Refuge(e): Discussing art and humanity with Helen Zughaib


MCR: Helen, you were born in Beirut, Lebanon. What are your recollections of living there as a child and the circumstances under which you had to leave?

HZ: Yes, I was born in Beirut in 1959. I attended school until we were evacuated the first time in 1967 during the six day war. We left on the ship USS Independence. I remember our nighttime departure, sleeping on the floor in the flat of friends, on the campus of the American University of Beirut, then taking a bus to continue our journey. Up until that first evacuation, I recall fondly my early years in Lebanon. We spent a lot of time with our many relatives and extended family there, going to the beach, swimming in the beautiful sea, and going up to the mountains when it got too hot in the city. These are times I am sure we all thought would never end. We came to America for about two years and then left again for Kuwait and then Lebanon once again. Older at this point and in high school, it seemed we quickly resumed our lives in all the normal ways; relatives, friends, trips to the beach and the mountains. This wonderful life lasted until September of 1975, when things began to change for Lebanon and our family. School was increasingly infrequent due to what everyone referred to as the “troubles.” A bomb here, an assassination there, limited street travel, checkpoints cropping up between East and West Beirut and ultimately a curfew was imposed over the city. The division between the two parts of the city ultimately became known as the “green line.” The West being the Muslim side and East the Christian side. We lived in the West side. My father continued to go to work, though our school had closed its doors due to the escalating troubles. Soon we were sleeping on the floors of our flat, unable to look out the windows even, for fear of possible snipers. Ultimately, my mother, two sisters and I were evacuated to Athens, Greece. We had to leave my father in Beirut which was devastating. I can still remember very clearly the day we left. Left my father and Beirut, thinking we would return in a week. The “Civil War” had started and did not end until the early 90’s. I did not return for another thirty-five years.

MCR: What a heartbreaking story and one that is being experienced by so many refugees today. How long was it before you were reunited with your father and what was it like to return to Beirut after thirty-five years?

HZ:  So heartbreaking, and we were some of the lucky people who were able to leave and start new lives. That alone is difficult, to start over, but for the people unable to leave, this is a tragedy. We had it better than many others.  It was several months before my father came to live with us. And remember at that time there was no email, rarely a phone line to Beirut, only a periodic telex for rare communications. It was a painful and hard time for my mother and sisters and me. Even to recall these times now as I write to you is very sad.

When I did finally return to Beirut after thirty-five years, it was for me, a dream coming true. How often can we truly say that we have had a real dream coming true? But for me it was! Both my parents and husband came as well. To be back in Beirut with my father was a circle that had finally closed. It was so important to me that he be there with me upon my first return.  I had been invited for a solo exhibition, which was a happy success and by all accounts, I was welcomed warmly by my beloved Beirut!

Driving around Beirut and the environs, you can see vestiges of war-ravaged buildings still, including the walls of my aunt’s home where we stayed mostly; shrapnel and bullet holes in the thick outer walls of their home. In spite of many damaged buildings and homes, there was much rebuilding and vibrancy in the city and the Lebanese really live in the moment. The sea is as beautiful as ever, though sadly much more polluted. We went up to the mountains to the family home in Zahle, that overlooked the vineyards and olive trees, to have a very large lunch with many of my relatives. At that meal, with much of my family gathered around, I tried to express my happiness to them to be there once again, only to end up being overcome by tears

MCR: Your extended family includes both Christians and Muslims, right? Did the civil war affect family relationships?

HZ: Everyone had their opinions with regards to the civil war; who was to blame, what to do about it and how to solve it. But no, it did not affect family relationships.

MCR: I asked because so many families are divided by politics, let alone religion, and I wondered if the violence exacerbated that or if in those moments a family might be more likely to cling to and support one another. Stepping back to the meal in Zahle, did the overwhelming emotion you felt leave you questioning where you belong? You’ve built a very successful life in Washington, D.C. and I wonder if it feels like home or if there is a part of you that feels pulled back to Lebanon.

HZ:  I can easily recall that day, that meal, my feelings at lunch, overlooking the mountains in Zahle. I felt a welcoming I had not felt in a long time. A “coming home” to people who had patiently waited for me, though I never had any idea that they were waiting. Waiting to see me, my parents and meet my American husband. Never asking why we had not returned years earlier, no reproach, just that acceptance a family has when one has been gone a long time. A happiness, a relief of sorts and the inevitable question, when are you coming back? That day evoked plenty of conflicting emotions in me and, as you ask, where do I belong? At this point, I have lived longer in DC than any other country so far! That question has haunted me my whole life. I have struggled to reconcile that conflict in much of my work, and continue to do so until today. I am not sure I have an answer or that there will come a day when I feel completely accepted and at home, either here in America or in Lebanon. This very push and pull of emotions and identity find their way into most everything I do. Perhaps I should accept these very feelings, relish them and indulge in them.

