I had several assignments in the last two months to write about Heather Raffo’s play, Noura, for The Chaldean News. The play opened at the Detroit Public Theater earlier this month, but I initially watched it when it was being workshopped in 2016 at the Arab American National Museum.
Click the image below to read the article on Heather that I wrote for Arab America
And here’s one of the recently published Chaldean News articles you can click on to read as well.
In the process of covering her work this last month, I experienced the Detroit Public Theatre for the first time and met the wonderful people who work there. I was invited to join in a post-show discussion with Heather and a few others as a panelist (coming up on December 13 and December 18). I remembered when I was invited to do the same thing in 2008 for Heather’s play 9 Parts of Desire at the Performance Network Theatre, which unfortunately closed in 1981 after 34 years.
Meeting Heather this time around, we had a chance to spend quality one-on-one time together. I also had an unplanned meeting with Madelyn Porter, a warm, high-spirited, beautiful woman who works at the Detroit Public Theatre. Madelyn has worked as a professional storyteller/actor for the past 40 years. She and I sat at a table near the window with the sun shining over us. In this environment, the lobby area, we enjoyed a pleasant and productive conversation about various topics, including how our communities can work together. I walked away from it feeling inspired and truly happy about my work.
A few days later, Madelyn invited me as a keynote speaker at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast held January 16, 2023. The theme is “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” The event is sponsored by the Concerned Women of Hamtramck in partnership with the Hamtramck Public School District. She wrote, “Your beautiful voice needs to be heard.”
I was so honored and so touched. Minorities often feel that their stories are marginalized, and I think that for men and women from the Middle East, this feels especially true. Having a voice at all is a big challenge to begin with, given the regions we were born in. Telling our stories authentically requires a lot of courage. People who listen, who really listen, hear you because they are listening from their hearts and not just their minds. They have the wisdom to understand what it really means to reach out and touch somebody’s hand. And once they do that, they become examples for those they touch so that person can pay it forward.
As we near the end of this year’s holidays, look at your year and ask yourself, “Who has reached out and touched my hand? What did that do for me? How can I pay it forward in the upcoming year?
You can also learn more about Heather in the 2021 interview with her on camera.
Every month, I interview remarkable individuals on a weekly basis for the Virtual Discussion Series in partnership with Unique Voices in Films, the Chaldean Cultural Center, CMN TV and U of M [Detroit Center].
Check out my YouTube channel where you can watch the interviews live and subscribe. Be sure to set reminders/alerts so you can stay updated on Live and uploaded content.
Paul Batou was born in 1959 in a tiny village on the border between Iraq and Turkey. When he was two years old, the Kurds destroyed his village in an act they called “ethnic cleansing.” This forced his family to migrate to Mosul and eventually to Baghdad, where he lived among Arabs. His family rented a room with six other families. Almost forty people shared one small kitchen, bath, and toilet. He described his home as “more like a prison.” Even though his family spoke a different language, Aramaic, they managed to survive. Batou’s mother was forced to work like a slave in a hotel while his father traveled back and forth from Baghdad to the north in order to restore their land. He could not imagine working in a city while others stole his land.
None of Batou’s siblings completed their education, but thanks to his aunt’s generosity, he was enrolled in a Catholic school. He performed very well, especially in art and science. At first, he drew simple Disney characters, and then graduated to Western wild west-style pictures. At the age of twelve, he wrote his first short story, which was a love story based in the city of Kremat, where he grew up. His journey as an artist continued throughout high school.
In 1989, Batou traveled to Italy to study art, but his father refused to finance his studies. He returned to Baghdad and was accepted in a pharmacy school, so he followed that direction. Luckily, the school had a studio for the arts. One of the protocols in Iraq was that each college must have a music and art department to be used for students’ hobbies.
The following is an excerpt from the book Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists
WN: Why didn’t you study art in Baghdad?
