‘Stories My Father Told Me’

Helen Zughaib’s Exhibition at Arab American National Museum

Working in gouache, opaque water colour, Zughaib’s characters are lively, painted in cheerful d’après Matisse style in kaleidoscope of pastel colours.

Helen Zughaib


2015/04/17 Issue: 1 Page: 21


The Arab Weekly
Najwa Margaret Saad



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.


Najwa Margaret Saad is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Washington.


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