Matt Schneider, Exhibition Curator
Over the past several years, I've been conscious of the turbulent atmosphere of conflict, oppression, and violence throughout the Middle East. To a certain extent, there just has never been "peace in the Middle East," but some new currents have made the news in recent memory: The Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Civil War, and increased persecution of Christians- as I write this, a chapel at a cathedral in Cairo was recently bombed.
None of these phenomena are isolated. They're all interrelated, and they sit on a surface that has years of complex history buried beneath. It's worth excavating, but as a white man, living in the American South, I usually feel helpless, like these conflicts are so far removed from my everyday life and concerns.
Meanwhile, two artists close to me have also been grappling with life in the Middle East. One is far from the conflict (like me) in Alabama, his experience dependent largely on news media. The other artist is up close and personal in Lebanon, a country that has taken in approximately 1 million refugees from neighboring Syria since 2011. This project came to life after a series of providential events, allowing them and their work to be in conversation--with each other and the rest of us.
Fadi BouKaram and I met years ago at San Francisco State University while he was working on an MBA and I was finishing my master's in English. So much has happened in our respective lives in the years since. I converted from atheism to Christianity, eventually went to seminary, became a pastor, and now I serve in Birmingham where I work with many artists and culture makers. Fadi moved back to Lebanon, worked in finance for several years all while honing his photography from a side hobby to a life calling. I took note of his photographs through Facebook posts. They struck me as particularly iconic, foreign yet highly relatable.
Joe Cory and I met just over a year ago and immediatley struck up a working relationship, mostly by collaborating wiht other artists and thinkers through his work as a professor at Samford University. I'm excited about this opportunity to finally engage Joe as a visual artist. He is not only a painter, but a deep thinker. I like Joe's art, but more importantly I enjoy him as a person.
It should be no secret that relationships with faith are part of this project for all three of us. We have no agenda other than we all have varying experiences with Christianity that are central to our own life histories. Fadi takes a lot of photos of churches not because he has a particular axe to grind but because it is an area of life in Lebanon he is acquainted with and feels comfortable photographing. Joe's mediations on the Syrian refugee crisis have been informed by his understanding of the Exodus of Isreal from Egypt through the Red Sea. My own reaction to the events in the Middle East have been reduced to a repeated cry to God for Mercy:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! - Psalm 130
I can only imagine this has been the prayer of so many suffering in this region too, no matter their faith background.
If anything, I hope our project brings about new levels of awareness, maybe it just raises questions yet leaves them unanswered, but hopefully it increases compassion. I don't imagine it will solve the crisis by any means. Mostly Fadi and Joe offer up their struggles with complex topics about which they feel helpless. As you'll see in the conversation with them, their art is largely an exercise in vulnerability, holding up a mirror for them. Perhaps their art will hold up a mirror for you, too.