BATOU: The College of Fine Arts was exclusive to the Baath Party. I didn’t even bother to apply because I had no desire to become one of their members. I was fortunate that the director of the studio in the pharmacy school was one of the most famous Iraqi artists, named Abdul Ellah Yassin. That’s how I practiced and learned art in a more professional fashion. It was as if I’d missed something and then found it. I was hungry to absorb all the knowledge I could in art.
WN: While living in Iraq, did you have any serious encounters with the Baath Party?
BATOU: My problems with the Baath Party began after I received my bachelor’s degree. I was accepted to continue my master’s degree in toxicology. However, because of my friendship with Abdul Salman, a Shia Muslim student who was disliked by the Baath Party, my art teacher told me that, like my friend, I would not have a chance. My friend and I took our case to the minister of education and eventually to the minister of health, who refused to help us. When we asked him why his daughter was going to England for the master’s degree when her scores were lower than ours, he replied, “She is my daughter and I want the best for her.” The minister’s final advice was for us to join the army.
One of my classmates from elementary school had become a powerful person in the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabart. I had helped him in his academic study in pharmacy school and we used to play together during childhood. He offered me the opportunity to study nuclear pharmacy in Sweden. In return, I would receive an excellent pay and my family would be provided with a nice home and a comfortable life. It was either the army or studying abroad and joining the Mukhabarat. It was like having to choose between heaven and hell. I chose hell.
I served in the army five years during the Iraq-Iran war. The first few months, I was on the front line, and every night I asked myself if I had made the right or the wrong decision. I played by my principles, and my principle was not to give up my freedom. I later wrote a poetry book, My Last Thoughts About Iraq, which is based on the notes and soldiers’ quotes I jotted down during the time I served in the war, from 1983 to 1988.
Matters changed when I was placed in the medical unit and began focusing on helping as many people as I could. We were in a city that bordered Iran, where there was shelling and wounded men every day. That’s when I forgot my doubts and questions. God gave me peace in my heart, and I ended up staying in order to help the people who needed me. I stopped feeling like I made a bad decision and I felt happy to be a pharmacist. I’m helping more people now.
WN: What was the driving force behind leaving Iraq and coming to America?
BATOU: Freedom. The turning point in my search for freedom was when I started reading and painting the Epic of Gilgamesh. That story had a major impact on my thinking as a human and as an artist. Gilgamesh and his long journey and search for life, love, and freedom opened my mind and caused me to look back at my roots as a Mesopotamian. I became more determined to love my land and my people and to fully understand that this is my Iraq, not owned by Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds. The Christians of Iraq are the natives of Iraq. They carry the heritage of Iraq.
Seeing my friends, mostly artists, writers, and poets whose thinking was in opposition to that of Saddam’s ideas, taken by Baath Intelligence or put in prison or disappearing from the university affected my thinking. I realized I am not free. If you search for freedom while under the dictator rule, either you think to exit Iraq, or if you can’t do that, your alternative is connecting to whatever makes you feel free. To me, the gypsy culture, writing poems, painting, and playing classical guitar provided me with the ideals that I live by and the freedom to express myself among the people who fear God and pray all day.
In 1989 I moved with my family, a wife and a son, to Athens and eventually to the United States. Although it was difficult in the beginning, the image of America being the land of freedom and opportunity lived up to its name. I found American people very helpful. They assisted me as best as they could. One person who played a big role in my success was a friend and pharmacist by the name of Ira Freeman. He offered me a job in his pharmacy even though I had no experience with computers and I didn’t know the name of the drugs since they were different than what I had learned in Iraq. He even provided me with financial assistance to get me through.
One thing you learn in America is that you have full freedom. Humans with freedom will have more powerful production than humans under oppression. I’m happy in America, but I miss the friends I left behind in Iraq. I’ve written many times that I can’t feel joyful and happy when my friends in Iraq are sad and worried.
One day my father told me Iraq is my homeland. It was called Mesopotamia before, the land of two rivers. My mom said any land that gives you freedom is your land. I ask myself one question. Could I have done all this in Iraq? Would I get the same support to express myself freely, with no restrictions? The answer is no. Only true freedom will make you a professional pharmacist, artist, writer, and musician. How many people living in Iraq now missed that opportunity? Freedom is what makes a country and its people great. Finally, this is my land. I lost my home in Iraq. I don’t want to lose my home here. The way to keep my home is to restore the world to peace.
