Bîstyek, an exhibition titled after the artist’s chosen name, opened on Sept. 4 at 300 Ross Ave. in the space that used to house Actual Gallery. The exhibition is vast, featuring over 50 pieces, most of which are vibrant mixed-medium works on a large scale.
Lisa Kehler, former curator of Actual, was invited to put on this debut solo exhibition and act as a mentor to Bîstyek, an emerging artist without an arts background or any formal training.
Bîstyek, a Kurdish Syrian, fled his home country in 2011 and travelled to Lebanon, where he lived for seven years before coming to Canada as a refugee.
He says “I was positive, because I got a chance to start again. It was difficult at the beginning. I didn’t speak any English. I did a lot of volunteering and worked in different places. Just a year ago, I quit a (job at a) coffee shop and went home in my small room, and I went to paint ... I decided this is what I want to do.”
Kehler, who is passionate about outsider artists, says “I saw the work and fell in love with it. I spent two months getting to know him, getting to know his story.”
Bîstyek was living in a one-bedroom apartment with other people, “and when he finally got the studio space (at 300 Ross Ave.), he could expand and enlarge the scale. He quit his job to become a full-time artist, and he is only 24.”
Bîstyek says “When I was a kid, we had no TV. I would put paper together and do lots of sketches, draw my mom and brothers, lots of cartoons. Every time I wanted to think of something nice, I would look at the cartoons and drawings that I did.”
A lot of the subjects of the paintings in the exhibition are people Bîstyek met on his journey to Canada, while some are a “reflection of feelings. Each one of them is different, has a different feel. I kept a lot of things inside,” he says.
Kehler explains that the layout of the exhibition illustrates Bîstyek’s own journey, with the monochromatic pieces near the beginning referencing his time in Beirut when he couldn’t afford to buy colour, to the expressive figurative works in the middle based on people he met along the way, to some of the more literal pieces near the end that represent themes of home, belonging and displacement.
Bîstyek’s style immediately brings to mind canonical artists, such as Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat, which Kehler says is fascinating, as he had no prior knowledge of them.
“I knocked out 100 works. The biggest thing was trying to figure out how to select works that show the diversity of his skill and methods. Some pieces are really graffiti-like, some modern, some aggressively painterly – he’s so diverse, and I tried to pick out works that really show his range in ability,” she explains.
Of his process, Bîstyek says “I just felt this is what I need to do. When I paint, I don’t think about what I’m going to paint. I just start to do it.”
The show can be seen at 300 Ross Ave. by appointment until Nov. 14. Contact [email protected] to schedule a viewing.
Published in Volume 75, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 29, 2020)