YMCA art show spotlights refugee and immigrant artists

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Refugee and immigrant artists channeled their experiences and cultural identities into artwork displayed last month in Flores Hall.

This year’s show, “Triumph of the Human Spirit: Works from Houston’s Refugee and Immigrant Artists,” is YMCA International’s second annual art show hosted in the Glassell Gallery. The show featured six returning artists among the 11 featured. The show and auction took place on Oct. 6.

YMCA International provides social services. Local caseworkers help immigrants and refugees settle in Houston, provide opportunities to learn English and connect them with jobs. After discovering that many immigrants and refugees were artists in their home countries, YMCA International started the art show to introduce the artists to the Houston art scene.

“These guys are really talented, and a lot of people don’t realize it,” said Joe Saceric, the Director of Community Relations and the main organizer of the event. “We wanted to put them in front of potential collectors. These artists are not known, so this is a great opportunity for them.”

The artists presented their work on the evening of Oct. 6. Attendees could bid on the artwork. This year’s show and auction raised $23,000, which is split between the artists and YMCA International.

Featured artists included Charles Liu (Taiwan), Juan Miguel (Cuba), Brayen Valdes (Cuba), Timoteo Dominguez (Cuba), Sonya Wafdeq (Afghanistan) and Somer Atshan (Iraq), with returning artists Mohammad Borra (Syria), Tekie Gebremichael (Eretria), Tina Al-Debashi (Yemen), Thamir Al-Sheikh (Iraq) and Hai-Van Hoang (2nd generation from Vietnam). New artists displayed six pieces in the gallery, while returning artists displayed two works.

Some of the artists have lived in the US for years, while others are so new to Houston that they needed translators in order to speak with potential buyers.

Many of the artists considered the show an opportunity to meet people in the Houston art industry and become full-time artists once again.

“This is my first exhibition, and I’d love to continue having these opportunities,” Brayen Valdes said.

Most of the artists were influenced by their experiences in their home country, their journey to the US or the continuing struggle in their home country.

“All my inspiration is from Afghanistan—my people living back there are in a bad situation,” said Sonya Wafdeq, who moved from Afghanistan in 2015. “I just think about those faces and their feeling. The pain in their heart shows in their eyes.”

Many artists, including Charles Liu and Tekie Gebremichael, draw inspiration from the cultures of their native countries, which connects them culturally and commercially to their homes. Liu’s main market for his paintings is in Taiwan.

“In postmodern art, we need an identity,” Liu said. “Oriental philosophy is my identity. The idea that humans are a part of the world, not in control of it. I like that philosophy. It’s more peaceful.”

Other artists are inspired by their new life in Houston and the freedom they have found here.

“All of my work’s inspiration is from Houston because I have a completely different reality,” Juan Miguel said. “Houston is very diverse, and I have freedom to express how and what I feel. I’m doing what I love. It’s that simple.”

Many of the artists found inspiration from the Houston art scene.

“My tile art is inspired by Houstonian artists,” said Tina Al-Debashi, an immigrant from Yemen who has lived in Houston for three years. “We take each other’s style.”

The artwork was featured in the Glassell Gallery for three weeks before the auction. Art teacher Dan Havel worked with Saceric to coordinate the show and plans to continue their partnership next year in their third exhibition.

“The SJS Visual Arts Department will be working with the YMCA to make the exhibition an annual event,” Havel said. “The program is a great cause to support. It helps artists most in need and brings quality international artwork to the SJS community every year.”

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