WN: Why do you think that America is not very familiar with Iraq’s art?
BATOU: Everyone agrees there was a big arts movement in Iraq long before Saddam came into power. Many artists had traveled to Europe and accomplished such extraordinary work there that they were very well-known there. While American professional observers who deal with art know about the high standards of art and music in Iraq, the general public does not know. The United States and Iraq did not have good enough relations to create programs where Americans can come to Iraq and witness, for themselves, Iraq’s culture or people, or for Iraqis to come to the United States and do art exhibits.
Since there was no cultural interference or exchange with Iraq, Americans didn’t know anything about Iraq’s history, culture, and heritage. That’s the one reason that the US failed with Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Yet our cultures are similar in a way. It’s about new invaders who came in with a different culture and changed Iraq to what we see now. This is a repeat of what happened to the Native Americans, when Europeans invaded the Natives’ land and changed their beliefs, religions, and way of life.
WN: Have you visited Iraq since you left?
BATOU: I once felt that even if I visited Iraq for one or two weeks, that would mean I would have to give up my freedom for one or two weeks, which I didn’t want to do. Then, in 2014, I finally visited the northern part of Iraq for two weeks. It was the first time I was there since I left in 1989. Things were stable and people were generally happy when I visited. I told them, “It can’t be sustained. Things will not end happily.”
WN: What made you say that?
BATOU: The government offices were unorganized and corrupt. You can’t maintain a society with poor politicians and poor thinkers.
Everyone focuses on the Islamic State, but the war in Iraq has been ongoing since 2003. I believe Saddam was only one person and we, the Iraqis, gave him his power. We became his hands and eyes, his army and secret police. We the Iraqis created the dictator. Iraq for the Christians was not a paradise before his rule. We lived among a lack of knowledge and education. Iraq was always a land of fear and discrimination. Maybe the Islamic State did something good. It brought the world’s attention to us. Before then, no one knew or cared about the minorities in Iraq.
The Islamic State has a positive presence in the Middle East. They cause people to examine their thoughts and beliefs about killing others, which were happening even before they entered the picture. Saddam also tried to destroy our identity and culture, but not in this way.
WN: Can you tell us about Minor Dreams and Confessions, two of your paintings?
I painted Minor Dream in the 1990s during the sanctions against Iraq. I used to have family there and you could feel the pain and suffering of the people during that time. I thought about the kids, especially after what Madeline Albright said in regards to half a million Iraqi children dying due to the sanctions that made it difficult to access milk and prohibited other basic foods and medicine items. When asked by the TV anchor if the price is worth it, Albright said, “We think the price is worth it.”
I also painted Confessions in the 1990s, and this relates more so to the Christians of Iraq, when the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia. You know how you confess your sins to the priest and the sins will go away? I confessed so that I can wash away all the sins of Iraq. I shouted and cried, but I am tied up. I cannot reverse the history of Iraq. It’s God’s Will that it falls. After reading the Bible many times, I found that God insulted Babylon repeatedly for having enslaved the Jewish people. The wars, the sanctions, the invasion— they are punishments from God. They are consequences of the past.
WN: How do you plan to restore the world to peace?
BATOU: The way to make a change is through what I do with art and what you do by writing books. We become a voice for the people who cannot express what is in their minds and hearts. Our job is to explore the world through beautiful art. Our job is not to condemn Islam, Christianity, or any other religion, but to provide people with a vision.
For me, art has a universal message. Part of art’s universal message is to deliver beautiful pieces with nice colors, logic, and philosophy for all humans. My colors reflect the tone of the Earth, the language of the universe, the cry and pain of the oppressed people.
As an artist, I go back to that civilization, that beauty, and ask myself, why do I need to restore that Iraq? It’s because it represents the great civilization, the beauty, the knowledge about all humans. My love for the US plays an important role in my art. Since 9/11 there has been less freedom in the US, affecting the way people live and think. One of my goals is to restore that freedom.
