DUBAI: From a delicate figurative drawing by Kahlil Gibran to Etel Adnan’s tricolor painting “Planet 8”, a recent exhibition at the Middle East Institute in Washington showcased the works of established and emerging Arab artists who have built their lives and their career in America.
“Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the US” demonstrated the long-standing presence of multidisciplinary artists associated with Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Sudan in American cities such as New York , San Francisco and Washington, exploring the generation’s overlapping themes of abstraction, figuration, migration, war and occupation, and all of which contribute to the canon of “American art”.
The United States is home to around three million citizens of Arab descent, but general public awareness of this community’s rich artistic production is low and tends to remain in Arab-American circles. Part of that problem is institutional representation, according to curator and freelance writer Maymanah Farhat.
“It’s all about advocacy,” she told Arab News. “The way the American art world works is that if you don’t have a group of people – including gallery owners, collectors, historians, curators, and artists themselves – consistently advocating, you really can’t move forward in terms of progress. . It is still an art scene dominated by white men. ”
Black artists, for example, also faced marginalization and neglect like their Arab contemporaries, but, as Farhat points out, the former have made significant strides in the past 10 years.
“It’s not something that one person can do, and it really takes diligence,” she said. “We have seen this recently with the emergence of black artists – real care is taken, but it comes from decades and decades of black art historians and curators defending these narratives, writing monographs and producing exhibitions.”
Given the political climate of the past 20 years, the “demonization” of Arab Americans is another concern, along with misinformation. Farhat said he heard someone comment once, “I didn’t know Arabs produce contemporary art.
“There is still that kind of really strong power from Hollywood and Orientalism in the sense of capturing the imaginations of Americans,” she added.
While there have been notable attempts to improve inclusiveness – exhibiting the works of Arab artists at international art fairs, auctions and biennials – there is still a long way to go towards full recognition. in the American context, which the MEI exhibition hoped to address.
The exhibition focused on three groups of Arab-American artists over a period of 100 years: the Modernists of the 1950s-1960s; the “mid-career”; and new artists of the past 15 years. It all started with drawings by the literary titan and grandfather of Arab-American art, Kahlil Gibran, who was born in Lebanon and roamed the literary spheres of Boston and New York for years in the early part of the 20th century. Founding figure of the diaspora, Gibran was one of the first to write about Arab-American identity, a subject that contemporary artists exploit to this day.
“Gibran and Rumi are the best-selling authors in the American publishing world and it’s funny that they’re still considered mythical ‘oriental’ men,” said Farhat. “It’s at least frustrating to me that Gibran was never considered an American artist, when much of his visual art was produced at a time when New York was truly international. Gibran was very active on the American art scene.
The title of the show refers to the fact that many of the featured artists have crossed paths at one point or another, and also shared an aesthetic and interests. “The most common theme is that artists assert their own identities and narratives,” said Farhat.
One of the most interesting artists on display is the late painter and critic Helen Khal, who was born to a Lebanese family in the 1920s in Pennsylvania, but decided to study in Beirut, where she would eventually become the studio companion with Huguette Caland. Their work is simple, exploring colors and shapes in what looks like a moving supernatural space.
“You can’t dispute their work,” Farhat said of the two female painters. “You see their work and you are completely blown away. Caland eventually left Lebanon, heading first to France, then to Venice, California, for about three decades, joining the West Coast abstraction movement.
Meanwhile, Etel Adnan, who died last month at the age of 96, began painting her now beloved and dreamy California landscapes in Marin County, making her a true Bay Area artist.
Honoring tradition and embracing new ideas, the late Palestinian printmaker Kamal Boullata, who lived in Washington for 30 years, was always inspired by the calligraphy and mosaics in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where he was born and was forced to leave in 1967. Helen Zughaib has a similar history of displacement, having fled Lebanon during the civil war. She is currently working in the United States and is also experimenting with calligraphy by writing the Arabic word “Beit” (house) over and over again to create her works.
Arab-American artists today are bold and vocal, using a variety of materials and often tackling heavy socio-political issues. Take Michigan-born Jacqueline Salloum’s “Happy Birthday Dear Sister,” a white frosted cake that looks pretty on the outside but is full of M16 balls. He refers to Salloum’s interviews with a young girl in a Palestinian camp, where normal activities such as baking a birthday cake took place amid constant violence.
For Lebanese-Mexican Farhat, who edits an upcoming publication on Arab-American art, the show’s diverse content is personal. “I love them all – there is something special about every generation,” she said. “I love that what we communicate with the show is the feeling of longevity. I think every generation has produced something that we can gravitate towards.
Farhat hopes the exhibition succeeded in communicating the idea that Arab artists and their American counterparts worked together as peers, as opposed to the latter only “influencing” the former.
“(Arab artists) got involved and contributed,” she noted. “It’s not that they were located in a specific city and then were influenced by other artists – they had their own style, their own techniques and their own contributions that they made to the scene. wider American artistic scene. “