With negative daily news from the Middle East, it is refreshing to reminisce about life’s delights where love of culture and tradition recalls the joys of simpler times. A new solo exhibit by Arab-American artist Helen Zughaib at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, features her painting series, Stories My Father Told Me, capturing her father Elia’s childhood memories in Lebanon and Syria. The AANM launched a companion community storytelling program. Zughaib has been a favorite AANM artist since its 2005inaugural exhibition INVisible featured her work.
As their very own “Hakawati,” the storyteller, Elia entertained his children with fables and family tales and, when Helen became a painter, she captured them in colorful tableaux. For the first time all 23 paintings are reunited, on-loan from collectors in the United States and overseas.
Working in gouache, an opaque water color, her characters are lively, painted in cheerful d’après Matisse style in a kaleidoscope of pastel colors. The collection appeals to broad audiences, offering a friendly positive peek into Arab culture. They exude nostalgia and playful happiness: garden walks, picking fruits, ceremonies, visits with grandmother, fables, and poignantly, her father’s arrival in America.
Zughaib’s figurative and constructed patterns are exquisitely detailed. Geometric and scrolling florals enliven the scenes. These compositions echo centuries-old miniatures with complex patterns as backdrop to the montage. In Blind Charity, a curly-tailed cat walks by a maiden on a dock near flowing water. A man rows by as she sets a basket afloat. In the background, curtains and laundry flutter. In this fable, the grateful recipient of generosity sends forth the basket to the next lucky person. Tiny Lebanese flags are visible and precisely-rendered rooftops and trees frame the bustling activity as faces look out from the windows and doors of the town.
A family in customary roles and village clothes harvests fruit in Making Raisins and Drying Figs; Arab culture holds a deep love of the land. The striped donkey amuses and their hilltop village glows warmly in the background.
Coming to America, captures passengers’ excitement aboard the Italian ship that brought Elia to America, as it passes the Statue of Liberty, approaching New York City. Men in traditional hats and women in long skirts look eagerly as the ship arrives cresting the waves.
Zughaib’s unique style nearly always includes Middle Eastern design motifs. Whether illustrating childhood tales or intense pattern studies, her expression is exuberant and powerful. Her artistry achieves a fusion of compelling attraction while communicating serious messages of societal commentary, family life, conflict and dialogue in diverse themed collections.
Reflecting on her identity as an Arab-American, Zughaib says “It is who I am…I feel an emotional connection to it. I can help people understand the Arab world, to project positive ideas and foster a dialogue.” She describes how the impact of 9/11 galvanized her focus, which intensified with her sadness over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She reflected on the Arab Spring in two collections: Arab Spring followed by Fractured Spring. She feels “called to be witness to regional events, the U.S.-Arab relationship and the totality of the Arab-American experience”.
Zughaib communicates through painting to “combat stereotypes and dispel misconceptions.” She chooses subjects of compelling personal interest with a goal of fostering dialogue. She hopes that her work will be appreciated broadly; indeed her clientele and curators span cultures and religions. Among many prestigious buyers of her work, The Library of Congress owns her Prayer Rug for America painting through which she celebrates a message of religious freedom invoking our flag.
Her patrons have also included the U.S. State Department and the White House which have gifted her paintings. She has been a State Department Cultural Envoy in Palestine , leading a month-long workshop in Ramallah with Palestinian women artists, and a Speaker Specialist to Switzerland.
Her work has won critical acclaim from L’Hebdo in Paris which lauded her achievement of entering the pantheon of American institutions and celebrated her current AANM exhibit. The Washington Post, other publications and broadcast media have featured her paintings. Zughaib lived in the Middle East and Europe for several years, before earning her BFA from Syracuse University, College of Visual and Performing Arts.
The number of Arab-American artists is rising. Mostly women, they hail from throughout the Middle East or were born in the United States and practice diverse crafts in the performance and visual arts. The Jerusalem Fund gallery in Washington, DC hosts several exhibitions each year, featuring Arab-American artists’ work, including Zughaib’s, in various media from painting and photography to glass, ceramic and video. Few have achieved the level of national and international recognition accorded to Helen Zughaib. If such a list existed, her diverse repertoire and talent would surely place her in a leading rank, given demand for her work in national and international venues, prestigious curatorial interest and broad media coverage. In the midst of her rising success, she remains accessible with an engaging personality and humble demeanor. Her mission is heartfelt and genuine. Photo credit:
Copyright, Helen Zughaib
Collection of Philip and Terrie Stoltzfus