MCR: I imagine that push and pull, feeling both part of and apart from two cultures simultaneously, motivates your desire to be a bridge in your work between Arab and American cultures. The desire to bring understanding between these two worlds you feel connected to must be important to you on both a personal level as well as a global level.

HZ: Yes, it is a simultaneous feeling of belonging to both cultures, yet being apart from them. It creates a duality, a sort of displacement if you will, that feels as if it should all be combined, forced into the toothpaste tube to come out whole. So what are we left with? A determination to make oneself understood by both cultures. A determination to create understanding by both cultures. And most definitely a determination to create acceptance, both for me and for my work as an artist, working on a larger global scale as you suggest. That bridge that carries us to both the East and the West, we all walk on. The realization that in fact, we are all more similar than not.

MCR: To communicate that we are more alike than not is a simple, yet beautiful and admirable goal. Acts of violence are much easier to commit without this understanding. Several years ago one of my students, who was in the National Guard, left school to fight in the Iraq War. When he returned I showed him how artists like Otto Dix dealt with their haunting experiences through art. His response pained me. He said he wasn’t haunted by what he saw because the people he fought weren’t like us; that we are good and civilized and they are evil and uncivilized. Do you feel like you are pushing a boulder up a hill with your work? How do you maintain your optimism in the face of so much xenophobia and violence in the world?

HZ: That is a very painful and tragic story you recount of your former student. I am not even sure how to respond to that sad declaration, except to say perhaps he had to see the people he fought against as evil and uncivilized to justify his actions. Perhaps it is the same with all wars, but as an artist this is exactly the sentiment I try to reframe in my work. To tell the story behind those people, to declare through my paintings, we are indeed civilized and just like you, viewer. We have families we love, children we want to feed and educate and care for. We are indeed more alike than not. But yes, as you say, it is a constant battle to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, with many setbacks, misunderstandings and stereotyping along the way. It is sometimes hard to find the cracks that let light shine through to find common ground and understanding. But these very moments, these glimmers of hope, keep me engaged as an artist in this struggle. And to lose hope, we end up with nothing, so that is not an option for me.

MCR: I saw a glimmer of hope in the nearly universal reaction to the now famous video of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year old boy in Aleppo, sitting in an ambulance dazed and alone. His vulnerability and innocence connected with people in a way that transcended politics and religion, but sadly it only held our attention for a brief period. I just read that more than 100 children have been killed in airstrikes in Aleppo this week alone. As an artist, how do you deal with the contemporary attention span? How do you cut through the clutter of our increasingly visual world to make something that strikes at the core of our shared humanity the way that video briefly did?

HZ: Yes, the brief moments of universal hope for the ongoing tragedy of the war in Syria and its smallest and most innocent victims, seemed to be captured by yet another earlier image of the little boy washed up on the beach in September of 2015, and more recently little Omran in the ambulance. I had been painting that very summer of 2015, small children’s shoes in bright colors and patterns, expressing that beauty, hope and optimism of a child. With these shoes, I am hoping someone will try to imagine their own children in this situation. How would they react? Would they just turn the page of the newspaper and go on with their lives as usual? In another installation, I have used newspapers and headlines from the past 5 or six years, images of the war, refugees, including those two little boys, on china plates. As we “eat” they stare at us as with each forkful we put into our mouths demanding we not forget. With the huge numbers of refugees, the thousands of people killed and displaced, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the tragedy, so that by focusing on something like a child’s shoe, I try to create an intimacy, that small sliver of recognition, and the ability to relate to that one small child in empathy and compassion.

MCR: We need that so desperately right now. There is a rising wave of xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism around the world and we have seen it take hold rather shockingly here in the United States. As one who is both a citizen and participant in our culture but also has the perspective of an outsider or observer, what is your take on this moment? Do you feel the culture changing or might this be a temporary reaction to the heightened drama of election year politics?

