Last month I went to North Africa. We spent nine days setting up an art gallery, meeting new friends, talking with gallery visitors, eating at new restaurants, and praying for the city we were in.
The country we were visiting is 99% Muslim. The city we were in had a handful of indigenous believers. We were told that it was a great risk for the locals to choose Christianity, because they would likely be rejected by many of their friends and family. Many people we met through our art gallery had never had a prolonged conversation with a Christian before.
Our pop-up gallery gave us a unique venue to get to know people and to explore the ideas presented in the art: Who should we care for? Who can we relate to? How can compassion transcend cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers? What does it mean to welcome “them”, whoever “those people” might be? What kinds of people should we assign value to? Artists from across America sent us pieces centered around those ideas for the three day show we hosted.
The Language School
As soon as we landed, we met up with some friends living in the city and they helped us arrange for frames and temporary walls to be built for the art. The next day, we were invited to speak to a group of university-level English students at a language school. So we put on blazers, came up with an art activity, prepared a couple conversation questions, and headed off to speak.
At this language school, we met dozens of students, friendly and eager to talk with us. They took turns in groups painting small canvas shapes that we would later assemble into a larger, cohesive piece. Some students were hesitant at first to pick up a paint brush, but after some encouragement and direction went on to paint two or three shapes. Many told us that they had not painted since they were children.
Once we began to run low on supplies, we cleaned up our activity and went to lead a discussion with the students on creativity, how creativity can help us relate to others, how art can communicate things that words cannot, and how they saw creativity manifested in their lives.
Many students promised to come to our gallery reception the next day, and after a couple hours at the school, we said goodbye to our new friends.
We weren’t planning to go back to that school again on our trip, but on the day our gallery was scheduled to open, we ran into some difficulties getting an unexpected permit for the show. While some of our team spent the day sorting out the permitting issue, the rest of us got back in touch with our new friends at the school and we were kindly invited back for another day of art activities.
Students we had met the day before said hello and introduced their friends to us. Others sat down to paint, and explained the process to their classmates. After a couple hours at the school painting and talking, we got news that we had received the necessary permit. The students applauded and promised to come to the exhibition along with their families and friends. They did not disappoint.