Art: Paint it Bright

Hamilton Artists’ Group Adds New Colours to the Canadian Palette.

by Guylaine Spencer

Knair Rashid’s daughter is only eight years old, but she already knows the basics of making pottery. “She learned by watching me and helping me with my art,” Rashid told me recently. Despite her packed schedule as a day care worker, part-time college student and mother of three, the professional potter still finds time to encourage her daughter’s growing talent.

Rashid knows the importance of positive feedback first hand. The encouragement she received from the Hamilton’s Immigrant Culture and Art Association (ICAA) a few years ago changed her life. When she immigrated to Canada from Iraq, where she worked as an art teacher, she wasn’t sure if she could continue her artistic career. She didn’t know how to get started. “But then I heard about ICAA,” she said. “They opened the door for me. Yar Taraky told me, ‘I don’t want you to let our art die.’ He offered me the chance to teach a pottery class again. He also gave me the chance to participate in two art exhibitions. When I saw my picture in a magazine, I felt: now you’re doing something!”

The ICAA is a unique group that nurtures newly- arrived artists. Yar Taraky is the Executive Director. Taraky has exhibited his work in Asia, Europe and America. His next show will be in Japan, where his series of paintings commissioned for the Afghan embassy to Tokyo will be displayed.

I asked Taraky about the role and history of the ICAA.

“Ten years ago, when I arrived in Canada from Afghanistan,” he explained, “many galleries would not accept some of the immigrant artists. New artists were arriving in Canada and their experience and expertise were not properly utilized. They ended up in gas stations and convenience stores. Some of them quit practicing their art because it was not profitable.”

This situation challenged Taraky, a motivated man who works about 16 hours a day. (In addition to being a professional artist, he’s an engineer). “I wanted to succeed and also serve Canada,” he says. “One of the ways we could do that was to organize an art association.”

“A couple dozen artists, musicians, writers, performing artists from different countries gathered together on a monthly basis. SISO provided space. We talked about how to do our art business, how to preserve our cultural identity and how to bring new colour into the Canadian cultural spectrum.”

During that first year, 2001, they organized exhibitions, school visits and lectures. “Our first objective was to prove to artists that they could still continue their art, at least on a part-time basis.”

In 2002, the group registered and obtained some funding from Trillium Foundation. Since then, they have expanded their activities to include art courses, theatrical and musical performances, artist mentorships, and summer internships for youth. The organization also sells artistic services to organizations like the Children’s Aid Society and SISO. Taraky explained: “With SISO, we offer a healing program for refugees who arrive in Canada. It’s sponsored by the Canadian government and has been successful in exposing the needs and trauma of refugees.” The program works better than any other technique that has been tried.

ICAA has four employees, six to ten contracted teachers, two employees with SISO and about twenty volunteers. Their work has attracted the attention and support of the Hamilton Community Foundation, the Workers’ Art and Heritage Centre and local media (the Hamilton Spectator and View Magazine). Welcome Inn, which provides a business-training program for people with low incomes, has stepped up to help artists sell their work at a new pilot project, an outdoor art market.

Sabawoon Bazaar took place every Saturday this summer on Hamilton’s waterfront. According to coordinator Meaghan McGregor, “participating artists get start-up capital – $1,500 – then a weekly stipend of $100 to come to the market so they’re not in a position where they can’t afford to be there.” Renee Wetselaar, Executive Director of the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre put it this way, “Consider the United Nations development model. You start by giving people their own seeds and creating support mechanisms and training around them. Sometimes, before you know it they have a farm to live off and sustain themselves. It takes trust and faith but it can work.”

Aziz Alhusainy was one of the stall-holders for this first season. The professionally-trained sculptor operated his own art gallery in Iraq. “I can speak with customers and learn what they like. Some people make art on t-shirts or useful things like furniture with art. It’s a good opportunity to get practical. It helps the artist feed himself, to learn how to fish. I learn what my customers like, the size, the colours, etc. The artist and the professional are two personalities. The professional should feed the artist.” Although he felt discouraged about his art career when he first immigrated, Alhusainy is doing well now. He teaches art, and the Islamic School of Hamilton commissioned him to create an educational mural. He plans to approach other schools in the area.

Sabawoon has also created a real sense of community, according to McGregor. “At Sabawoon you’ll find recent immigrants alongside fourth generation Canadians,” she noted. Everyone energizes each other. Geraldo Mansang, a fine arts painter originally from San Andres Island in the Caribbean, treasures the friendships that have grown up over the summer. Differences dissolve and talk revolves around art, which is everyone’s passion. Music and laughter are a big part of the market. “We are artists together,” he said. “We share different experiences, but I realize we are the same, we have no borders. We are like brothers. We have a lot to be proud of as artists and as Canadians.”

The ICAA is creating a circle that embraces and encourages artists of all ages, from all walks of life. Thanks to them, Hamilton is enriched with talent that might have been lost. Perhaps the group’s success will inspire artists in other cities to do the same.

CNM