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Heritage Month: Arab Americans as Visual Artists

posted on: Apr 18, 2016

BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer

The visual arts are a hub for Arab Americans who express themselves through paintings, drawings, sculptures, and more. Art does not play the same role in society as it did just 50 years ago, but its importance remains as strong as ever. Unknown to many, Arab Americans have become recognized in the art community as powerful storytellers who bring harrowing perspectives of social and political issues to the formerly Western-dominated field.

One of the most famous Arab American visual artists was Wahbi Al-Hariri who is known as “the last of the classicists.” After studying drawing in sculpting in Rome, Al-Hariri returned to his hometown, Aleppo, where he opened a Warhol-esque studio that was home to Syria’s top intellectuals, artists, and philosophers. He moved to the U.S. after obtaining a scholarship to attend Yale University and spent his life living all over the world as a sculptor, oil painter, photographer, archeologist, and building designer.

Wahbi Al-Hariri depicting the U.S. Capitol Building

Another significant Arab American artist is Nabil Kanso, who is known for his large, contemporary figures and paintings. His work follows the themes of war, apocalypse, human suffering, and weaponry because of his experiences living through war in Lebanon, and the images he saw coming from wars in the Gulf, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, and others.

Nabil Kanso – The Split of Life Series 1974-1994

Similarly, Hend Al-Mansour is an Arab American artist who also depicts struggle through art. Al-Mansour makes silk screened, dyed, and hennaed portraitures of Arab and Muslim women dealing with oppression, identity, and sexuality.

Hend Al-Mansour – Women of Arabia 2

Many Arab American artists find inspiration from life in the Arab World, such as Manal Deeb who portrays exile and the search for happiness while living in America through her paintings and posters. The Arab World also inspires Helen Zughaib, whose masterful depictions of Arab and American cultures can be seen all over the world in the White House, the World Bank, and various embassies.

Helen Zughaib – Playing Baasara in Teta’s Room

Etel Adnan also used her paintings as an expression of ethnicity during times when language and writing did not feel like the right tools. Adnan is one of the most celebrated Arab American authors in American history, but her art deserves just as much attention.

Etel Adnan

Other significant artists include Hashim Al-Tawil, an Arab American professor of Art History, who is known for portraying early Arab and pre-Islamic art of the medieval period. His visual art is a reflection of his research on early Arab culture, making him a historian, as well as an artist.

Baghdad 1990-1991 – Hashim Al-Tawil

The different ways Arab Americans choose to express their identity, culture, and struggles is what gives them their unique perspective in the field of visual art. Arab-specific issues are difficult to understand by the rest of the world, but with artists like these, and many more, are making it easier to find understanding and reconciliation in these issues.

See all articles about National Arab American Heritage Month here.