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'Welcome to Guelph' in Arabic signs open the door to discourse

University of Guelph student uses art to initiate discourse around Arabic people, language and culture

University of Guelph grad student Hiba Abdallah has come up with a unique way to initiate positive dialogue around an occasionally contentious subject.

It’s an art project with a social conscience that also lets people in Guelph show their support for refugees relocating here.

As part of her Master’s of Fine Art culminating work, Abdallah has created small tin black and white square signs that read “Welcome to Guelph” in Arabic.

She is asking people to sign a “contract of hospitality,” promising to display their sign on their property for one year, not changing the sign in any way.

As a way of expanding the project beyond Guelph, she has also created t-shirts that have “This says something in Arabic” printed in Arabic on the front.

“I kind of use being an artist and making artwork as a platform to talk about things that maybe are a little bit tricky or difficult to talk about,” said Abdallah, whose family came to Windsor from Egypt 35 years ago.

“I was thinking about ways of how I can embed all this discourse that’s been going around about the Arabic language, the Arabic people and the Arabic culture, but not make it so aggressive or so black and white, because it is a very nuanced and complex thing.”

She said the signs offer “entry points” for people to feel comfortable talking about something that they might not feel comfortable talking about.

So far 100 people are displaying signs in their homes, work and businesses.

“I don’t know 80 per cent of them,” she says. “The community has been very responsive.”

“The amazing thing about this community is that I’ve actually had to do nothing. It’s been spreading through word of mouth, which is incredible. I’ve been getting emails from people asking for them and asking for them in a way of ‘I really want to show my solidarity,’” Abdallah said.

So far there has not been one negative response or reaction to the signs, she said.

Abdallah said as an artist she tries to take her work beyond it being an object.

 “I use art as a starting point and then expand into larger fields of discourse, especially political, social or cultural issues,” she said.

The work transforms through the interactions she has with those she involves, she said.

“So far this project has been extremely positive,” she said.

Her signs and t-shirts were on display Wednesday at the U of G’s Master of Fine Arts Candidates Open House.

Abdallah’s finished project will be on display at the Art Gallery of Guelph on May 4.

Anyone interested in contacting her can do so through