THE BREAKDOWN Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib — ‘Coming to America’

THE BREAKDOWN Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib — ‘Coming to America’
The artist created ‘Coming to America’ in 2003. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 February 2021

THE BREAKDOWN Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib — ‘Coming to America’

THE BREAKDOWN Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib — ‘Coming to America’

DUBAI: The Lebanese-American artist discusses her 2003 painting, ahead of her virtual presentation at the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies on February 18.

My father is the ‘hakawati’ (storyteller), so he has told us stories and memories about his childhood in Damascus and later Lebanon his whole life as an education for us. In my book “Stories My Father Told Me,” “Coming to America” is the very last story. It’s his journey from beginning to end, when he finally emigrated to America. It is very timely, especially with the whole concept of what’s going on with immigration in America. Hopefully some of these restrictions will be loosened up with the new administration. When I read that little story, I start to cry every time.




Helen Zughaib is a Lebanese-American artist. (Photo credit: Basil Kiwan)

In the story, the Vulcania is an Italian ship that the Americans seized during World War II and they repatriated it — that’s why I put the Italian flag. That was the ship that came and picked up people from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to come to America. What stood out for me were the sacrifices that people made to come to this country. I was evacuated twice in 1967 and in the civil war. When you’re forced to leave somewhere, it’s extra painful.

Colors are very important to me. The paint that I use — gouache — has such a beautiful, pure quality that you can’t get from acrylic and oil paints. When I attract you to my painting — even if my message is painful — I’m attracting you to look at patterns, bright colors and the beautiful aesthetics of the painting. If it’s horrible-looking, you’re going to turn away; you’re not going to look at what I’m trying to tell you.

This way, at least I’ve gotten you to shift your thinking a little bit and stand in my shoes. The bright colors and patterns are part of my agenda to bring you into my world and be a passenger on that boat: Imagine what they must have felt like when they stayed up all night and saw the Statue of Liberty and what that represented to them. My father is 93 now and he remembered, all those years back, that it was a beautiful, clear day.