this more free expansive feeling of being able to express himself," Clinard said.

A fascinating aspect of this exhibit is the juxtaposition between art created in the artists' home countries and art created in New Haven.

For 21-year-old Iraqi painter Wurood Mahmood, the realistic portraits she painted in her home country give way to a more abstract style in her adopted country.

"She's loosened up a bit. She's telling more stories in her work about her anxieties, and just the journey itself. There's this sense of being able to take a deep breath and breathe," said Clinard.

Clinard has known some of these artists for years. What she didn't know was their stories -- how they got to America, and what they left behind.

"These people had a full life where they were," Clinard said. "It's sounds so simplistic, but I think that in the negative rhetoric that we hear so often, especially in the media, you know, just try and appreciate our shared humanity. Forget about the fact that they are persecuted because of their religious beliefs or whatever, how about that this person had a family and a life where they were, and by no fault of their own, they had to flee."

The last part of the exhibit is a display of photographs by Iraqi refugee Maheer Mahmood. Among them is a close up of a little girl with tears streaming down her cheek.

"He saw this little girl weeping, and he started asking, 'Is she ok?'," Clinard said. "They were telling him that she keeps looking for her father, and no one told her yet that they had died in Syria. She looked up and at that moment he took a photo, and it's just piercing, because you can just sense the innocence and the angst."

Stories From Near and Far: Refugee Artists in New Haven runs through September 10 at the New Haven Museum.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series “Where Art Thou?” Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of “Morning Edition”, and later of “All Things Considered.”
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