Arab American Artists Challenge Stereotypes Through their Work

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 62-63

Music & Arts

On July 30, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee hosted artists Doris Bitter and Helen Zughaib to share their artwork and discuss Arab American contemporary art. Sarah Rogers, a visiting professor of art history at Middlebury College, moderated their conversation. 

Rogers introduced the history of Arab art in America. Scattered exhibitions across the U.S. in the 1950s and 60’s set the stage for a “more sustained infrastructure” in the 1980s. This infrastructure consisted of publications, permanent galleries dedicated to Arab American art, and eventually the opening of the National Museum of Arab American Art in Dearborn, MI in 2005. 

Artists themselves, Rogers argued, were essential to laying these foundations, as they “work[ed] not just as practitioners, but as activists, as curators, as researchers, and so on.” However, she pointed out the “fraught nature of this term, ‘Arab American art,’ as it encompasses a very complex history and an equally diverse body of artists and artworks.”

Using their artworks as a launching point, Bittar and Zughaib discussed the challenges they face in a post-9/11 world as Arab American artists. 

Before Sept. 11, Bittar was not compelled to engage with the Arab world or Islamic art history. In its aftermath, though, she recalls saying to herself, “I guess I have to go back to the Arab world now.” Yet she continues to draw inspiration from across the globe. “Basically what I’m interested in,” she explained, “is finding out if there are shared heritages when you look at patterns across cultures.”

In her collaborative and performative works, Bittar strives to spark dialogues about different perceptions and shared histories, but stops short of labeling her work as “activist” art. Her work, she sums up, “is about figuring out how to bring people into a conversation. And as Arab Americans…it’s a challenge for us to deal with the stereotypes, tell our own history, our own stories and at the same time move the conversation forward toward peace, toward something constructive.”

Creating space for dialogue, reflection and understanding also drives Zughaib’s practice. Describing 9/11 as an “awakening,” she turned to painting and visual storytelling as a way to challenge stereotypes and respond to divisive events. 

In some of her work, she directly “parallels” the artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series from 1940-41 that documented the mass migration of African Americans to the northern states. “In Stories My Father Told Me” and “Syrian Migration,” she documents stories of nostalgia and migration from her family, as well as the stories of millions of Syrians forced to flee in recent years. Delving into different episodes and steps marking their journeys, she captures the “confusion and disruption” the Syrian war has caused around the world, but also underscores “how quickly we forget” and “move on.”

By citing familiar Western artists, Zughaib strives to “bring East and West together,” while emphasizing the necessity and urgency of telling her own story, and encouraging Arab Americans to tell their own stories. 

Patterns and beauty, Rogers pointed out, are inherent to the works of both Bittar and Zughaib. Both draw the viewer in, for “if we can look at an image a little bit longer and not turn away, we’re more apt to hear what the message is,” Zughaib explained. While the aesthetics are essential, it is imperative to also “hear what I’m trying to say that is behind that,” she added.

Eleni Zaras

 

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