Visit MaineToday's profile on Pinterest.

About The Author


Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

Send an email | Read more from Bob

Posted: March 27, 2018

Want to see the work of Maine’s newest artists? ‘Migration Experience’ offers a glimpse

Written by: Bob Keyes

The stories all sound similar. Rabee Kiwan’s childhood memories are fleeing from place to place during Lebanon’s civil war.

Aymen Khaleel describes his grandmother’s house in Iraq being destroyed by a bomb.

Titi de Baccarat fled Gabon “with only the wealth of his artistic ability,” fearful of oppression.

They are among Portland’s new artistic voices, whose work will be featured in April in “Migration Experience: Reflections of Maine Immigrant Artists.” The exhibition of more than a dozen immigrant artists living and working in Greater Portland will be on view April 2-27 at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery at the Portland Media Center on Congress Street.

Collectively, the work expresses the experiences of Maine immigrant artists, said John Ripton, a photographer and art historian who helped curate the exhibition. The artists are students and professionals, men and women of varying ages and different levels of artistic achievement. Some have shown their work before, others are showing for the first time.

Their countries of origin range across the Middle East and Africa, with representation from Latin America and Eastern Europe, as well as China and Russia.

“The exhibition features some provocative and beautiful work,” Ripton said, “and we hope it leads to a discussion about immigration in Maine. Good art leads to conversations, and we hope that’s what comes from this.”

The First Friday Art Walk opening on April 6 will include poets and performers, who will create a celebratory multicultural event, Ripton said. He expects all the artists to attend the opening.

De Baccarat views his art as his calling card to his new country, as well as a way to make sense of his past. “When you come to a new country and a new city, it’s important to introduce yourself and share your story,” he said. “For me, art is a therapy.”

He left Gabon three years ago because he didn’t feel safe as a political artist. He made images that were critical of Gabon’s ruling party, and de Baccarat felt he had to leave. He ended up in New York and eventually Maine. He came to America expecting a better life, but found himself living among desperate people in shelters. “The image of the United States is not what I’ve experienced in my daily life,” he said. “It’s changed my perception, and it’s changed my art.”

He is showing sculpture in “Migration Experience” that suggests travel, movement and oppression. In his work, he tries to convey his experience as an immigrant, capturing his pain, fear and uncertainty, as well as his hope.

“I am not your enemy,” he said. “I come here as your friend.”

Kiwan will show paintings that he’s made since coming to Maine in 2009. They reflect his life in Maine, without disconnecting him “from who I am as an Arab immigrant.” The painting “Seaweed” depicts his son gazing across the ocean. “Immigrant” is a portrait of a Lebanese man, and “The Rooftops” shows his “cherished view” of his new home in Maine.

As a child growing up in Lebanon, he lived in a world of fear. He mostly remembers fighter jets screaming overhead and moving from place to place during his country’s civil war, which began in the mid-1970s and lasted until 1990s. More than 100,000 Lebanese people died and more than 1 million left the country. The military occupied his family’s home, just after they fled.

Kiwan came to the United States in 2002 to finish his medical training. A medical doctor he practices in Portland and uses art to “escape into the beautiful world of colors and shapes. … Unlike some artists who come from war-torn countries, I try to paint what is beautiful, the opposite of the reality I grew up with. I am trying to forget these memories. I am lucky to now live in a peaceful place like Maine.”

Aymen Khaleel, a student at Maine College of Art from Iraq, is showing acrylic paintings about the Syrian civil war, with dramatic images of burning cars, destroyed cities and dusty refugee camps. He made the paintings based on his memories of Iraq in 2003 when the United States invaded his country. He and his family left their home when the bombings began, to hide from the war. They were six people in a small room thousands of miles from home, and Khaleel used chalk to draw a picture of the Iraqi flag on the wall. He was 5 years old, and it was the first time he used drawing to express a sentiment. In this case, the flag represented his yearning for home. The paintings from the Syrian conflict that he’s showing in “Migration Experience” represent his story and his journey, and also tell the story of others who are living through war now, he said.

Akad Hamed, also in Iraqi painter, is showing a portrait of a forlorn human face, its eyes and mouth bound shut. Hamed uses the visual language of painting to most clearly express how he feels. “I’m a great speaker in my language, but here, I can’t do anything,” he said. “I had no choice but to draw something about my feelings.”

This exhibition is important, Ripton said, because it’s about shifting demographics on a world scale and how that shift is reflected in Portland. According to the United Nations, there are more than 250 million migrants in the world, and that number has doubled since 2000, though the flow of new refugees arriving in Maine has slowed from a steady stream to a trickle, part of a national trend driven by restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.

The point of this exhibition, Ripton said, is two-fold. It provides a testament to the struggles and successes of Maine’s new immigrants, as well as a reminder of the sacrifices and accomplishments of all immigrants over time.


WHEN: Opens Monday, on view through April 27; noon to 5 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 1 to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday; First Friday Art Walk Reception, 5 to 8 p.m. April 6
WHERE: Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery, Portland Media Center, 516 Congress St., Portland
Kifah Abdulla (Iraq)
Titi De Baccarat (Gabon)
Anna Mikuskova (Czech Republic)
Afshin Mahmoudi (Iran)
Ekhlas Ismail Ahmad (Darfur, Sudan)
African Dundada (South Sudan)
Mei Selvage (China)
Burcin Kirik (Turkey)
Akad Hamed (Iraq)
Sofia Aldinio (Argentina)
Ebenezer Akakpo (Ghana)
Christian Muhunde (Rwanda)
Makumbundo Franciso (Congo)
Edward Mbikiayi (Congo)
Rabee Kiwan (Lebanon)
Yelena Fiske (Russia)
Sahro Abrahim (Somalia)
Damir Porobic (former Yugoslavia)
Jean Medard Zulu (Congo)
Aymen Khaleel (Iraq)
Ekhlas Ismail Ahmad (Darfur, Sudan) Poet
Kifah Abdulla (Iraq) Poet
African Dundada (South Sudan) Rap Musician/Composer
Jawad Alfatlawi (Iraq) Musician
Mei Selvage (China) Traditional Chinese Ink Block Brushwork
Yves Karubu (Burundi) Drummers/Dancers

Up Next: