As a child she fled Lebanon, as a teenager she wandered the halls of the Louvre and now her artworks hang on the walls of Hillary Clinton’s house. If there was ever an emerging artist you needed to know about it’s Helen Zughaib, the Arab-American artist, who’s works bridge the East meets West gap…
Who is Helen Zughaib the artist?
I was born in Beirut, lived in Kuwait, Iraq, Greece and finished my studies in Paris. During the civil war in Lebanon, my mother and sisters and I evacuated to Greece. This time affected me quite a bit and it is hard to separate who I am as a person and artist. I don’t define myself by that upheaval but I try to incorporate it somehow into my life and work, even unconsciously. Now, I live in America and it’s “home”. I think that our early lives, both good and not so good, shape us and somehow it comes together as one, in my work.
What influence has the American culture had on your artworks?
Living in America has allowed me the freedom and peace to flourish and grow, without restrictions. I also feel that I can 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.
THE STORY BEHIND THE WORK IS VITALLY IMPORTANT
Would you identify yourself as a Middle Eastern artist living in America or an American citizen with Arab roots?
I guess I would say the later, though when asked I always say I am an Arab American. I am proud of both of my heritages, as an Arab from my father’s side and as an American from my mother’s side.
Which Western artists have had the most influence on your works?
Living in Paris, 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 a huge inspiration.
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 a result of the wars, conflict and the lingering effects of 9/11. Personally I feel there is a desire for Westerners to learn more and understand more about Arabs, 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. This duality that I constantly feel, and struggle with to some extent, shows up in so much of my work. It’s a push and pull of East and West and a childhood somehow truncated.
Describe the moment you heard President Obama gifted your works to Heads of State and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton…
Oh my goodness! What a great question! It really was such an amazing moment and one 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 had just happened! It was a glorious moment I relive often. You can imagine how honoured I was for that to happen.
Describe yourself in three words…
Wow, this is hard. I guess I would say, really? Only three words? OK: loving, dedicated, empathetic. Oh and one more! Too sensitive!
What’s next for Helen Zughaib?
I’ve just had a solo opening in late October, at York College Galleries in Pennsylvania, which encompassed much of my work for the past several years. Then I have a trip to the Middle East planned (it is a secret until it is finalised) to exhibit, give workshops and talks about my work. Then next year, I have another group exhibition in Detroit, an exhibit at Harvard University, another in Jordan at the National Gallery and then I’ll travel to London to be shown at the Shubbak Festival. There’s so much going on at the moment!