Iraqi art show aims to promote interfaith dialogue


To some, Iraq evokes images of casualties and destruction. But if the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and its Undercroft Gallery have their way, Iraq’s vibrant art community may someday over-shadow its current status.

St. Matthew’s, 2136 Carter Ave., St. Paul, is hosting a show by Iraqi artists called “Iraq: Reconciling Through Art” through Oct. 22.

Blair Pogue, rector at the church, says art is an “incredible medium for dialogue about interfaith issues, which can often be uncomfortable because people are afraid of offending someone. Then you don’t always get a sense of the richness in different faith traditions and cultures.”

Two years ago, the church hosted a show of Christian and Jewish artists reflecting on the Psalms. “They’d respond to a Psalm they loved by creating a painting or picture and then we had a discussion,” Pogue said. “What I learned during that amazing session was art was a really safe and hopeful medium for us to learn about each other’s faiths and cultures.”

St. Matthew’s is working on this show with the Iraqi Art Project, part of the Minneapolis-based Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP). (The IARP was founded by local restaurateur Sami Rasouli, who sold his business and returned to Iraq a few years ago. He wanted to help rebuild his country via various endeavors, including art, which he brings to the Twin Cities.)

IARP executive director Kathy McKay said, “We’ve been showing Iraqi art and interweaving that with various faith communities. That’s been extremely successful.”

“Artists in Iraq struggle to make the art, yet it’s amazing to see their giftedness,” Pogue added. Once a painting is completed and cured, the artist carefully removes the staples from the wooden support frame, then rolls up the painting, image-side out (to prevent the paint from cracking). The painting is then placed in a suitcase and transported by a volunteer who brings it to the IARP, where a staff curator frames each painting and produces its labels.

Peg Houck, who has chaired the Undercroft art gallery for years, said the church has never brought in art from another country,  “especially a country that we’ve been at war with.”

Besides showing work of adult artists, the show includes the art and letters of Iraqi children. “I see it as communication through art and peacemaking with Americans and Iraqis,” Houck said. “It would be lovely if we could get dialogue going more with the Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Twin Cities. If we do it through art, that might open up a door.” 

According to the International Institute, the Twin Cities is home to a growing number of Iraqi immigrants. “We thought it would be important to learn more about Iraqi history and culture through art,” said Pogue.

Lis Christenson, director of children’s ministry at the church, scheduled Iraqi artist Adnan Shati to speak on the history and development of Iraqi art and culture at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at the church.

Christenson also arranged for a free screening of  “The Unreturned” by local filmmaker Nathan Fisher. (The tagline says: “4.7 million Iraqis fled because of the war. Why haven’t they returned?”) It will be shown at 7 p.m. Oct. 14.

“People need to see the actual people of Iraq- if not in person, then see the images of where they live, what they look like, how they sound-their language,” Christenson said. “The film has a nice variety of older and young people and shows how the war has affected them. I hope people will see that these are real people just trying to living their lives after the fallout of this war.” 

According to Pogue, all sales at the show will directly benefit the artists.  “We are hoping that, as a result of this show, people develop greater knowledge and respect for Iraqi people, not as victims or part of a country that we invaded, but as artists,” Pogue said. “I just feel like there’s a lot of potential to use art as a tool for reconciliation and greater understanding.”

For more information, contact St. Matthew’s at 651-645-3058 or visit


Natalie Zett is an award-winning writer who contributes to a variety   of Minnesota publications.