Helen Zughaib: When Global Crises Become Compelling Personal Narratives

Helen Zughaib: When Global Crises Become Compelling Personal Narratives

Beirut-born Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib has embarked on a bold task.

Since 9/11 she has employed her art to project positive images of Arabs and the Middle East to a mostly American audience. Based in the politically charged Washington D.C. her goal is not to take sides in international events such as the Arab Spring bur rather to highlight the consequences of such life-changing situations. To interpret her art as political is to miss the focal point of her paintings. Zughaib insists her work is humanitarian in the impact it possesses and transmits.

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“It is so interesting so many people view me as a political artist. I definitely understand why they may come to this conclusion, but honestly that is not the way I see my work. Rather, as in the case of the “Arab Spring,” (I still choose to refer to it that way for continuity’s sake) I see myself as an artist commenting visually on the world around me, specifically the Arab world where I come from. I am taking the “side” of humanity, of women, children and the innocent people who are in general, the primary victims of political upheaval, war and displacement,” Zughaib said in an exclusive interview with Raseef22.

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Zughaib shows the quiet dignity of her subjects through everyday acts. Her paintings range from a crowded room of veiled women to shoes placed on an Islamic geometric design. These small but symbolic depictions serve to humanize moments of intense conflict or tragedy. When looking at Zughaib’s art, the viewer is instantly drawn to the bright colours. The intense and vibrant colour on her gouache canvas is not an aesthetic distraction but complements Zughaib’s main message of hope and optimism. She intentionally uses bright colours to depict darker, more somber events. Specifically, in her most recent collection “Arab Spring,” flowers seem to blossom from every corner of her canvas.

“In the “Arab Spring” series I began using the motif of a flower, symbolizing hope, optimism and equality. I retained this flower motif and various iterations of the flower throughout the ensuing six (and more) years the “spring” has gone on. I retain the bright colors as well. For me, the idea of beauty is also very compelling. I ultimately want the viewer of my work to hear my story, to create empathy, to put oneself in the “other’s” shoes, literally and figuratively. I feel many times that if a work of art is attractive, maybe even beautiful, it will bring people forward to study the work, initially drawn to the beauty, and after that, they can hear my message. Perhaps a bit subversive, but I still achieve my goal of this dialogue, possible empathy and possible solution,” she said.

A significant source of inspiration for Zughaib’s work is the concept of mass immigration and diaspora. To Zughaib, it is a personal as well as a global issue since she has been forced to flee violence twice before: once during the 1967 war with Israel, and again in 1975 during the Lebanese civil war, the latter time being permanent.

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One piece in her “Arab Spring” series is dedicated to such turn of events and is titled, “di/as/pora.”

“Di/as/pora, is a triptych, thus also the separations in my title, showing an exodus, departure, leaving, fleeing. We see a trickle of people turn into a mass…I suggest two possible scenarios, voluntary departure or the more disruptive and dangerous, forced departure, evacuation. It is both a personal narrative as well as referring to the current refugee crisis. In my life, I have experienced both. Oddly, this piece can be viewed from left to right (as I initially intended) or right to left as the Arabic language is written and of course read. This was actually pointed out to me as I stood looking at this piece in the gallery, speaking with a colleague.”

Another important influence for Zughaib is the abaya. Upon looking at her art, it will not take long to notice the key role the abaya plays in her work. According to Zughaib her inclusion of the abaya in her work came at a critical time in Arab-US relations.

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“I began using the abaya in my paintings, after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, the negative stereotyping of Arabs, Arab Americans, Muslims, began in earnest in the general media. I used the abaya in some pieces with irony, other pieces with humor, and yet others serve almost to educate, all to dispel preconceived ideas of what the abaya represented, as shown in my series begun around that time, “Changing Perceptions.”

In this group of paintings, I combined Mondrian and the abaya, Picasso and the abaya, Roy Lichtenstein and the abaya, Matisse and the abaya…seeking to flip those stereotypes, many very negative, on their ear, by bringing together elements in my paintings from both East and West.”

When asked how she sees her art’s role in bridging the cultural and intellectual gap between “East” and “West,” Zughaib replied, “I think that art goes where politics and politicians cannot go. I think art can make the invisible visible and give voice to the voiceless. I think art (in any form, music, dance, literature) serves as a platform for dialogue, with the purpose of inching towards each other, a step at a time, only to find out we are more similar than dissimilar. It does so in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, but ultimately hoping to achieve some mutual respect or even just acknowledgement and acceptance of each other’s differences.”

Despite Zughaib’s refusal to accept the label, “political artist” she does not shy away from discussing the importance of humanizing Arab political uprisings and struggles.

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“I think that the magnitude of the “Arab Spring” and its consequences, whether small victories in equality and change, or the massive tragedies of war and displacement, are overwhelming for most to wrap their minds around. The thousands killed, the thousands forced to flee their homes and families, the thousands seeking refuge in new countries, many times unwanted. As an artist, I feel compelled to try to “humanize” the plight of these people. I feel a responsibility to keep the story alive so people do not forget. To bring the story down to a very intimate level, a child’s shoe, for example, a small gesture of hope and perhaps, just maybe, creating the empathy that I strive for with my work, especially over the past six years.”

Yasmine is a student at Georgetown University, pursuing a major in Culture and Politics. She is interested in journalism and Arab affairs

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