#inspiringartist series: Helen Zughaib - EMERGEAST
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01 Nov 2020

#inspiringartist series: Helen Zughaib

Dima Abdul Kader

Her artworks have been gifted by heads of states to leaders around the world, she has been exhibited internationally and her art has lead the way for dialogue across matters such as women’s rights, political movements and societal frameworks. It is none other than established Lebanese-American artist Helen Zughaib. A pivotal artist the with her signature style and subject matter - we delved deeper into what makes Helen Zughaib a key figure in the Middle Eastern contemporary art world. 

What inspired you to embark on an artistic journey ? 

I have always loved painting, color, pattern, since I was a little girl. I grew up in a house full of gorgeous rugs, sculpture, paintings, that my parents collected mainly from Iraq and Lebanon, that surely seeped into my conscious and helped shape my idea of beauty and the possibilities of becoming an artist one day.

Despite living abroad, your work is still heavily Middle Eastern, how do you maintain that connection in your work?

Yes, living in the US for over 20 years now, my ties to the Middle East remain stronger than ever, Apart from having family and friends that live there, I remain committed to keeping the dialogue open between the East and West, to further mutual understanding and respect for one another. To create work that counters stereotypes and generalizations of one another. And of course reconnecting with family and friends on return trips home.

The Village / 76x50cm

Your medium of choice is very specific (gouache and ink on board or Archival pigment print), tell us a bit more behind your choice of medium and its expression for you?

I first learned to use gouache (an opaque watercolor) in my studies at Syracuse University, in New York. Despite being a difficult paint to master, I found it allowed me the beautiful, pure and clean colors I wanted to use in my paintings. When used the way I intend to use it, which is very opaque and to show very few brushstrokes if possible, it creates a flatness and sort of a velvety finish that I love. I also feel that after all these years of primarily using this pigment, I can control (mostly!!) what happens on my board.

Your work focuses heavily on political issues such as the Arab Spring and displacement, how do you believe art plays a role in depicting societal and political issues from the region?

I feel that as an artist, I have a responsibility to visually “talk” about the world I live in, the world we live in. Art can reach people in a way that is unattainable from for example, a political speech which does not touch the nerves of people so that they can look at the issues surrounding, say immigration, genocide, subjugation, imprisonment, with new eyes. I feel that art can create that empathy and compassion that we need to help change the world we are living for the better. Art can seep into the cracks and fissures of our minds and souls, and can begin to sow the seeds of change. That is my hope surely in pursuing my own work.

Syrian Migration / 45x30cm

When you see an artwork you instantly know it's a Helen Zughaib due to your signature style, what inspired this particular style?

Wow, this is kind of tough to answer. I have never really “fit in” to one style or another. Surely not abstract, though not realistic either, and not really a naïve style of painting. It seems that the paint I have chosen to use also has certain limitations that in a way dictate my style to some extent. In a way limiting but in another way, forces me to create works that challenge those limitations of the paint. And as I mentioned earlier, I think growing up in the Middle East, surrounded by pattern and color, definitely inspired my desire to refer to that kind of beauty in my work.

What is the significance of your colour palette that is distinctive to your work?

Well, I will mention here that the paint I have grown to love, gouache, affords the most gorgeous color when mixed, and the clean, bright color that results is like no other! I do not find this intensity in acrylic paint.

Generations Lost / 101x76cm

Your new work muffled is a perfect depiction of 2020, how has the pandemic influenced the way you approach your work?

The pandemic has been a double-sided period of time for me as an artist. On the one hand, we create work for people to see, for people to possibly see an issue from another’s point of view. Stepping into another’s shoes. We hope our work is exhibited in museums and galleries. We want to share our work with you. We want to talk about it, have that dialogue about those issues we find important. The pandemic has basically brought this to a halt. Much is virtual at this point which is not the same as seeing the work in person and interacting with it in real life as opposed to the virtual screen. On the other hand, the pandemic has allowed me much more time to be in the studio working, thinking and still trying to reach my viewer. “Muffled” combines the double pandemic if you will, we are experiencing now.

Muffled / 101x76cm
The corona virus and lockdown, mask-wearing and significant life style changes, as well as the massive protests resulting from the police killing of George Floyd. That tragedy led to further protests, Black Lives Matter, and one of the chants, is “I can’t breathe.” I used that to represent the BLM movement as well as indicating the mask and the stifling effect it has on us to speak, both in reality and metaphorically.

In what way do you want your pieces to influence the viewer? 

I really hope for that dialogue to occur as I mentioned in a previous question. I feel that even if the viewer approaches my painting with preformed ideas of the Arab world or vice versa, this dialogue can ensue, therefore that tiny step taken towards understanding or seeing another point of view, I have been successful. It is only after this sort of “awakening” that we can create the empathy so desperately needed in this world, across this world. Empathy, that is what I hope to achieve in my viewer.

Which Arab artists have inspired you/ influenced your work?

The Palestinian artist, Kamal Bulatta, the Lebanese artist, Wajih Nahle, and  the Iraqi artists, Muhammad Ghani and Jawad Saleem.

Describe the moment you heard President Obama gifted your works to head of state and Secretary Hilary Clinton...

Oh my goodness!!! I can feel that incredible joy right now as I answer your question! I was in my studio when I got “the call.” I had been on pins and needles waiting to hear back to see if my work had been selected or not. The second I got that call, I began jumping around in my studio, screaming for joy!!! I think even my kitty cat knew how excited I was and what an enormous and significant honor it was to have my work selected by both President Obama and Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton! Wow!!!!

What’s next for Helen Zughaib? 

What is next, well, I continue to work on paintings that reflect this time we are all going through. I also am continuing my work on the issues of war and displacement and those lasting effects on people everywhere. I realize many of these issues are off the front pages of newspapers, but it is more important than ever to remain a voice for the voiceless. Specifically women and children.

Click here for Helen's full artwork selection on Emergeast!