Usually artists, whether they are American, Iraqi, or from any other country, don’t like war. Our concern is mostly for the innocent people who will suffer, whether those people are the citizens of Iraq or our troops and their families in America.
Deborah Epstein is a visionary artist, shamanic practitioner, and body worker. She recently created a project called “Life is Art: Conscious Creativity Summit” which launched last month. We’d met on Facebook and were connected through shamanic teachings. She’d studied at the Heart of the Healer organization with don Oscar Miro-Quesada, an internationally acclaimed shamanic mentor, ceremonialist, healer, and author. He’s a kamasqa curandero and altomisayog adept from Peru and originator of Pachukuti Mesa Tradition cross-cultural shamanism.
Deborah created this free online summit by inviting 21 artists and healers whose focus is fostering creativity and imagination to be the impetus for folks to heal, find courage and purpose to create change in the world and ream a new planet into being. She felt this summit was in alignment with my message so she invited me to be one of the 21 panel of experts to add my expertise to this project. I was happy to say “Yes” because this was obviously a meaningful and life-changing project.
After learning more about Deborah’s work, particularly her art, I decided to interview her on my show so others can discover it as well. Deborah has been making unique bodies of work inspired by her journey as a healer and a client of many varied alternative healing modalities. Her passion for healing and creative expression are the basis of the work found here at Deborah Epstein Studio. Using a variety of media, Deborah explores topics such as: healing physical and emotional pain, the nature of the fascial system which is a weblike structure connecting all other structures and systems in the body, and the fractal nature of the universe. As a shamanic practitioner, her recent work explores non-ordinary states of reality that have a dream-like quality to them and also have initiatory “light codes” within them. Light codes are symbols that are a language of light from the heart that are channeled from source for healing the relationship between humans and the Earth Mother.
WHAT is it?
Embody work is a blend of modalities that addresses body, self, soul, and spirit. Barnes’ Myofascial Release, Craniosacral Therapy, Core Belief Work, Reiki, Expressive Art, and Peruvian Shamanism are used in combination to achieve embodiment, healing, and deep connection to one self and all that is.
The client and practitioner understand that they are in partnership with one another and work together to bring the body, self, and soul into harmony and balance with one another. Utilizing the container of the Mesa and employing energy work, Cranioscacral, MFR, and creative expressive practices and exercises, a safe space is created for expressing, imagining, and creating health in the body.
There are many reasons for a disconnection or disassociation from the body. We can also be connected to the body and disconnected at the same time. Pain or trauma, whether it is emotional or physical is a major factor and “being out of our body” becomes a subconscious pattern.
As our world is changing and evolving, our soul grows and the body needs to “catch-up”. Embody work helps to integrate the changes that occur as our soul grows and evolves. Our body is our connection to the earth and we need to be in it in a functional, healthy way. Embody work helps to build connection to the body, self, soul, and all that is.
Deborah offers the sacred medicine Journey, a 30 hour experiential program that combines hands-on bodywork, creative expression and shamanic ceremonial practices to clarify intention, open channels of creation, release pain and dysfunction, and create easy to adopt rituals to sustain peace, quiet the mind, increase creativity and flow in life.
Satori is a Buddhist term that references Sudden Enlightenment. It’s a term that Detroit-based artist Nina Caruso uses in her coaching platform SatoriShift: the art of living on purpose. Nina’s work spans many mediums but her primary focus has been abstract encaustic and oil painting as well as mixed medium sculpture.
Nina has 20 years of teaching experience working with students from Pre-K to senior citizens. She currently shares her love of art while teaching senior adults and adults with disabilities and other challenges. She believes that all forms of art are a response to our existence and are best expressed through exploration, play and curiosity.
As a Whole Life Healing Coach, she uses art as a means to help others to explore, express and expand. Through her SatoriShift platform, Nina facilitates a variety of holistic modalities including art, yoga, diet, self-care, and mediation to infuse and unfold conscious purpose into the lives of individuals, communities, and organizations.
