Freedom and Beauty

Iraqi refugee artists find a home in a Hell's Kitchen church


The picture shows the rough wear of its many journeys. A cheap canvas tacked to a wall then tightly rolled and unfurled again somewhere else. The rolling and unrolling repeated a dozen times as its author fled her home, then her neighborhood, then her city, finally her nation. It’s the art of a migrant now. A person without a country. A refugee.

“Freedom and Beauty: The Art of Iraqi Refugees,” on exhibit daily through May 28th at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on West 59th Street in Manhattan, is an attempt to link American viewers and Iraqi artists. You should go see it. That canvas, rolled and unrolled with the wandering of a displaced person, is like a message stuffed in a bottle and tossed to sea: “We’re here! We weren’t numbers. War is very damned expensive,” they cry. Or maybe they sigh, or mutter. The pictures communicate exhaustion. Weariness. Mostly dark, charcoal drawings, maybe it is more accurate to say the pictures whisper, “Can you see what happened to us?”

Hanging in this peaceful church, the pieces are powerful. All are of people engaged in simple, everyday tasks, or in tasks that have become routine in the seven years since the United States invaded. In the ruined aftermath of war and for people living in exile, the simplicity of the images carries great weight.

The pieces are affectionate, tender, and mournful. Rev. Frank Sabatte, a Paulist priest and facilitator of the New York artist group that is sponsoring “Freedom and Beauty,” hopes they prompt dialogue. “We’re really inviting people to come and have a conversation with these Iraqi people through their art,” he said. “Good art prompts a conversation that never ends. It prompts of conversation about who I am with God and who I am with others. It makes the world bigger,” he said. One indication that the larger world is paying attention to the conversation sparked by “Freedom and Beauty” came in the form of a recent inquiry Sabatte received. The Museum of Modern Art in New York requested a copy of the catalog for the Iraqi art exhibit for its own library. The MoMA museum librarian remarked: “Iraqi art is so underpublished and especially now, timely.”

[A slideshow of images from the exhibit is at the bottom of this article.]


“Freedom and Beauty” is sponsored by Openings, a group for visual artists who want to explore the connections between their work and spirituality, religion or the divine. Founded five years ago by Sabatte — himself a visual artist — the group meets weekly and sponsors a variety of art shows each year. Their September exhibit will feature several of New York’s prominent contemporary avant-garde artists. The group is part of the Paulist mission to communicate to spiritual seekers (like Busted Halo, also supported by the order.)

It’s a soft evangelization though. Sabatte says most Openings members have such negative associations with organized religion that his pitch for Openings and its work is a soft sell. “Outreach sounds like we’re out to convert people. We’re not. With Openings, and with ‘Freedom and Beauty,’ we want to affirm the experience of artists, to affirm that they are caught up with the transcendent,” Sabatte said. The Iraqi art is a departure from Openings’ other exhibitions in that the work is very traditional and simple. But it’s ministry is the same as ever: To connect the viewer to God through images and to underscore human relationships.

“Art deepens our sense of the spiritual in the truest sense,” Sabatte said. “Most of the time there is tremendous depth and spiritual life in this.”

A chain of supporters

Photo from opening night of Freedom and Beauty
Photo from opening night of Freedom and Beauty: The Art of Iraqi Refugees, on exhibit daily through May 28th at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on West 59th Street in Manhattan

The pieces in “Freedom and Beauty” made their way to St. Paul’s with the aid of a long chain of supporters — Muslim, Catholic, secular; American and Iraqi. Cathy Breen, a member of the Catholic Worker, a radical peace and nonviolence organization, brought the works to the United States. Breen has lived in Iraq and Jordan for several long stints, as part of Christian peacemaker teams. These groups attempt to take the beatitudes’ imperative to become peacemakers literally. They travel to sights of U.S. bellicosity on freelance missions of civilian diplomacy. The governments may be making war, but as humans — and children of God — the people can build relationships of trust. Through her work with Iraqi refugees living in Amman, Jordan, Breen met Wasan H. Al-Kabi, an Iraqi woman and artist. From there, Breen was introduced to other refugee artists and began to look for a place to share their work with Americans.

Joey Kilrain, one of Openings’ leaders, said he was moved to be part of that chain of people ferrying the work to an audience. “I took special pride that the work was in my hands. Here I am, running through Manhattan, getting on and off the subway, with this work coming from Iraq,” he said, explaining that he was amazed by the trust of the Iraqi artists to bundle up their work and send it on a journey to the U.S. “They were taking this huge leap of faith. I thought to myself, I mean, as an artist, would I do this? That’s really putting your faith in the work. That’s one of the many things that made me think this show was just meant to happen.”

Kilrain hopes the work helps American audiences to understand Iraqis as fellow humans and to understand that, however shattered, life is stumbling on.

Kilrain said he hopes the work helps American audiences to understand Iraqis as fellow humans and to understand that, however shattered, life is stumbling on.

“For me this is about showing how art reflects, this is what is really going on in the world. And it’s about the Iraqi artists saying life goes on and we’re alive, Kilrain said.

A new focus for activism

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 1.7 million people are displaced within Iraq and another two million have fled their country. The vast majority went to Jordan and Syria; only a trickle to the U.S. Last year, the U.S. state department announced it would accept 17,000 Iraqi refugees. So, activists like Breen — who spent to 90s resisting and critiquing the sanctions against Iraq that hurt mostly impoverished Iraqis, and the 2000’s arguing against and seeking an end to the invasion and occupation of Iraq — are preparing to spend the next chapter of their lives advocating for refugees, the people made homeless by the war.

As long as the show is up, those people are in the church. The little boys playing soccer. The group huddled around a fire. The tear-faced girl. The woman in hijab scurrying out of harm’s way. And the hands that bear witness by rolling and unrolling that canvas with each move, packing the charcoals and finding another place to attempt life. The drawings stay up when Mass is celebrated at St. Paul’s, those Iraqi faces mingling with the Fordham students and the old West Siders and the business people ducking in for solace. So maybe they — and the hands that drew them — are praying with the assembled, voices rising up to the same God.

Samples from the show “Freedom and Beauty”