Fleeing war-torn Syria, painter Majd Kara found himself in Lithuania where half the population says they refuse to help asylum-seekers. Now holding his second exhibition, Kara is changing the country's attitude.
"I would like to say 'take a look and enjoy,' as painters usually do," Kara addressed the guests in UNESCO gallery in the heart of Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, "But that wouldn't be fair in my case. It's more accurate to say, 'Take a look and suffer.'"
A mutant-like figure with three heads, a child failing to reach an adult's hand, a nude pregnant woman nailed to the cross: These are some of the paintings from "The Second Birth," a series of Kara's works exploring the idea of being reborn.
Rebirth is something 30-year-old painter has personal experience with. Last year, he moved from Syria to Europe, together with girlfriend Farah Mohammed, to start a new life.
Kara's art is meant to make viewers uncomfortable. He already did that in May with his first exhibition in Vilnius, which consisted of surreal portraits representing present-day Syria. He had painted them during his first months in Lithuania while living at the local refugee reception center in the small town of Rukla.
Previously in Damascus, Kara studied painting for four years, held an exhibition and worked as a graphic designer. But when conditions became unbearable, he decided to stop his career in Syria and seek asylum in Europe.
The dark atmosphere in his art reflects the reality that Kara and Mohammed have been experiencing over the past two years. They managed to reach Turkey, then took a lifeboat to Greece. Under the EU refugee program, they were sent to Lithuania - a country they knew almost nothing about. Painting tools were among the very few things Kara brought with him.
Art breaks down cultural barriers
Lithuania, a country of nearly 3 million in northeastern Europe, is far from a dream destination for asylum seekers. The average salary here is among the lowest in the EU - it's ranked 25th among 28 countries - and Lithuanian society is less multicultural than in Western Europe. Eighty-four percent of the population is native Lithuanian. Currently, only about 70 Syrians live in the country.
Kara admits he wasn't planning to go here. He preferred Germany, Spain and France - countries in which he has relatives and friends. "Most of my friends are in Europe; they left Syria. I wanted to be closer to them. I didn't know anyone in Lithuania," the painter says.
However, the asylum process led him here. Lithuania agreed to accept 1,105 refugees by the end of 2017. Kara and Mohammed were two of them.
So far, only about 200 asylum seekers have been sent to Lithuania, but that is already too many for some locals. In October, two women living in Lithuania's refugee reception center, a Syrian and an Iraqi, were harassed by young local men on their way to a shop. One of the men was trying to remove one of the woman's hijab and also broke her glasses.
According to a survey conducted in April, 46 percent of the people in Lithuania "completely disagree" about letting asylum seekers into their country. They see refugees as a threat to Lithuanian economy, security and national culture. In November, the news went viral when 35 asylum-seekers secretly rented a bus and left the refugee reception center, driving towards Western Europe.
In this context, Kara's works take on a special significance for Lithuanian society. The painter has shown that locals and asylum-seekers can find common ground through art.
"When I saw Kara's paintings for the first time, I felt that his art has broken cultural and geographical barriers. It was a universal language which many people here could understand," recalls Kristina Savickienė, an art curator and one of the initiators behind "The Second Birth" exhibition. "For me, this was an example of a person taking up his skills and his profession in order to change society and destroy prejudice."
Now in his eighth month in Lithuania, Kara has already made a lot of connections in the country's art circles. He has presented his works not only in the capital, Vilnius, but also in the smaller Lithuanian city of Šiauliai, where he attended a symposium together with local artists.
Kara and Mohammed have since left the refugee reception center and found an apartment in Vilnius. With help from his newly found friends, the painter rented a temporary studio close to the city center. Mohammed, a former English teacher, has started work at Western Union's Vilnius office.
"When we first walked in the streets of Vilnius, almost everybody was looking at me, checking my beard or my skin color, because I was different," Kara recalls. "But now everything is OK. It seems that all the people that I've met in Lithuania became my friends. I have a completely different life now, but it's a good life. It is much better than I expected."
'The refugee label is my curse'
Kara understands that his refugee status helped bring more attention to his work. But he hopes that one day people will treat him like any other artist.
"I think the refugee label is my curse. I want people to look at me as a human being and as an artist, not as a refugee," says Kara.
Savickienė agrees with him. "The refugee label strips people of their personalities and puts them in one box - the unfortunate, poor, suffering people," comments the art curator.
Nevertheless, she agrees that Kara's works have impacted Lithuanians' attitudes towards asylum-seekers. "Kara gives viewers an opportunity to experience the world anew, to move them out of their comfort zone, to stimulate their imagination. And with this he can be a part of the change that is taking place in the Lithuanian society, helping it to open up."
The exhibition marks "The Second Birth" for Kara as an artist. But, as Savickienė points out, "It is a sort of second birth for us Lithuanians, too. We are opening up to other cultures, races, ideas and religions, and will need to redefine the nation in terms other than ethnicity."
"The Second Birth" exhibition is being held in the gallery of the Lithuanian National Commission for UNESCO in Vilnius through December 6.