Q: What type of healing work do you do?
I work with individuals or groups to bring to light and expand upon their specific or united purpose.
Q: How do you incorporate holistic healing into your artwork?
I consider each person holistically. I look for instability and offer methods to restore balance through a variety of holistic modalities including art, yoga, nutrition, brain health, self care, mindfulness, intuition and meditation.
Q: What makes your work different from other healing work?
I believe that we all have purposeful work to accomplish while we are here. Our mission is innate within us whether we know it or not. Often anxiety and discomfort may arise within us if we are not in tune and true to ourselves. I serve as a guide to assist in bringing clarity and tools in support of manifesting one’s purpose. Satori is a Buddhist term that references Sudden Enlightenment. Making the shift to sudden enlightenment is truly living with purpose. It is through this platform that I provide creative coaching through process based art experiences and conscious healthy living choices.
Q: On your website, you address five healing aspects. Can you describe each one:
These are suggested offerings of the creative coaching that I offer. One may choose from this menu or I can create a unique recipe in support of my individual clients needs. These menu items can be expanded upon or combined for a greater impact.
* Shining in to Shine Out
Sankalpa painting is a meditation on canvas. Where one can explore the pathway to self through this meditative painting approach. Through this process you will find yourself in the space where your head and your heart are in agreement while helping to restore focus and harmony in your world. Group or individual offerings are available.
* Celebrating Identity
This is an opportunity to explore and celebrate group or individual identity and purpose through artful means. Through this practice you will unleash your authentic self in order to live your passion. You will explore, express, and expand while inspiring others to do the same.
* Take Good Care
This is all about self care. Clearing any obstacles that are in the way from being healthy in body, mind and spirit is key to living on purpose. I work together with my client to position them in a place where their head and heart are aligned with the direction that they are taking. This can be acquired through having awareness of self care and what that means personally for an individual or organization. Together we will explore creative options to support individual or group well being.
* The Power of Story
Because our stories are so powerful it is important to be aware of them and make sure that they are servicing us along our path and not sabatoshing us. In this practice we will explore, create and manifest your story through artistic modalities. Your story is exactly that; yours to edit and rewrite according to your purpose. Let’s explore your story together making sure that your head and heart are aligned, we will omit any fear or lack and colorfully illustrate the pages with love and abundance.
* Be the Change
This is a practice in social justice. Art is and has always been a visual language. It has the ability to deliver messages on a soul level. What shift would you like to see in this world? Here we will join together in bringing your message to light.
* Creating Community
Art unites communities. We can work together as individuals, families, organizations, or whole communities to create personalized artful offerings to foster unity. Allow SatroiShift to assist you in creating unity within your community
Placemaking is a powerful way to explore how art and artful practice can enliven your world. Through Placemaking we create a sense of place within a community or personal space through artful expression. Arts based placemaking manifests in many forms. It may be site specific permanent or temporary art in public and private spaces or present as site specific events all fostering artistic movement creating culture within our lives.
I’m currently working on my second feature documentary, Living Tribal in a Democracy, which features three generations of women in my family and sheds light on our Chaldean lineage which dates back thousands of years to ancient Mesopotamia. In May, I gave a talk and screened part of this documentary at a film workshop presented by Creative Many at Wayne State University.
After the talk, a woman approached me to tell me that she enjoyed watching the footage and appreciated that I was portraying real-life stories of Middle Easterners, particularly women, since they are often pigeonholed in books, media, and films. The woman’s name was Parisa Ghaderi, and Parisa, it turns out, was doing similar work. Like me, Parisa is an award-winning filmmaker who has dedicated herself to her talents while, along the way, using her influence to help other artists as well.
Parisa was born in 1983 in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States in 2009. A visual artist, curator, and filmmaker, she earned her BA in Visual Communications from Art & Architecture University in Tehran, Iran, and her MFA in Art and Design from the University of Michigan. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and she is featured in The Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other prestigious magazines. She has made four short films which won awards and were screened in international film festivals in Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Ireland, and California.
Impressed by her work, I invited her on my show. In this half-hour interview, Parisa shares how she’s dispelling misconceptions about her Iranian heritage, what it’s like to be a minority working in her field, her work habits that made her such a success at a young age, and her business tactics which are essential to sustain ourselves in the creative field.
How has your heritage influenced and affected your art and storytelling as a filmmaker? What have been some of the setbacks? Some of the advantages?
I am an Iranian artist who was born and raised after the 1979 Revolution. Being Iranian has certainly influenced my work as an artist. I come from a country with a rich culture and history. I immigrated to the US in 2009 which changed my creative practice as I was introduced to new concepts such as visa regulations, distance, language barrier, and loss. As a result, I started to focus more on personal stories, childhood memories, language complexities, and the emotional distance I experienced as an immigrant. The advantage of being from Iran is that I have access to my Iranian community here so I can hear their stories and relate to their experience, and get inspiration for my work. I made a short documentary about an Iranian couple who were separated because of visa restrictions which was screened at many festivals and won awards. The setback is specifically, for this exhibition, we faced various problems in terms of selling the artworks due to lack of financial transactions and inviting the artists to attend their show because of the hostile political climate between the two countries which resulted in the travel ban and more visa restrictions.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now I’m working on a series of short films with my other Iranian friends, gathering their stories of immigration. I’m also working on a performance about borders which I have started a few months ago and was able to workshop it with acting students at UofM. I plan to finish these two projects by the end of next year.
What’s your schedule like?
I constantly research and look for grants and funds to support my projects. I read and research about my new projects, reach out to people and ask for feedback. I also teach drawing and photography every week from 2014 to my fellow Iranian friends. This fall, I will be a graphic design assistant professor at MSU which I’m very excited about.
How do you balance your creative and business side?
As an artist, it’s been always a challenge to balance these two, since the financial aspect sometimes restricts your creative plans. I’m aware that having a steady income, especially at the start of your art career will actually help keep you creative and prevent burnout when you don’t have to worry about supporting yourself through your art, and It’s great if you can do both, but usually, I need to prioritize and structure it. For me, the creative side has always been a priority and I keep generating ideas and look for funding to realize them as I also work as a freelance artist to support my practice.
What is “7500 Miles”? How and why was it started? Tell us a little about Mahsa Soroudi, the founder of 7500 Miles.
7500 is a collective which curates and promotes exhibitions to focus on contemporary Iranian artists who are disregarded or unseen due to the absence of fair exposure.
‘7500 Miles’ refers to the distance between California, where Mahsa currently lives, and her hometown Tehran. Mahsa and I graduated from the same college, so our friendship dates back to 2006. Mahsa was working as a docent at Orange County Museum of Art, OCMA, since 2013 and she was frustrated by the image of Middle-eastern women represented in the media as oppressed and weak, overshadowing their potentials and talents. This project was initially started by Mahsa in 2015, and I joined her later when we realized how much we were interested in this idea and shared the same concerns.
The majority of Iranian artists in the diaspora have represented a different image of Iran due to the time they had left the country, 1979-1986. Their imagery is directly influenced by tragic events of revolution and war. But the new generation of artists have found their unique creative way of reflecting on current socio-political tensions. Our goal in 7500 miles is to focus on this younger generation to portray modern Iran in a different way. As artists and curators, we feel highly responsible for creating a more nuanced depiction of a group of Iranian female artists and their distinctive art practice which has developed through their tireless effort, regardless of all the challenges and complications.
“7500 miles” creates a platform to showcase and promote the work by the new generation of women artists in Iran, with the hope to go beyond clichés and what has been shown in media and the art world so far.
As a curator, how do you specifically choose the artwork that’s submitted?
As curators, we are constantly looking for new artists with a fresh perspective and creative ideas. Since we are both artists ourselves and belong to the same generation of artists we represent, we have access to a wide network of artists inside Iran, who are active and prominent in the art scene. We interview them or have studio visits, and then choose their work based on the theme of the exhibition and how their work speak to each other as a group.
What advice would you give minority women artists who feel they don’t have the support or mentorship to pursue their passion?
