What do Americans think of Arab women?

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Helen Zughaib shows the quiet dignity of her characters in everyday life. The motifs of her pictures range from the hectic crowd of veiled women in a room to a still life made of shoes, placed on an Islamic ornament. These small but symbolic motifs show the deeply human moments in serious conflicts or tragedies.

The viewer is literally drawn in by the bright colors of Zughaib's works. These intense and vivid colors on her gouache canvas are not an aesthetic distraction, but rather complement Zughaib's central message of hope and confidence. She consciously relies on light colors to represent rather dark events. In her latest collection, Arab Spring, in particular, flowers seem to be sprouting from every corner of her canvas.

"I started my work on 'Arab Spring' with the motif of a flower, which for me symbolizes hope, confidence and equality. I kept the flower motif and created different variants in the following six (and more) years, during which the ' Spring 'developed further, and I also held on to the bright colors.

The concept of beauty captivates me. After all, I want to win the viewer of my works to my story. I want him to feel empathy, put himself in the other person's shoes, literally and figuratively. If a work of art is attractive or even beautiful, people let themselves be captivated by its beauty. They then study the work more intensively so that they can hear my message. I am convinced of that. That may be a little subversive, but with this dialogue I finally achieve my goal, namely to awaken empathy and to look for a possible solution. "

Mass immigration and diaspora

A major source of inspiration for Zughaib's work is the topic of mass immigration and the diaspora. For Zughaib, this topic has a personal and a global dimension. She had to flee violence herself twice: once during the war with Israel in 1967 and again in 1975 during the Lebanese civil war, which ultimately developed into an ongoing conflict.

One work in her series "Arab Spring" is dedicated to such turnarounds and is entitled "di / as / pora".

"Di / as / pora, is a triptych, hence the hyphens in the title that refer to moving out, farewell and fleeing. We see a trickle of people turning into a great river ... There are two possible scenarios: Voluntary departure or the forced, dangerous displacement and flight - this is just as much a personal narrative as it is a reference to the current refugee crisis.

I've experienced both myself. Curiously, this work can be viewed from left to right (as I originally intended), but also from right to left, just as the Arabic language is written and read. A colleague pointed this out to me recently during the exhibition. "

Another important element in Zughaib's work is the abaya, the traditional Islamic overgarment for women. The abaya has played a key role in her paintings since a critical point in Arab-American relations.

"I painted the abaya for the first time after September 11th and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was when the negative stereotyping of Arabs, Americans of Arab origin and Muslims began in the mass media.

I used the abaya ironically in some works, humorous in other works and enlightenment in still other works. I wanted to dispel the preconceptions associated with the abaya; for example in the 'Changing Perceptions' series that was started at that time.

In this group of pictures I combined Mondrian and the Abaya, Picasso and the Abaya, Roy Lichtenstein and the Abaya, Matisse and the Abaya ... and tried to reverse these stereotypes, many of which are very negative, by adding elements in my pictures from East and West brought together. "

Art goes where politics cannot go

When asked what role her art plays in bridging the cultural and intellectual gap between East and West, Zughaib replied: "I think that art goes where politics cannot go. Art makes the invisible visible and gives voice to the voiceless.

Art in every form - whether music, dance or literature - creates the basis for a dialogue. It helps us to get closer to each other step by step so that we ultimately find out that there is more that unites us than divides us. It does this in a more or less subtle way, but ultimately in the hope that we will learn to respect one another or at least manage to accept or acknowledge differences. "

Zughaib resists the label of a "political artist", but she does not shy away from addressing the importance of the human side of Arab political uprisings and conflicts.

"Most people cannot properly classify the meaning of the 'Arab Spring' and its consequences. This applies to the small victories in the sense of equality and change as well as to the great tragedies with a view to war and displacement. Thousands were killed, Thousands were forced to leave their homes and families behind, thousands sought refuge in new lands - and often met with rejection.

As an artist, I feel obliged to show the human side of this misery. I see it as my job to keep history alive and to keep it from being forgotten. I want to take the story to a very personal level. For example, I show a child's shoe, a small gesture of hope, and perhaps arouse the empathy that I strive for with my work. "

Yasmine Salam

© Raseef 22

Translated from the English by Peter Lammers

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