Brief Encounters, Enduring Portraits of the Displaced

Brief Encounters, Enduring Portraits of the Displaced

CHICAGO — When the civil war in Syria escalated in 2012, the violence forced many residents to flee to neighboring Lebanon. Mounira Al Solh, an artist, remembers seeing a wave of immigrants enter her native Beirut, only to encounter racist behavior there.“I was seeing hundreds of new faces in my neighborhood,” said Ms. Al Solh, now 39, who has a Syrian mother and Lebanese father. “I was curious. I wanted to meet those people, welcome them and help them feel at home.”

So she began inviting some of the newcomers to her studio or a cafe to hear their stories and draw their portraits. Six years later, she has not stopped. Her portraits of refugees, mainly Syrians but also Afghans, Bengalis, Somalis and Ethiopians, currently number more than 450. Now, the Art Institute of Chicago is showing about 250 drawings from the series, along with some related embroideries, in the first exhibition of Ms. Al Solh’s work in the United States.The series and show are called “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” after a statement by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet known for writing about the emotional roller coaster of exile. Ms. Al Solh’s portraits too find, in the current refugee crisis, moments of personal resilience or hopefulness amid the trauma.Beyond Beirut, Ms. Al Solh has also made portraits in the Amsterdam area, where she lives part-time, as well as in Athens and Kassel, Germany, where she showed a selection from the series in last year’s Documenta. At Documenta the portraits were exhibited along with her re-creation of a Beirut bakery that her father ran to provide jobs for people with special needs. It was bombed in 1989.

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