If they don’t find the support they need, they should create it, and be the resource for others who seek their help. Forming collective and collaboration with like-minded people and those who share the same concerns, struggles, and passions. They need to reach out to other creatives, never give up and stay positive, because sooner or later it will happen.
If they see the misrepresented and distorted image of their country, they need to stand up and make the change, and not reproduce the misinformation the media projects. They need to keep that passion alive and burning, as a fuel for moving forward and overcoming all the obstacles ahead regardless of their nationality.
The eldest of six children and the peacemaker in the family, Ilham Badreddine Mahfouz is the daughter of the East, that faraway land in Damascus, Syria. Her father was a teacher of history and her mother was a homemaker and educator by example. Her loving and kind parents raised their children to be the best of their knowledge and ability and good citizens of the world. But, as tradition had it, they prepared Ilham mentally to get married at a young age.
At age 16, Ilham found herself the wife of a physician who was going to America to pursue his medical specialty. Not only did she have to adjust to being a wife, but to a new culture in the United States. She had to learn a new language and become acquainted with different traditions and ways of life. Her husband encouraged her to learn English by taking adult education classes at night school and by attending Berkley High School, where she eventually graduated.
“I always knew that art and music were my patrons,” she says. “At Eastern Michigan University, I studied ceramics and paintings. I received a lot of encouragement from professors like Robert Piepenburg (ceramics and the art of RaKu) and Barry Avedan (painting).”
Ilham received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a double concentration in ceramics and painting and a minor in art history.
“My dream came true,” she says. “I wanted to set a good example to my children, for them to pursue a higher education than I achieved.”
Ilham’s artwork has won awards and been displayed at numerous exhibitions including Amnesty International Cell Museum in Vestervig, Denmark. She considers herself very fortunate to have come from the Old World, so rich in heritage, culture, and history, and to have the blessing of living in this young country with new ideas, culture, and traditions. She has taken the better part of both worlds and worked hard.
Her artwork is abstract style painting, ceramic, and mixed media.
“In my paintings, I try to capture my life experience as well as my outlook on life,” says Ilham. “I try to display emotions and reactions in my work through several layers of paint. Beneath the many layers may lay the subconscious.”
In her book, Whispers From the East, she writes, “Through art, I express life’s events that reflect pain and the feeling of helplessness… Through art, the truth is delivered for the viewer to experience.”
Her book includes her artwork, heartfelt poetry, and reflections about her birthplace Damascus, where she recounts the memory of jasmine bushes along the streets, the scent of jasmine in bloom spreading throughout the city and bringing joy and contentment to everyone passing by. Most of all, she remembers the kind, hospitable, and generous people who were always ready to help others in need.
“Life is give and take,” she says, repeating lessons her mother gave her. “With giving, we derive great happiness and joy; and with sharing and helping others, we also help ourselves. We must also know when to be a good receiver. Being a good receiver makes someone else a good giver.”
Ilham points out that “The world is so vast and yet so small with our reach through the net. We are able to reach people all over the world through art and exchange ideas and learn from one another. A beautiful concept of learning and living in harmony and peace.”
Personally, I believe that through art, we can find harmony and inner peace. We’re then able to mirror that into the world. We can use writing, art, and other creative ways to spread beauty into the world, raise awareness, and end destructive forces.
I learned about Qais Al Sindy, a renowned artist, some four years ago when I was working on a book called Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists. He lived in California so I was only able to interview him over the phone. This year he made his first visit to Michigan and we had the chance to meet in person.
What I admired about Qais was not only his artwork but also his work ethics. He’s very disciplined, with a confidence that nourishes his talents and enables him to succeed and therefore sustain himself by being a full time artist. This is despite having come to the United States a little over a decade ago.
The following is an excerpt from Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists which highlights Qais Al Sindy and 15 other Iraqi American artists.
Qais was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1967 and started painting when he was about fourteen years old. At his teacher’s suggestion, he made reproductions of master painters such as seventeenth century Diego Velasquez, Vermeer and Raphael. In college, he studied engineering at the University of Baghdad. He excelled in his studies, but he soon discovered that this field was not for him.
