Out of Africa, into downtown Silver Spring

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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Photos by Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Tanzania-born Hussein Saidi has created a series of mixed media images depicting the new and much different downtown Silver Spring.

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Now at Heliport Gallery are ‘‘Future on Ice” (above) made from acrylic paint, collage and natural fibers, and ‘‘Entering Downtown,” a collage (bottom) that uses digital images and natural fibers.

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What a difference the Peace Corps can make. This program may have been created to assist Third World countries, but little did those Kennedy people know it also could produce international romance, marriage and babies. More than a decade ago, Tanzanian-born artist Hussein Saidi met his Peace Corps volunteer wife Robin while she was stationed in his East African country.

‘‘We were friends, and then more than friends,” he recalls, speaking from his home in Silver Spring.But Saidi was realistic. He knew that once his American girlfriend’s assignment was complete, she would return home and he would be forgotten.

He wouldn’t have guessed that this exotic romance would turn into a welcome-to-America marriage or that he would become a full-time artist with a solo show on view at the Heliport Gallery in Silver Spring through Aug. 3.

It started when Rachel Saidi returned to Tanzania just to see him.

‘‘This was big for me,” he remembers thinking.

But she also came with a demand: The next time they would meet, it must be in the U.S.

Soon this love-struck 25-year-old left his CD business in his brother’s care and boarded a plane for Baltimore.

America was a surprise.

‘‘People don’t walk around,” Saidi had observed when noting the empty streets. And then there were 12 inches of snow as a result of the blizzard of 1996.

‘‘I’d always seen it [snow] up on Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says, but had never experienced the cold stuff up close. He also saw another major difference: Americans ‘‘are so busy, they don’t always have time.” Taking time out for family and the local community had always been an essential theme in the artwork Saidi produced in his hometown. To create collages using natural materials in Africa, he used banana stock (bark). Here he searches for birch bark, husks and natural fiber paper, combining them with acrylic paint to produce collages and paintings depicting images of families going about their daily tasks or social activities.

For this exhibit, he was asked to interpret Downtown Silver Spring’s present and future.

Heliport Gallery curator David Fogel believes ‘‘Hussein has done an incredible job capturing the dynamism and energy in Silver Spring through his unique collage work. His work begs the viewer to ask questions about progress and plans within our community, what we cherish and might not.”

Creating a collage depicting the much-debated ice skating rink planned for the only green space left in the heart of downtown Silver Spring doesn’t mean the artist is for or against the project. He isn’t interested in offering opinions about its future. ‘‘It’s not my call,” he notes. Saidi is not interested in making political or social statements in his art.

From there to here

Hussein’s artistic calling came after a couple of careers, including working as Web developer in Rockville. This doesn’t mean Saidi is hanging out in his studio contemplating the meaning of his art and hoping someone else will take care of the financial side of this frustrating business. The soft-spoken Tanzanian is part artist and part businessman, selling his work at art festivals all along the eastern seaboard. Each weekend, Saidi packs up his paintings and heads for places like Cincinnati, Chicago, Ocean City and Philadelphia — and that’s only this month.

His themes have an all-is-well feeling, ‘‘depicting scenes from daily life, or ‘‘ujamaa,” which is Kiswahili for unity in family and in community life,” Fogel explains.

Working as a fulltime contemporary artist was never part of Hussein’s grand plan. It all started when his father, a professor at the local college, would give Saidi and his siblings drawing lessons — whether they liked it or not. While the neighborhood kids were out kicking a ball, Saidi would be drawing. ‘‘I hated it,” the artist admits.

But somehow, Saidi realizes this exercise worked. He did commercial art in his hometown and upon arriving in the U.S., signed up for commercial art classes at Maryland Institute College of Arts.

In 2002, deeply affected by the sniper shootings, he produced a series of artworks for World Art Focus in Mt. Rainier.

The audience turnout was impressive, with glowing newspaper articles and loads of compliments. It was at this point that Hussein realized he just might be able to earn a living as an artist. And he did.

Welcome to America, where with hard work, almost anything is possible.

The exhibit will run through Aug. 3, Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m., or by appointment at Heliport Gallery, 8001 Kennett St., Suite 3, Silver Spring. Call 301-562-1400.