HZ: We absolutely do need that now and more than ever I would say. This wave of xenophobia, particularly anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment, was very prevalent as well, after the tragic events of 9/11. I felt them personally. Again, I reacted to those events with my painting, Prayer Rug for America, a limited edition print of which is now in the York College collection. I also began a series of paintings based on my father’s early childhood and young adulthood in Lebanon and Damascus, before immigrating to the United States. These paintings and corresponding true stories about his life, family and village traditions hang beside each painting so the viewer can read about this part of the world and see that once again, we are more similar than not. After 9/11, I also felt that along with the extremism and anti-Arab American sentiment, there was simultaneously a desire for the West to try to understand the Arabs, Islam, the Middle East and its people. I felt this was a positive step towards mutual understanding between East and West. Today, with the great numbers of people forced to leave their homes and countries, mostly for their own safety and that of their families, this huge influx of people in such a short time arriving in Europe, Canada and the United States, has unfortunately created suspicion and mistrust amongst the host countries. I assure you, the vast majority of these people would rather have remained in their own homes and countries. The xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism being stirred up by various politicians and groups negates the underlying values and ideas this very country was founded on and prior to this newest wave of desperate people, there have been others before, coming to our shores seeking safety and peace. It is ironic to me to watch this happen to people who did not ask for a war. They want peace, shelter, education, just like anyone else. My hope is that the more reasonable voices around the world and here, in the United States, will prevail.

MCR: Do you find that installation as a medium allows you to engage your audience’s capacity for empathy and compassion more powerfully than other mediums you enjoy, such as painting and drawing?

HZ: It is strange because I do not think of myself as an installation or mixed media artist, though over the course of the past six years (the beginning of the revolutions and uprisings, “Arab Spring”) more and more, it seems to me that with certain stories, the best way to accomplish that story I want to tell, is by installation. When I think of the story I want to tell, it sometimes comes out “better” as an installation as opposed to a painting. I always weigh these possibilities; painting, photograph, installation, and after many hours of thinking, it seems to me, the right, best way, shows itself to me. It does not always work the way I envisioned or how I “saw” it in my mind, but the gist is there and that is what I am going after and what I am hoping the viewer will see and internalize. And honestly, sometimes the painting will not accomplish what I want you to see or hear. Sometimes it is even a piece of music. I am scrambling, searching, wondering, “How can I make you feel like I feel. How can I make you feel my pain?  My hopes and dreams?” This is a lofty goal and I am trying to reach it whatever way I can; painting, installation, photography. It is all ultimately about you, the viewer, stepping into another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, feeling what we are feeling, deep down, knowing there is not much difference between us. That is what I want. As I said, a lofty goal….

MCR: I am interested in what you said about selecting the right medium based on the feeling or message you need to communicate. So often we artists become comfortable, even masterful, at a particular medium and are then unwilling to sacrifice that comfort or mastery for the good of the work. I admire your willingness to experiment with such a range of media to convey your thoughts and feelings. You have even added video to this exhibition which I believe is a first for you.  You also experiment quite a bit with style to alternate between messages that are quite personal and express sadness to those that emphasize hope and beauty and even several that are quite funny and a bit sarcastic. In shifting between style and medium you seem to be guiding your viewers through the complex web of emotions in the exhibition. Is that accurate and if so, how do you balance a desire for clarity with a desire for subtlety?

HZ: Another great question, Matt, thank you. Yes, I absolutely agree with you that artists many times become complacent in our chosen medium, and are wary of stepping out of that niche especially if we have become “known” for that particular medium or style of work. For me, this is precisely what I feel with this newer body of work, but I am also compelled to keep the experiment going if I feel that is the best way to tell the story. I do feel I have stepped out of my comfort box, but on the other hand, focusing on the issues before us, war, migration, displacement, death, destruction, I say to myself, “Go ahead, this bit of anxiety is nothing compared to those horrors.” And if I for a single tiny moment I am successful in having my viewer put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I am successful. So that keeps me going. I think I always am a painter first, but will not limit myself to that medium if I feel I can tell my story in another way that cuts deeper.

As the Arab Spring wore on, my work became larger, perhaps because the problems and sadness was so overwhelming and huge. My work is composed of multiples or pieces, and as the Arab Spring fractured in the ensuing years, after that initial hope and optimism, my work also began fracturing. Pieces of Chiclets gum which the small refugee children sold on the streets late into the night to help support their families, the beautiful birds in cages desperately seeking to escape, the pieces of tiles, broken, reflecting damaged and destroyed homes, lives shattered, windows once whole now broken, pieces removed. Images of beauty, now ravaged.

On the other hand, these installations are still created with much detail like many of my paintings. There are tiny brass tacks, tiles both ceramic and wood that I have painted in detail, pompoms and shiny beads, colorful flowers, all innocent play things a child might use, I use on my Refuge(e) tent. This intimacy in detail brings you into their world, to focus on the smallest detail, in hopes of understanding their plight and desperation.

And my video, yes a first for me!!! This show will be the first time the video and installations will be seen. The video, Wish, is very simple; A young boy tossing a penny into the bubbling fountain, the joy of momentary pleasure to express his wish for anything in the world. To make a wish and hope it comes true is a simple universal desire. As we were shooting our video, Amy Joseph, my collaborator, and I stood by and watched as child after child, old, young, stood at the fountain and threw their coin in to make their wish. We also spoke to a tourist couple. The woman was pregnant, and as she stood by, her husband tossed in his coin. We asked what he had wished for. He said very simply to have a healthy baby.

