Celebrating the contribution of Arab-American artists to culture – Eurasia Review
By Rawaa Talas
On April 1, US President Joe Biden released an open letter extending his “warmest greetings” to the Arab-American community in honor of Arab-American Heritage Month. Such a gesture was welcomed by many, including Lebanese-American artist Zughaib, who emigrated from Lebanon to the United States during the civil war.
“Finally, you feel proud and hopeful,” Zughaib told Arab News. She was commissioned by cosmetics giant Sephora to create a new piece of artwork for its social media platforms celebrating the special occasion. The result is this cheerful and colorful image of dabke dancers and musicians. Zughaib’s work is about finding beauty and hope in stories of personal and collective trauma. “I have a very strong desire to do something appetizing that can catch your eye,” she explained.
Lebanese photographer Matar has lived in the United States since 1984. Her intimate images explore themes related to adolescence and femininity, capturing young women reclining in the privacy of their bedrooms or immersed in nature. In Matar’s ongoing series “Where Am I Going? the viewer is confronted with women photographed in abandoned spaces in Beirut, like this image of a theatergoer named Rhea, seated inside the old Piccadilly theatre. “I saw graffiti on the wall that said in Arabic, ‘Where am I going?’ These women are at this crossroads. Where are they going? I was their age when I left Lebanon. Some leave; others cannot afford to go anywhere. I want to empower them and tell their story,” Matar wrote in a statement.
The works of Los Angeles-based Egyptian artist Guirguis are inspired by forgotten stories of marginalized communities, especially women. This work, “Here I Came Back,” was a site-specific sculpture created for an exhibition at the Pyramid Plateau in Giza, Egypt, last year. It is shaped like a sacred musical instrument played by Hathor, the ancient goddess of music and dance. Adorned with pharaonic symbols, the sculpture also pays homage to the revolutionary 20th-century Egyptian feminist, Doria Shafik, whose writings are featured. “Serving both as a memory of history and an invitation to connect these narratives to the present, the work aims to make visible once again the invisible work of generations of under-recognized women,” Gurguis said in a statement.
Halaka, born in Egypt, is the son of Palestinian and Lebanese immigrants who came to America in 1970. “Until the COVID pandemic, I traveled to Palestine almost every year to work on various projects,” said he told Arab News. In her evocative series, “Ghost of Presence/Bodies of Absence,” Halaka addresses the plight of exiled Palestinians by placing ink and stamped text, sometimes appearing in the form of a human face, over digital photographs of villages destroyed, creating a ghostly and imitating effect, Halaka said, “the incessant tension between the physical absence of Palestinians who have been exiled from their homeland and the psychological presence of millions of Palestinian refugees who continue the struggle to return to the lands that were stolen from them.”
JACQUELINE REEM SALLOUM
As a first-generation Arab-American, Salloum has devoted much of her time to challenging Arab stereotypes in Hollywood. But recently, the Syrian-Palestinian artist has been experimenting with lively and detailed collages, juxtaposing historic black and white photos with vibrant drawings. “My current work further explores the connections between personal, collective past, heritage and history through diasporic memory,” she told Arab News. “Remembering the Future”, this multimedia work, merges the personal story of Sumaya Yousef, a displaced Palestinian woman, and key events that took place in the 1960s, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the World Expo in 1964-65 – based on the theme of “Peace Through Understanding” – in New York, Yousef’s future home. Salloum brings out the contradiction and irony of such events: spectators peering into a utopian bubble of Palestinian refugee girls at school, the voice of Umm Kulthum drowning out the noise of Israeli warplanes.
Inspired by Palestinian embroidery and working with Arab artisans, Nassar, a Palestinian-born artist born in New York, is known for creating patterned and vibrant pieces that reveal imaginary landscapes of Palestinian lands. “I was talking to some Palestinians who had never been there, I noticed that they were talking about Palestine in a way that seemed really dreamlike – imaginary; a fantasy,” he previously told Arab News. “It was always this perfect, beautiful place with hills and goats and olive trees. I was really moved by this idea that Palestine is a fantasy for so many people in the diaspora. In this work, “Beyond the Boundaries”, Nassar revisits his recurring motif of the hills.
“I view my plays as a record of my decisions over time, a document of my story — my story to me,” Baltimore-based Milad, who is of Egyptian and Honduran descent, told Arab News. Works like this, “Nada Que Decir” (Nothing to Say) from 2021, are full of colors, words and symbols. “This work is an accumulation of multiple layers of collage and painted marks over two years,” she explained. “It includes world news and quotes from lyrics and poetry. I also mix languages in the works, reflecting my upbringing. The title of the book is ironic; the artist expresses a lot of emotion, but has nothing to say in the face of the complexities of identity.
A woman in a white dress carries a large water container above her head, while another woman in black carries eight vertically stacked pots. These are two of the powerful shots of Iraqi-born photographer Alshaibi, who said in a statement that she was interested in “the societal impact of unequal power relations between the West and the Middle East, and the the way in which this domination is articulated through the photographs”. Alshaibi’s “Carry Over” series recalls how Orientalist photographers portrayed women as “exotic” beings. “I aim to amplify the physical burden of their unfair portrayal by exaggerating the items (they) were carrying,” Alshaibi added.