Art by email

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A new exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park proves that art can travel even if the artist can’t. Yvette Huddleston reports.

In our complex modern world, it can be problematic to invite international artists to exhibit their work in the UK.

Global political situations and immigration regulations may complicate cross-border collaborations, but the creative team at Yorkshire Sculpture Park have come up with an imaginative way of circumventing these restrictions with their forthcoming show Beyond Boundaries: Art By Email which opens in The Bothy Gallery next month.

A partnership between the YSP and ArtRole, an international arts organisation which aims to build cultural connections between the Middle East and the rest of world, the exhibition showcases the work of 16 artists from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates, celebrating the notion that ideas and art can travel, even if people aren’t able to.

“We have been working with ArtRole for about eight years now,” says Dr Helen Pheby, senior curator at the Sculpture Park. “The chief executive, Adalet R Garmiany who is of Kurdish-Iraqi origin, lived in Hull for a while but is now back in Iraqi Kurdistan. His whole reason for founding ArtRole was to encourage understanding through culture. I went over to Iraq and Kurdistan in 2009 and met some brilliant artists out there. I really wanted to bring some of them over and work with them in the usual way but that proved to be difficult because of their visa situations. It is incredibly hard for artists outside the EU to come to the UK. We can invite people over but the process of getting a visa is really invasive and time-consuming – and there’s no guarantee of success.”

She tells me about the experience of Azar Othman, also Iraqi-Kurdistan-based, one of the artists featured in the show, who was invited to exhibit his work at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. He went through the lengthy visa application process, all seemed to be fine, but then he was turned back at Manchester airport.

“It happens quite regularly,” says Pheby. “Our view is that in doing that you are building barriers instead of encouraging understanding. So we thought that rather than trying to challenge the system, how can we work within it?” An open call was put out to artists in Middle East and North African (MENA) countries inviting them to submit artwork via email for inclusion in the exhibition. The artists were given the brief to not only share the everyday realities of current events in their countries but also to highlight the hope, resilience and creativity that still thrives in the region, despite often extremely challenging circumstances.

“We received 50 proposals,” says Pheby. “Then Ardalet and I went through them and we selected 16. There is a range of photography, film, performance and even an abstract sculpture which will be 3D printed during the exhibition. Obviously some of the work is fairly political because of the situations that the artists are living in, but there are also some more playful ones – there is a lovely picture of a little girl with a cow, for example, which could be any child in any country. We are trying to show the creativity and optimism of the artists.”

The show includes a powerful and moving photograph by Iraqi artist Younes Mohammad which depicts a Yezidi refugee, surrounded by many others, clutching a pillow, a poignant symbol of home and security.

Turkish artist, curator and academic Baris Seyitvan’s digital print shows the artist floating in the sky, held up by helium balloons. A photograph of the artist’s installation Every Stone Wants to be Free, of a helium balloon tied to a brick, also features in the exhibition.

Documentary photographer Zardasht Osman’s work comprises pictures of people serving in the Iraqi Kurdistan military forces photographed in front of images from popular culture. It delivers a thought-provoking message about the sacrifices made by one generation so that the next can live in freedom. Egyptian-born Mai Al Shazly’s video installation Undercurrents, two films at right angles to each other, demonstrates the relationship between resistance and non-resistance. While one film shows an active aggressor in combat with a passive opponent – a kick-boxing young woman versus a gym punch-bag – the other is of a calm, blue ocean full of fish complete with a soothing soundtrack of bubbling.

The very personal nature of the artwork means that each piece becomes a kind of direct conversation with the artist. The work reveals specific truths about life in countries and cultures very different from our own. They give a glimpse into both everyday and extraordinary experience while also reminding us of our common humanity. “The domestic scale of the Bothy Gallery means that it is very welcoming which feels very appropriate to the work,” says Pheby. “That more intimate setting is perfect.”

There is also a photograph of a performance by Azar Othman who for his piece Peoples Questions in a City collected opinions from the public on various aspects of current affairs, which were then written down and displayed in the centre of Sulaymaniyah City. Othman is to be YSP’s first virtual Visiting Artist and visitors are being invited to become part of the project by sharing their images, thoughts and experiences of the Park using the hashtag #ForAzar. “This is definitely the beginning of something,” says Pheby. “We are hoping to roll it out each year with artists from all over the world.”

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, January 7-March 5, 2017.

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Since its inception in 2004, ArtRole has worked to develop an annual programme of activity in Iraq, the UK, the USA and Europe. This has included artist exchanges and residencies, exhibitions, performances, film screenings, music and literature festivals, human rights and environmental conferences. It seeks to connect the Iraqi war zone with surrounding countries and the wider world, to celebrate diversity and cultural difference within a framework of shared human values.

YSP visiting artist Azar Othman will be in (virtual) conversation with Helen Pheby on January 21.