It was just about noon that day, almost one year ago, when Bistyek turned to a manager at the Winnipeg coffee shop where he worked and said that he wanted to quit, just like that.
It wasn’t any one reason; more that everything he had been through was welling up inside him, aching for the time and space to come out.
Everything, such as spending seven years displaced by war. Such as moving to Canada without knowing English. Such as a family scattered across the world: Bistyek, two of his siblings and their mother in Canada, a brother in a refugee camp in Iraq, another in Lebanon and another who vanished in Syria, his fate unknown.
That was all inside of him, while he was working at that coffee shop. Bistyek — that’s what he prefers to go by, his artist name — has never been much of a talker, he says. It’s not how he expresses himself. But he has other ways, and on that day, he knew that it was time to give those ways time and space to grow.
"While I was serving latte, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here right now?’" he recalls.
So he quit, and went home and started to paint. Three months later, he’d finished almost 40 pieces.
"From there I said ‘OK, this is it,’" he says. "This is what I need to do. This is what I want to do."
Now, the 24-year-old artist is on the verge of opening his first solo exhibition, a collection of about 50 works that range from striking large canvases to smaller works on paper. His style is dramatic, angular, flashes of memories captured in unsettling shapes and sometimes saturated colour. It is his life, held up to public view.
"It’s a mix of everything that I’ve been through," he says. "I want to really share it with others and kind of see and try to feel what I’ve been through. It’s not just about me, I know it’s happened to a lot of people. So I want to just show them or tell them about the experience."
He was never formally trained as an artist. As a child in Afrin, a Kurdish town in the northeastern corner of Syria, he didn’t watch TV. Instead, he collected sheets of paper and covered them in cartoons, or sketches of people he knew. People said he was a good artist, but at the time, he didn’t think too much of it.
Then came the disruption. The Syrian civil war. Bistyek and his family fled to Lebanon, where they remained for seven years. They registered with the United Nations, hoping to get chosen for resettlement. Three years ago, they finally got the news they were approved to come to Canada as refugees.
“It’s a mix of everything that I’ve been through. I want to really share it with others and kind of see and try to feel what I’ve been through. It’s not just about me, I know it’s happened to a lot of people. So I want to just show them or tell them about the experience.” – Bistyek
They arrived in the winter. It was cold. They lived a little bit outside the city and struggled to make connections in their new home. But one night, around 10 p.m., there was a knock on the door. It was Bistyek’s brother-in-law visiting with a man, Nour Ali, who was renowned as a community organizer for refugees from Syria.
In June, Ali died after a boating mishap on Lake Winnipeg. Bistyek’s family was one of the hundreds he helped.
"He started to talk, he said, ‘There are many opportunities, you can volunteer,’" he recalls. "Me and my brother, we were just depressed. When he saw that, the next day he came to us and took us to work. I said, ‘What work? I don’t speak English. How can I work?’ He said, ‘It’s not a problem, just come.’"
Within months, Bistyek had become a volunteer with Ali’s organization, the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees. He is now program co-ordinator for KIFR’s annual summer camp for refugee youth; in August, he led an art workshop with them, exploring the history of art and learning about how art can be used for advocacy.
Now, he is excited to show the world his own work. For much of the last year, he sought to make inroads into the local art community and find space for an exhibition — at first, with little success. But then he met Tim Borys, who owns the gallery space at 300 Ross Ave., and things started to happen.
It was Borys who connected Bistyek with Lisa Kehler, an experienced curator. When she first heard about the artist, she was intrigued, she says; much of her master’s degree study had focused on artists from outside academic traditions. Still, she wanted to know a little more about him before committing to being a mentor.
"I said, ‘It sounds really interesting, but let me see the work first,’" she says, with a laugh.
When she saw the work, Kehler says, she was "completely blown away." She was captivated by his point of view, so clear and distinctive; by the way his work ranged from precise to wild and "almost abstracted." She could see flashes of other artists in his work, but they were ones he’d never seen, never been exposed to.
"He’s tapped into something," she says. "I think he’s an intuitive painter, so it’s almost like stream of consciousness painting.... His work is very powerful. Some pieces are kind of fun and lighter. Then you get into some where you can just see the pain.
"Every once in a while, you stumble upon work that just reinvigorates you," she adds. "It’s been really incredible to work with him because he’s just such an artist. He’s young, he’s new to Canada, but he’s just so passionate about what he does. And it’s really refreshing to be around somebody like that."
Above all, those who come to the exhibition will see an exploration of emotion, in the most raw visual terms. Creating these pieces wasn’t always easy. Bistyek feels each memory as he translates it and commits it to paint, or charcoal, or whatever of the many mediums he brings into his work. And this, too, he wants to be seen.
"When I’m painting something sad, I will be sad," he says. "When I’m painting something that hurts, while I’m painting it I’m getting hurt. But with all that I enjoy it... when I paint, I feel that I need to paint, and I also want to finish it. When I finish it I really want to share it."
Bistyek’s exhibition runs at 300 Ross Ave. from Oct. 16 to Nov. 14. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance is by appointment: to schedule a viewing, email email@example.com. Works will also be available for purchase.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.