What do physicist Albert Einstein, painter Marc Chagall and Boise poet Fidel Nshombo all have in common? Simply calling them refugees isn't a fair way to answer the question. Yet all three have been among the millions displaced by world conflict during the past century, fleeing their homelands to escape persecution, imprisonment, even death. A more thorough (and satisfying) exploration of the plight of displaced persons can be found this week at Stewart Gallery.
The "Flight" portfolio exhibit and "A New Home, A New Life" art auction, presented by Stewart Gallery in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), brings together the legacies of art and social activism, in recognition of World Refugee Day. The "Flight" collection, which includes works by 12 world-renowned artists (and refugees) such as Chagall, Joan Miro and Alexander Calder, "reminds us of who these people were, how they were helped to survive, and what came of that," says gallery curator Stephanie Wilde. This unique art event exemplifies how cooperation between artists and social justice workers can allow individuals to express and heal—both themselves and those around them. Keziah Sullivan, community outreach coordinator and spokesperson for the Boise IRC office, adds that "this art exhibition underscores the fact that refugees, despite their traumatic experiences, do bring with them a value to the communities where they resettle."
The International Rescue Committee, organized by Albert Einstein during WWII to aid victims of Nazism, has assisted those suffering oppression—regardless of religion, politics, race or nationality—for more than 70 years. When the Nazi occupation of Paris forced thousands of refugees who had fled to France from other countries to leave, the rescue operation was headed by activist Varian Fry. Fry started with a list of names of refugee artists in need of rescue, given to him by Alfred H. Barr Jr., then director of the Museum of Modern Art. Fry and a young Czech refugee, Charles Sternberg, together saved more than 4,000 refugees, arranging for the relocation of more than 1,200 writers, artists, political activists and other cultural leaders. As Sullivan points out, "Without the efforts and risks undertaken by Varian Fry, the artists who bequeathed the art [in the portfolio] to the IRC would have perished by extermination under the Nazi regime."
The Boise branch of the IRC, the newest of 24 resettlement offices in the U.S, continues the humanitarian work of Einstein and Fry. Since it opened in 2006, the Boise IRC has helped hundreds of refugees from countries like Afghanistan and Somalia start new lives in the Treasure Valley. One such individual is Fidel Nshombo, a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who arrived in Boise seven months ago. Like the artists whose works comprise the "Flight" portfolio, Nshombo is an artist who survived thanks to the aid of the IRC. According to Sullivan, "Fidel has lived as a refugee since age 11. His determination captivates everyone. [He] lived as a street child and also grew up as an orphan, not knowing where the rest of his family was, having being dispersed during the Congo conflict. Fidel has become a shining example to many refugee youth, who still struggle to belong and also to forget their past trauma." Nshombo will recite his poetry at the opening event at Stewart Gallery on June 23.
The very arrival in Boise of the portfolio, which includes a limited edition of 11 lithographs and one serigraph, is a noteworthy occasion. Arrangements had to be made a year in advance through the IRC headquarters in New York. Proceeds from the "Flight" show will support IRC refugee self-sufficiency programs. In addition to the portfolio, more than a dozen contemporary artists have donated works for the benefit auction. These include Southwest artists Jim Moore and Linda St. Clair, whose works feature landscapes and barnyard animals; California-based abstract painter Alfie Fernandes; Chinese artist Li Tie, whose realistic charcoal and pastel portraits of Tibetan and Southeast Asian minorities have gained both acclaim and censure in his native country; and mixed-media abstractionist Jac Kephart.
For Wilde, the "Flight" show continues Stewart Gallery's long commitment to the community at large. Wilde said the gallery has, "always opened its doors to organizations for fund-raising." Stewart Gallery also has a history of collaboration with different arts organizations, presenting cross-media works, lectures and performances. Thus, in addition to Nshombo's poetry reading, the "Flight" opening will include live music and a lecture by Boise State art professor Richard Young. According to Wilde, both the philosophy behind the collection, and the quality of art to be seen and acquired, make this show an important event for Boiseans. "History is repeating itself, and we have to be reminded what that means," says Wilde, who asserts the importance of individual action. "You can help [so that] new art can be created."
As Stewart Gallery approaches its 20th anniversary, it is also on the cusp of restructuring—and moving. While the "Flight" exhibit will take place at its current location, Stewart Gallery will celebrate its 20th year in October in a yet-to-be-announced new gallery space, with an exhibit by a yet-to-be-named Japanese artist. In this way, the gallery will continue to connect the local arts community with "what's going on out there nationally and internationally," says Wilde. The gallery will also branch out into the publication of fine art books, establishing its own press, as well as focusing on getting its represented artists into new collections.
The "Flight" exhibition will allow local viewing and sale of a limited number of the original 300 copies, which are all individual artists' take on the myth of Aeneas as he fled the burning city of Troy. The subject was inspired by T.S. Elliot's description of Aeneas as "the original displaced person, the fugitive from an obliterated society." This cooperative effort between a venerable Boise gallery on the verge of renewal, and Boise's fledgling branch of a venerable charitable organization makes this fund-raiser a perfect work of art—not just for its own sake, but as a vehicle of social activism. As Einstein famously said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." On the sixth U.N.-designated World Refugee Day, thousands of organizations worldwide will come together to focus global attention on the plight of refugees, the causes of their exile, and the contributions they make to their new homes. What better time to imagine and create a better world? What better place to start than our own hometown? And who better to lead the way than artists, poets, musicians and thinkers?
June 17-June 30; opening reception June 23. For more information, contact Keziah Sullivan at 208-344-1792, visit www.theirc.org/media/www/world-refugee-day-irc-events.html or stop by Stewart Gallery at 2212 W. Main St. World Refugee Day is June 20.