After graduation in 1989, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts. He told the administration, “If you force me to be a Baathist, I will study outside this country and you will lose me.”
They made an exception to his non-Baathist affiliation and enrolled him. In 2002, he attained a diploma in French language from the Cultural French Center in Baghdad and in 2004, he graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts. His thesis was about Christian paintings from all over Iraq. This led him to take a big tour of Iraq, to visit all the monasteries and different cities from Zakho (in the Kurdisan region) to al-Faw (marshy region in the extreme southeast of Iraq).
“It was dangerous to travel, especially since I did not have a sponsor,” he said. “I paid from my own pockets and drove my own car. Because I speak English very well, I managed well at American checkpoints. I received harassment from the insurgents and extremists, but at that time, it wasn’t very severe. I managed, but I did leave the country shortly after graduating.”
Qais has held art exhibits all over the world, his artwork drawing so much attention that nearly a dozen books have been published about it by various venues, including Kuwait Cultural Center and Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, DC. As I mentioned earlier, he lives in California where he has no other profession than that of an artist.
“I don’t do anything else in this world except for art,” he said. “If you are able to do the art that you like and find a way to sell it, this means that you believe in yourself.”
Qais says that when he paints, he tries to get his resources from overseas, his homeland. He is also known to engage audiences in his artwork. An example of this is in his Mamdooh series.
“After I left Iraq, I lived in Jordan, where I taught art for the students in the architectural department,” he said. “One day I heard that one of my dearest friends in Iraq, a talented portrait artist named Mamdooh suffered injuries as a result of a car explosion that injured and killed many people. He was transferred to the hospital where he struggled against death for one week, then died.”
This led Qais to do a series of four paintings. The first one, he did a portrait of Mamdooh, using an expressionist style that focuses on his appearance. The second painting is a ghostly figure with transparency like his character, full of hue colors. It is the moment which Mamdooh suffers and dies. In the third painting, he brought some ashes and charcoal from the ruins of the car that exploded and drew Mamdooh using those ashes. That means Mamdooh is gone. The fourth painting is a pure blank canvas.
“Everyone is well aware that it’s prohibited to touch the art works in galleries and in museums,” he said. “But in this artwork, I came up with something new to complete the fourth painting. I asked the viewers to wipe their hands on painting number three. Of course, now their hands are stained with charcoal and ashes. They want to clean their hands, but I ask the crowd to wipe their hands on the blank canvas, on painting number four. The fingerprints on the canvas mean that you’re a participant of this crime in Iraq.”
Qais says that this was his way of asking his audience to live this moment as a kind of sharing and participating to the message that he wanted to deliver. He wants to tell people that it is up to us to make this world the best place to live in.
He showed this series in more than ten countries, and people insisted on participating in the artwork. So when you see the fourth one, you see more than a thousand people’s fingerprints.
“Everyone wants to show that they are responsible for us not having peace in this world,” he said. “The frames are cracked and damaged because they toured many many countries. I kept it as it is.”
Qais’ biggest challenge is having to do everything himself. He even made an eleven minute documentary about the burning of the Iraqi library, called Letters Don’t Burn. Projects that he works on today have more of a humanitarian theme. They don’t only encompass the Iraqi subject, because he wants to do something for our globe, not just for Iraq. One of the projects he did was called the Bridge. It showcased the work of forty seven premier and emerging Arab, Persian and Jewish visual artists around the theme of what “bridges” us to each other.
Qais’ synopsis was to collect stones and bricks and, instead of hitting each other with stones and bricks, to build a bridge out of them that would start a cultural dialogue between different countries.
“This would help create love,” he said, “because if I love you I will not fight you. If I love you, then I will put my hands with your hands and we will build something together. All the problems in this universe are the result of us not loving each other. People’s desires for opportunism, greed, for looking out for themselves and not each other, are the reasons we don’t have universal peace.”
To learn more about Qais Al Sindy and his exhibits, visit his website: http://www.qaissindy.com/