A Winnipeg painter’s direct experience with conflict colors his new exhibition
A mother cradles her baby as bombs fall behind her. Her eyes are closed as the baby sleeps in her arms. This child was to be born into a world of hope, peace, love and serenity. Instead, war.
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300 Ross Ave.
As of April 15, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Info on bistkek.ca
Bistyek, the artist responsible for the painting, knows war, and he did not choose to encounter it. Now 25 and living in Winnipeg, with pierced ears and big eyes, Bistyek was once a child in Afrin, a Kurdish village in northern Syria. He lived there, until the war forced him to live elsewhere. Now he lives here.
He interrupts. It cuts. It demoralizes. It kills. It ruins. It is a product and a producer of evil. War is a violation of life.
When Bistyek – a name that means “21” in his native language – thinks of war, he doesn’t think of borders, politics or strategy, or the caliber of the weapon. He thinks of people caught in the crossfire, who did nothing to put themselves in the middle of the fog except to be born and choose to live.
So when he heard that an invasion had taken place in Ukraine, by Russian forces, he didn’t have to turn on the news to figure out who was right and who was wrong. He did not feel obliged to delve into geopolitical reports. He knew what was happening was reprehensible, immoral, unjustifiable. He hadn’t been to the Ukraine, but he didn’t need to use his imagination to understand the terror felt by mothers or the fear in the souls of young boys who would soon become young men. He knew about war and that was it.
So Bistyek did what he knows how to do: he painted. “In two days, I made seven paintings,” he says in his studio in the Stock Exchange district. In three weeks, he had completed 10.
He looked at the faces of the current war and saw the faces he had been forced to leave behind. He saw his mother and his aunts and his siblings and his neighbors and the people whose names he never learned but whose faces he cannot forget.
There is the mother with the child. A screaming man. A woman carrying a suitcase. The rambling face of a distressed human being, bloody fingernails, tears in his eyes, nostrils dilated, pupils dilated, staring straight into what must be shock but somehow could be hope.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine, it reminded me of Afrin, Afghanistan, all the wars that are going on and all the wars that happened in the past,” he says. “For me, I was thinking, ‘Come on. Another one?’ The world doesn’t need more children dying, more women dying, more men dying, more refugees looking for homes. This is terrible. I’m no stranger to those kind of feelings. When I see war – it could be in Ukraine, or in the Middle East or in Africa – I feel pain. I feel sadness. I want to stop it. But what can I do? ?
“That’s just it,” he says, pointing to his showroom, filled with works of heart and heartbreak. “I say it on a canvas. Say it out loud. Say it without a filter. F—- war.”
This four-letter word that cannot be printed, and this three-letter word that is printed far too frequently, combine to form the title of Bistyek’s current exhibition, at a gallery on adjacent Ross Avenue at the old Cosman furniture store. on Princess Street.
Inside the gallery, Bistyek’s verbal statement flows into something visual not often associated with war: color.
Close your eyes and imagine a war zone: it’s probably gray and black and white. There is rubble and crumbling concrete. Any spark of color is incendiary in nature, and any visible face is cloaked in terror unlike any other. Even the faces are gray and ashen. The clothes too.
But it’s not war that Bistyek sees when he closes his eyes. War is not colorless. An unfair trick that war plays is that the color remains: something meant to evoke joy is rendered joyless. Green comes to represent not grass but tanks and camouflage. Red is not a rose but blood. It is no longer the fire in the skies, the orange becomes the fire of an airstrike.
When Bistyek closes his eyes and thinks about war, he sees these colors for what they are, for what they were, and for what he hopes they will soon be.
Inside the gallery, huge and sparse, with white walls, these colors explode. And before them are faces, emotional and effusive faces. They feel pain and it is undeniable.
But walk far enough and you’ll find yourself in a smaller alcove where there are people, but they look different.
“Here they don’t have faces,” says Bistyek. This is another reality of war: it anonymizes. It erases the demarcations of the individual and pushes them into the collective. Some are on the side of the brutalizer and some are on the side of the brutalized, but all are entangled in the same brutality.
In this room, there is a faceless, nameless boy in fatigues, raising his right hand to his forehead in greeting to something he doesn’t understand and should never have understood. There is a uniform on fire. There is a soldier carrying in his hands a fallen dove.
War takes its toll, says Bistyek. It forces people to fight when they should be able to know peace. It forces the innocent to make choiceless choices to protect themselves and their loved ones. It scatters people like seeds in the wind.
Bistyek knows it. “My family was never together in the same room,” he says, sitting in his studio a day before his show opened. They got closer, but there are always one or two or three who are somewhere else, not by choice, but by circumstance.
These are the thoughts that come to mind when he paints. That even in a new country thousands of miles from where he was born, he cannot and will not forget the pain of war.
“It really is a terrible thing.”