"Arab Spring" and Beyond, Unfinished Journeys

by Helen Zughaib

In 2010, I finally returned to Beirut, Lebanon, where I was born, after being evacuated with my mother and two sisters, leaving my father behind. He ultimately joined us several months later in France. At the time, we thought we were going away for only a week. We had no idea it would be 35 long years until we went back.

I had been invited for a solo exhibition in Beirut, and while there, took the opportunity to go to Jordan and Syria. My father was born in Damascus in the old city. In Beirut, I found so much had changed, but much had stayed the same. New buildings were cropping up, though the vestiges of the long civil war in Lebanon remained as well, including bullet holes in the home of my Aunt where I was staying.

Shortly after returning to America, the "Arab Spring" began, with high hopes for change in the Middle East. Optimism abounded. As the months and years have gone on, this "Arab Spring" has devolved into a hideous war in Syria displacing millions, and over 500 thousand deaths and no end in sight.

My work for the past seven years, going into eight now, has been focused on the "Arab Spring" its evolution and sadly its devolution.

The very first piece I did in 2011, was in fact called “Arab Spring.” In this painting I began using the flower as a symbol of hope, optimism and renewal.

Arab Spring, 2011, Helen Zughaib©

Arab Spring, 2011, Helen Zughaib©

With the uprisings and revolutions continuing, resulting in so many deaths, I created, "Generations Lost,” showing countless women holding photographs of their loved ones, pale ghosts, lost to them forever and to future generations. In much of my work I do not show the face, but in this piece I did, creating an element of confrontation, questioning the viewer, asking you not to forget their plight.

Generations Lost, 2015, Helen Zughaib©

Generations Lost, 2015, Helen Zughaib©

My latest series is called “Syrian Migration Series.” These paintings are inspired by the Migration series of Jacob Lawrence, who documented the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in 1940-41. This is an ongoing project, beginning with the protests in Syria, resulting civil war and massive migration and displacement of refugees.

Syrian Migration series #1,2016,Helen Zughaib©

Syrian Migration series #1,2016,Helen Zughaib©

About the Author

Helen Zughaib was born in Beirut, Lebanon, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art at Syracuse University, earning her BFA from the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Helen currently lives in Washington, DC, and works fulltime as an artist. She paints primarily in gouache and ink on board and canvas. More recently, she has worked with wood, shoes and cloth and mixed media installations.

Her work has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Lebanon. Her paintings are included in many private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and the Arab American National Museum in Detroit. She received the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Fellowship grant in 2015, 2016 and 2017, as well as the Puffin Foundation grant in 2017. Her paintings have been included in several Art in Embassy exhibitions abroad, including Brunei, Nicaragua, Mauritius, Iraq, Belgium and Lebanon. Helen was invited as US Cultural Envoy through the US Department of State, to Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and France. Her paintings have been gifted to heads of state by President Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

“As an Arab American, I feel that my background in the Middle East allows me to approach the experiences I have in America, in a unique way, remaining an observer of both the Arab and American cultures. I believe that the arts are one of the most important tools we have to help shape and foster dialogue and positive ideas between the Middle East and the United States.”

Feras Nabulsi