We sat down with the prolific Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib! Read all about how Zughaib's identity has shaped her unique work and the moment President Obama gifted her art...
Who is Helen Zughaib the artist?
I was born in Beirut, lived in Kuwait, Iraq, Greece and finished my school in Paris. My family ended up in Paris due to the civil war in Lebanon, when my mother and sisters and I evacuated to Greece. This time affected me quite a bit and it is hard to separate that with who I am as a person and artist. Not to say I define myself by that upheaval but to try to incorporate it somehow into my life and work, even unconsciously...I live in America now for longer than I lived in the Middle East! I received my BFA from Syracuse University, and ended up in Washington, DC and have made this “home” now. I think that our early lives, both good and not so good, shape us into the adults we become, so as I said, I feel all those different parts of my life somehow try to come together as one, in my work.
What influence has the American culture had on your artworks?
Living in America really has allowed me the freedom and peace to flourish, and grow, without restrictions. I also feel that I can sort of assume a certain duality in my work. Borrowing from both the East and the West, trying to put the puzzle together to form a whole and comprehensive piece of art, that ultimately tells a story. The story behind the work is vitally important to me.
Would you identify yourself as a Middle Eastern living in America or an American citizen with Arab roots?
I guess I would say the latter, though when asked I always say I am an Arab American. I am proud of both my heritages, as an Arab from my father’s side and American from my mother’s side.
Which Western artist's has had the most influence on your works?
As I said earlier, due to the war our family ended up in Paris where I completed secondary school. Living in that amazing city with museums and art everywhere you turn, was overwhelming to me! The images I had seen in the pages of art history books were now real and alive in front me. It was like being in a chocolate shop and being allowed to eat every chocolate in the store! I loved Monet, Mondrian, Gauguin, of course Matisse! Rousseau, Leger, and after coming to America to study art, I discovered Jacob Lawrence, an amazing African American painter, who became one of my heroes and huge inspirations.
With the spotlight on Middle Eastern art in the west, have you witnessed a growing interest in your work by Western art collectors?
Yes, I would say that probably is the case. Though I also think the greater interest in Arab art we see today is as a result of the wars, conflict, also the lingering effects of 9/11 and its aftermath. Personally I feel there is a desire for Westerners to learn more and understand more about the Arabs and Arab culture and Arab identity. And what better way to absorb the culture than through art.
Tell us a little more about the importance of identity in your work...
For me, identity is pretty much everything. As I mentioned above, this duality I constantly feel, and struggle with to some extent, shows up in so much of my work. A push and pull of East and West, also to a certain extent, nostalgia for the past, and a childhood somehow truncated.
Describe the moment you heard President Obama gifted your works to heads of state and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton...
Oh my goodness! What a great question! It really was such an amazing moment I shall never forget. I received a call on a Tuesday afternoon in my studio. I think I hung up and shouted for joy, danced around a bit and then tried to explain to my cats what just happened!! A glorious moment I relive often. You can imagine how honored I was for that to happen.
Describe yourself in 3 words...
Wow, this is hard….i guess I would say, really? Only three words? Ok, I guess, loving, dedicated, empathetic. Oh and one more! Too sensitive!
What's next for Helen Zughaib?
So at the moment preparing for a big solo opening late October, at York College Galleries in Pennsylvannia, which will encompass much of my work for the past several years. A trip to the Middle East(it is a secret until it is finalized!!) as well in October, to exhibit and give workshops and talks about my work, another group exhibition in Detroit, early next year, an exhibit at Harvard University., a larger group exhibit, opening in 2017 in Jordan at the National Gallery, and then will travel to London to be shown at the Shubbak Festival. I am also working on my first short video, collaborating with a film maker, to be shown both in the exhibit in October and in another exhibit opening in November here in Washington, DC.