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First-ever Arab art show in Vancouver highlights diversity of the Middle East

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VANCOUVER - A beat-up 1970s Toyota Corona sits among bundles of household goods, waiting for the tarried family who will pile their life atop its roof racks and drive to new beginnings.

The sky-blue car is part of a new exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology that showcases the works of contemporary artists from the Middle East, in the hopes they can debunk a western-world myth that the area is all about burkas, bloodshed and bombings.

The life-size visual display entitled "Destination X" by Lebanese artist, Ayman Baalbaki, chronicles his family's flight from their homeland during a 1970 civil war.

It's a story that is all-too-common in places like the Middle East, where unrest and uncertainty have often uprooted families and communities and scattered them across the globe.

But it's also a universal human story, as a new art exhibit in Vancouver aims to point out — and so-called hot spots aren't confined to any one particular region.

"In terms of stereotypes, many of the artists here either hit them on the head, challenging people, or subtly make us rethink our positions," said Jill Baird, the show's local co-ordinating curator.

The collection of 16 contemporary Arab artists features visual art works from countries such as Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey.

The pieces, which will hang in two galleries from April to September, centre around the theme of "safar" — a word meaning voyage in Farsi.

It's a theme Canadians should well be able to relate to given Canada's history of immigration, Baird said as she toured the stark-white gallery in preparation for its opening April 20.

Voyages represented aren't always physical, Baird added. Many of the artists reference spiritual, philosophical or emotional journeys as well.

Others make pointed political statements, like Egyptian-born artist Raafat Ishak, whose "Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments" is the first piece visitors see when they enter the exhibit.

Ishak's work stems from immigration applications he sent to the governments of 194 nations. He painted a panel displaying each of the countries' flags and the stylized, phonetic summaries of the responses given by bureaucrats.

Only 97 countries actually responded to Ishak's request, something Baird said highlights the often-frustrating process of bridging geopolitical boundaries. While she can't read Arabic, Baird said she's been told the immigration response from Canada directed the artist to its website.

Further along, one encounters striking self-portraits by Tarek Al-Ghoussein, a Palestinian artist born in Kuwait. In one, he dons a Palestinian headscarf — made popular by politician Yasser Arafat — and walks by a plane.

While some might take Al-Ghoussein for a simple baggage handler, too many would immediately peg him as a terrorist in North America's post-9/11 world, Baird said. It shows just how deep Western misconceptions can run, she added.

She said North America has been slow to catch on to the new wave of dynamic artists emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, adding shows like this one are more common in New York or Europe than Canada's West Coast.

Baird has enlisted the help of an Iranian-born curator with a specialty in Middle Eastern art to choose the pieces and theme for Safar, an exhibition that's been three years in the making.

Dr. Fareshteh Daftari calls herself a nomad, having lived in cities like Tehran, San Francisco, Paris and New York — so she knows what it's like to yearn for a sense of place.

It's something she's tried to capture in every piece of art she's chosen for the show in Vancouver.

"It's about longing for a place — a site that is not reachable, not crossable. That is something that many people who have left home can relate to," she said. "I didn't want to dwell on stereotypical expressions such as calligraphy or repressed women because these ideas have, in a sense, hijacked the art of the region."

Many of the works were discovered at international art shows in Venice, Paris or Istanbul, she said.

But Daftari added she didn't have to look far to find one of the show's featured artists. West Vancouver has been home to one of Iran's best known sculptors for over two decades — yet his work has never been exhibited in Canada.

Parviz Tanavoli, 75, came from Iran in 1989 during a time, he said, it was difficult for his two daughters to get a higher education because of the Islamic government that had come to power during a revolution ten years earlier.

He feared his son would be forced to join the army during a time of war, and his artwork had all but ceased because he said Islamic ideals prohibited sculpture for fear its followers would worship idols instead of Allah.

When he and his wife decided to leave Tehran for Vancouver, Tanavoli said it was difficult to leave his house, studio, family and friends behind.

"That was so dramatic — everybody was crying," he said. "But it wasn't for our own sake or comfort, it was for the future of our children."

Having lived in B.C. for close to 24 years, Tanavoli was somewhat surprised his work has never been shown on Canadian soil.

"I've been thinking about this for at least ... eight or ten years," he said. "But there was no interest, no venues to open their doors for my ideas."

Better late than never, Tanavoli said there seems to be a budding interest in the art of his homeland.

"So much news comes from there but mostly, unfortunately, the news (is) negative — about wars, about terrorism and fights — so it's nice that people see a little bit of the culture, not only bad things," he said.

"Most Westerners — and among them Canadians — when they think of the Middle East, either they go back to Babylonia and old Persians, or the Middle Ages and harems ... They have no awareness that things have changed."

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