By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Sophie’s Kensington Gallery, a cute little storefront at 4186 Adams Ave., has been exhibiting art with a message since opening in 2014. Whether encouraging autism awareness, honoring mother-daughter relationships or celebrating “Kitchen Kitsch,” the gallery’s aesthetic has a foundational theme: Its artists, adults with developmental disabilities, have a lot in common with everyone else. Art provides a venue for revealing those commonalities, and the proof is in the painting.
The gallery’s new show, launching June 4 in conjunction with Art Around Adams, is titled “Common Ground,” and it pursues the theme in a bold direction. The exhibit is a collaboration by five artists with disabilities, trained at the St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center, and five Iraqi artists, members of the Iraqi Culture and Arts Association.
Both organizations are based in El Cajon, which has a sizable Iraqi population. Sophie’s Center provides an array of programs for adults with such disabilities as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to help them reach their full potential. The Kensington Gallery is one of three operated by the center. The Iraqi Culture and Arts Association has a mission of building relationships within the community by increasing understanding of the art and culture of Iraq.
Association president Hussein Al Ghazali explained their goal, using an interpreter.
“We really appreciate the collaboration. We believe that it — the Iraqi art with the American art — is really important, to show how we are involved in this society. We like to be in the melting pot. Our artists represent the ancient Iraqi culture and show it in their art,” he said.
And, again, the proof is in the painting. A comparison of two paintings in the exhibit — a Baghdad cityscape by Iraqi artist Rabea Alwiswasee and a Tijuana cityscape by U.S. artist Mark Rimland — reveals their similar approach to capturing the colorful mosaic of a dense urban environment.
“There are a lot of misunderstandings about both groups,” said Wendy Morris, administrator of the gallery. “Art is a way to transcend that. That people are all the same comes out through art. People paint places they have gone, beautiful scenes, family, animals, everybody can relate to that. It breaks down a lot of barriers. It’s important to see all the artists for who they are and embrace them as members of our community.”
Morris pointed out that the Iraqi Association initiated their joint efforts.
“They sought us out. Somebody saw our gallery, and the president of the association asked if we would have a show with them. They asked to include our students,” she said. “It’s a way of building friendships with them and creating some interest and awareness of their culture through the artwork — to capture the public’s attention. I think our groups feel very close to one another. We’re friends now. It’s an honor to include them in our schedule of shows.”
Artist Rabea Alwiswasee, chief of the association’s arts program, is pleased with the exhibit’s title, “Common ground.”
“That’s exactly what he’s trying to show in his art,” his son and interpreter Osamah said. “He feels very good about it. It’s a chance to see other artists just like him, maybe better than him. Artists getting together to share ideas, mixing the art from both cultures — and people can share everything, that would be even better.”
Osamah explained Alwiswasee’s thoughts on the two nation’s attitudes toward art.
“There is interest in Iraq in art, but there are limits. He can’t show about religion, about culture. There are limits, what he can paint, what he can present. In the States, maybe there’s less interest in art, but there’s that freedom that every artist needs,” Osamah said.
Freedom is also an underlying theme of the exhibit. It’s about the freedom to step beyond expectations and stereotypes, to learn and grow, to explore one’s true identity, and to express it freely through art. It’s also about reaching for an audience willing to examine the artwork and the artists with open hearts and minds.
Rimland, from Sophie’s Center, has been painting for 39 years. He believes that art “can help make a person feel good. It can be part of making lonely people very happy people. I think [the exhibit] sends a message to the community — maybe it might encourage them to come see it and they’ll feel happier.”
When asked about the show’s theme, common ground, Rimland said, “It’s like magic. A very good surprise.”
The “Common Ground” exhibit runs June 4 through June 30. Stop by for a bit of magical cultural exchange — and maybe a very good surprise.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog, “Excuse Me, I’m Writing,” and has been published by The Missing Slate, Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voice of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at email@example.com.