DUBAI: From a delicate figurative drawing by Kahlil Gibran to Etel Adnan’s tri-colored painting “Planète 8,” a recent exhibition in Washington’s Middle East Institute showcased the works of established and emerging Arab artists who have built their lives and careers 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 including New York, San Francisco and Washington, exploring the generationally overlapping themes of abstraction, figuration, migration, war, and occupation, and all contributing to the canon of ‘American art.’
The US is home to approximately three million citizens of Arab heritage, but the general public’s knowledge of this community’s rich artistic output is at a low and tends to stay within Arab-American circles. A part of this problem is institutional representation, according to the show’s independent curator and writer Maymanah Farhat.
“It’s a matter of advocacy,” she told Arab News. “The way that the American art world works is that if you don’t have a group of people — including gallerists, collectors, historians, curators, and artists themselves — constantly advocating, you really can’t get anywhere in terms of making headway. It is still very much a white male-dominated art scene.”
Black artists, for example, have also faced marginalization and neglect like their Arab contemporaries, but, as Farhat points out, the former have made significant strides in the last 10 years.
“It’s not something that one person alone can do, and it really requires diligence,” she said. “We saw that with the emergence of black artists recently — there’s actual care being taken, but that comes from decades and decades of black art historians and curators advocating those narratives, writing monographs and producing exhibitions.”
Considering the political climate of the past 20 years, the “demonization” of Arab-Americans is another concern, as well as misinformation. Farhat said she once heard someone comment: “I didn’t know Arabs produced contemporary art.”
“There is still that kind of really strong power of Hollywood and Orientalism in the sense of capturing the imaginations of Americans,” she added.
While there have been notable attempts to improve inclusivity — exhibiting the works of Arab artists in international art fairs, auctions, and biennales — there is a long way to go towards full recognition in the American context, something the MEI exhibition hoped to address.
The exhibition focused on three clusters of Arab-American artists over a 100-year period: the modernists of the 1950s-1960s; the ‘mid-career’; and the newer artists of the past 15 years. It began 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 during the early 20th century. A foundational diasporic figure, Gibran was one of the first to write about the Arab-American identity, a topic that contemporary artists tap into until this day.
“Gibran and Rumi are the best-selling authors in the American publishing world and it’s funny that they’re always seen as mythical ‘Eastern’ men,” said Farhat. “It’s frustrating to me, at least, that Gibran is never seen as an American artist, when so much of his visual art was produced during that time when New York was truly international. Gibran was very active in the American art scene.”
The title of the show refers to the fact that many of the featured artists crossed paths at one point or another, and also shared aesthetics and interests. “The most common theme is the fact that artists are asserting their own identities and narratives,” Farhat said.
One of the most interesting artists on view is the late painter and critic Helen Khal, who was born into a Lebanese family in 1920s Pennsylvania, but decided to study in Beirut, where she would eventually become studio mates with Huguette Caland. Their work is simple, exploring colors and forms in what looks like an unearthly space in motion.
“You can’t argue with their work,” Farhat said of the two female painters. “You see their work and you’re completely blown away by it.” Caland eventually left Lebanon, heading first to France, and then to Venice, California for around three decades, becoming associated with the West Coast abstraction movement.
Meanwhile, Etel Adnan, who died last month at the age of 96, first started painting her now-beloved, dreamy Californian 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 forever inspired by the calligraphy and mosaics of the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem, where he was born and forced to leave in 1967. Helen Zughaib has a similar story of displacement, having fled Lebanon during the Civil War. She currently works in the US, and also experiments with calligraphy by writing the Arabic word ‘Beit’ (home) over and over again to create her works.
Arab-American artists today are bold and vocal, using a variety of material and often addressing heavy socio-political matters. 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 bullets. It references Salloum’s interviews with a young girl in a Palestinian camp, where normal activities such as baking a birthday cake, took place against a backdrop of constant violence.
For the Lebanese-Mexican Farhat, who is editing a forthcoming publication on the artistry of Arab-Americans, the show’s diverse content is personal. “I love them all — there’s something special in each generation,” she said. “I like the fact that what we’re communicating with the show is the sense of longevity. I think every generation has produced something that we can gravitate towards.”
Farhat hopes the exhibition managed to communicate the idea that Arab artists and their US counterparts were working together as peers, as opposed to the latter only “influencing” the former.
“(Arab artists) have been engaged and they’ve been contributing,” she noted. “It’s not that they were located in a specific city and were then influenced by other artists — they had their own style, their own techniques, and their own contributions that they’ve brought to the larger American art scene.”