Also as you say, Matt, there is still beauty and humor in the work as well. Yet another “subversive” tactic I use to draw you in! You see the beauty, pattern, color, or even laugh at the irony of some of my work, but by then, you are also able to hear my story…

MCR: And when your audience hears your story, what do you hope remains with them?

HZ: Well, I hope that the work in this exhibit shines a light on a civilized, educated people, forced to leave their beautiful homes, their livelihoods, their families. To focus on the smallest victims. to create an empathy for people who are looked upon as “the other” and to show the beauty of their lives.

MCR: You are providing an antidote to the effects of hateful rhetoric that we’ve heard this election cycle. There is a video on YouTube that has been viewed more than 5 million times and it features images spliced together of refugees and fairly random, often irrelevant acts of violence with a voice over of Donald Trump reading the lyrics to the song “The Snake,” based on the Aesop Fable “The Farmer and the Viper.” The video communicates the idea that it is inevitable that refugees will attack their host country because it is in their very nature to attack. Sadly, many in my community believe this. They think that refugees represent the greatest threat to our collective safety. Meanwhile, the first six of America’s 2016 Nobel Laureates are immigrants. The story you are telling is the true story, but the competing false narrative is powerful because it preys on our fear. Do you feel the pressure of not only telling a compelling story to combat this fear but also representing yourself as an example of what not to fear?

HZ: I do not get it. In my new installation, Hope Chest, I show my father’s high school diploma from Sidon in Lebanon. This document was kept in the steel tube shown in the photo beside his diploma. That steel tube was carried by my Teta, my grandmother, through both voluntary and forced departures over the many years. My father ultimately immigrated to this country in 1946, shown by my painting, Coming to America, and received his PhD from Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and was a Senior Fulbright Scholar before joining the Foreign Service. He served THIS country!!! And of course his story is not unusual. There are millions of stories like his. And as you said, Matt, six of the  2016 Nobel Prizes were awarded to immigrants!!! I am so proud of my father, my heritage, and I know so many others who have come to this country to contribute their talents and education. They have added to this country, not taken anything away from anyone.

I am not sure I answered your question directly. It is easier to act out in frustration and anger, but I would say that is exactly why I continue to do my work. That is my way of fighting back against negativity and xenophobia.

MCR: In your gallery talk you mentioned, and I am using my own words here, that your work is focused on humanitarian concerns that transcend political parties and that you’re not interested in preaching politics, but rather expressing the oneness of humanity. Listening to that I realized that my last question was probably difficult to answer because I named a polarizing figure who is also a major candidate for the presidency. You deftly avoided being pulled into the political aspect of the question while still making your point strongly and I think that is an impressive trait in both your personality and in your work. You are teaching humanity without preaching politics. Your work functions as visual diplomacy, which explains in part why it has become a popular gift exchanged between world leaders. I know this is tough because you are so humble, but will you please name some of the leaders who have given and received your work as gifts and also discuss your role as a State Department Cultural Envoy?

HZ:  Yes, you are absolutely right. I truly want to emphasize the humanitarian concerns, as opposed to one particular political point of view.  I think it is easy to land on one side or the other of many an issue, the harder path is the murky grey area in between that has fuzzy and asymmetrical borders. That is the part I am after, though I am not saying that is easy.  But the moments of mutual understanding or at least respect for one another, after creating that dialogue, is most rewarding.  I have experienced those very moments, those small moments, where a relationship or dialogue I have had with someone, is able to effect change or at least begin to chip away at a previously held stereotype.  That tiny step of recognition or understanding is so much more powerful than military might.  And of course there is the amazing program in the State Department, known as Art in Embassies, a program begun by John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is a curated program that loans artwork by American artists, to our US Ambassadors and embassies, all over the world as a further arm of diplomacy. I have been honored to have had my work placed in the Sultanate of Brunei, Nicaragua, US NATO Mission in Brussels, Mauritius, Baghdad, Iraq and our US Ambassador’s residence in Beirut, Lebanon.

Ok, I will name names!! Former President George W. Bush was given one of my pieces, an official gift of Lebanon, by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri at the White House. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave one of my pieces to the King of Morocco, and President Obama gave one of my pieces to Nouri al-Maliki, then Prime Minister of Iraq.

MCR:  Wow, that is impressive. Thank you very much for your time, Helen, and for sharing your work and your insights. Please be safe during your trip to Saudi Arabia. I look forward to hearing about it when you return for the panel discussion on November 10.



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