‘Stories My Father Told Me’
Washington - A solo exhibit by Arab-American artist Helen Zughaib at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, Michigan, features her painting series, “Stories My Father Told Me”, capturing her father Elia Zughaib’s childhood memories of Lebanon and Syria.
Helen Zughaib has been a favourite AANM artist since its 2005 inaugural exhibition “INVISIBLE” featured her work and the AANM launched a companion community storytelling programme in conjunction with her paintings.
As their own “Hakawati” — the “Storyteller” — Elia Zughaib entertained his children with fables and family tales. When his daughter became a painter, she captured the stories in colourful 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 colour, Zughaib’s characters are lively, painted in cheerful d’après Matisse style in a kaleidoscope of pastel colours. The collection, offering a positive look at Arab culture, appeals to broad audiences. The artwork exudes nostalgia and playful happiness: garden walks, picking fruit, ceremonies, visits with grandmother, fables and, poignantly, her father’s arrival in the United States.
Zughaib’s figurative and constructed patterns are exquisitely detailed. Geometric and scrolling florals enliven the scenes. The 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. A striped donkey amuses and their hilltop village glows warmly in the background.
“Coming to America” captures passengers’ excitement aboard the Italian ship that took Elia Zughaib to the United States as it passes the Statue of Liberty approaching New York City. Men in traditional hats and women in long skirts watch 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 9/11 galvanised 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 says she is “called to be witness to regional events, the US-Arab relationship and the totality of the Arab-American experience”.
Zughaib says she communicates through painting to “combat stereotypes and dispel misconceptions”. She chooses subjects of compelling personal interest with a goal of fostering dialogue. She says she hopes 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 the flag.
Her patrons also include the US State Department and the White House, which have gifted her paintings. She has been a State Department cultural envoy to the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories, leading a month-long workshop in Ramallah with Palestinian women artists, and a speaker specialist to Switzerland.
Zughaib’s work won critical acclaim from L’Hebdo in Paris, which lauded her achievement of entering the pantheon of US 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 bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University, College of Visual and Performing Arts, in New York. 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 practise diverse crafts in the performance and visual arts.
The Jerusalem Fund gallery in Washington 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 demeanour. Her mission is heartfelt and genuine.
“Stories My Father Told Me” runs through April at the Arab American National Museum, 13635 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan.