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Syrian artist Houssan Alloum has been shortlisted for the Kingston Prize.Handout

It’s a long way from the mountains of southern Syria to the Canadian Thousand Islands. But that’s the distance Houssam Alloum, a finalist in this year’s Kingston Prize, has come.

One of 30 artists shortlisted for the 2019 award celebrating excellence in portrait painting and drawing, Alloum arrived in Gananoque, Ont., last year with his wife, Maya, and their eighteen-month-old son, Anil. An early starter as an artist, Alloum remembers drawing at the age of 4. By high school, he had honed his craft enough to woo Maya by memorizing her face and presenting her with her portrait as a gift.

The Alloums were sponsored by the Gananoque Refugee Settlement Group, set up in response to the horrific images of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, whose body had washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. The private initiative has helped three families and two individuals fleeing the war in Syria settle in the community, located on the St. Lawrence River near Kingston.

When the Alloums arrived, the group got in touch with Heather Haynes, a painter who owns an art gallery in town, to alert her to the arrival of the artist. “Houssam had brought 200 paintings with him, all rolled up,” said Haynes. "I invited him to use my gallery as a studio space. So he started painting in the shop, by the window.”

Alloum finally had a chance to finish a self-portrait he had started in Turkey, where he worked as an art director for a TV station after he was forced to leave Syria. The hyperrealist painting shows Alloum, 33, with the bottom half of his face covered in foil.

“When I left Syria, I didn’t have a beard. In Turkey, I didn’t have the enthusiasm to look after myself, so my beard grew. And the beard made people judge me,” Alloum said. He is talking about personal details that can indicate religious piety in the Middle East and, by extension, easy assumptions about political affiliations.

In Turkey, where the secular population feels increasingly under pressure from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist policies, the resentment toward piety is sometimes directed at Syrian refugees, who are in Istanbul in significant numbers.

But why the use of foil? “It’s like a mirror," Alloum said. "It can reflect but not in an exact way. I wanted the viewer to focus on my eyes and see me but also see reflections from my surroundings because our lives are not just our own; it is touched by people around us.”

The finished painting impressed Haynes so much that she suggested he should try for The Kingston Prize, which comes with a $20,000 award.

The portrait he submitted to the competition is called Joyce. It depicts Joyce McLaughlin, an 85-year-old resident of Gananoque who has been helping Alloum and his family settle in their new community. The foil, which has become a regular feature in his new series of paintings titled Reflections, appears on McLaughlin’s head like a crown.

“That’s Joyce’s treasure: her memories, which she has shared with us, helping us see this town through her eyes and her love of everything this town has to offer,” Alloum explains fondly. “She has 75,000 photographs of Canada and she can tell you a story about each one.”

Alloum’s art has already touched the small community.

“Because he sits in the window where he paints, people on the sidewalk see him and come in to talk to him. He has already painted nearly a dozen people from the community, anyone who has touched him in some way,” Haynes said.

And the new geography has clearly touched Alloum whose style of painting has dramatically changed since his days as a young artist in Suwayda in southern Syria. Instead of drawing fantastical characters with deformed, other-worldly faces, he is now exploring the precise techniques of hyperrealism.

“He is learning a new technique every day,” said Haynes, who has been inspired by Alloum to move her studio into the shop and work alongside him.

Alloum thinks the change in his style is because his English fails him. “When your language doesn’t support a deep need to communicate, you use other senses to connect to people. This has made me more interested in portraits,” he said.

Or maybe it’s the leisurely pace of a small town, after the incessant bustle of a city like Istanbul. Maybe it’s the new quality of the light that he says he follows “into the corners and crevices of a face so the detail can give the painting its energy.” Or maybe it’s because reality in his new home doesn’t need to be avoided; it can be stared at squarely in the face, literally.

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