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The Repercussions of the Arab Spring in Helen Zughaib's Art

posted on: Apr 4, 2018

Syrian Migration Series, #7 by Helen Zughaib, 2017 ©

By Emiliya Strahilova/Arab America Contributing Writer

April is National Arab American Heritage Month. It’s this wonderful time of the year when joy and optimism become contagious. While flowers are blooming and birds are returning to their homes, we are reminded of one other spring which started with plenty of hope but it caused devastating loss and destruction–the Arab Spring.

Historians keep the facts of the wars in their chronicles but art is what is touching and influencing people. Helen Zughaib, a Lebanese American artist, uses her art to respond to the humanitarian crisis for more than 7 years now. Helen was born in Beirut and lived in the Middle East and Europe before coming to New York to study art. Her work is included in significant private and public collections, including the White House, the World Bank, the US Embassy in Iraq and the Library of Congress.

Helen’s own picturesque ancestry is portrayed in her Stories My Father Told Me. This series depicts traditions and events told to her by her father, who was born in Damascus, Syria. He gave her the cultural insight and in a sense passed on the Arab tradition of storytelling to the next generation.

Stories My Father Told Me, The Show Box (Sanduk al- Firji) by Helen Zughaib, 2016 ©

The connection of Helen to her roots is one of the components which provoked her next body of work. The collection The Arab Spring/Unfinished Journeys includes paintings and installations representing aspects of the revolutions in the Arab world, that help the audience remember the human cost of the conflicts. Helen realizes how easy it is to perceive the hundreds and thousands of victims of war as numbers, it’s natural.

She gives an example from her experience communicating with young college students presuming they are aware of global events which happened in the past. The reality is, no matter how terrifying violence can be, it can be neglected from the perspective of distance and time.

The Arab Spring/Unfinished Journeys is a visual documentation of what Arabs have to overcome on a daily basis. Featured items like children shoes and dining tables are part of the exhibit with the purpose to “humanize” the characters. Besides, the compilation is enchanting with bright colors, flowers and alluring ornaments predominating. Beauty is not only the author’s interpretation but also the way to reach the hearts of the viewers. According to Helen Zughaib, when the audience is captivated, instead of repelled, by what is appealing, it’s favorable to convey an important message.

Video Credit: York College Galleries

The series Syrian Migrations evolved from The Arab Spring/Unfinished Journeys and dug deeper into the theme of forced migration after the Arab uprisings. Helen’s cause is to educate and to nurture empathy for the Syrian refugees. The series is inspired by famous African American artist Jacob Lawrence who documented the journey of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. He added short explanatory scripts to each of the 60 panels of his Migration Series and he was recognized as an eminent storyteller.

Helen Zughaib followed his example and illustrated the ongoing refugee catastrophe in the world today. The vivid tones are present in the paintings, as usual; women and children are wearing colorful clothes but the prevailing pattern on those clothes is striped, which resembles imprisonment and desperation.

Syrian Migration Series, #1 by Helen Zughaib, 2016 ©

Women and children are in almost all of the paintings from Syrian Migrations. It’s not a coincidence, but the aftermath of what was left after the Civil war. Men are away, or killed, or arrested, and the women and children have to deal with finding asylum on their own.

Despite the heavy subject of Helen Zughaib’s art, she insists on not being political. For her, there is no meaning with who is right and who is wrong, and she refuses to take any sides. She says what matters is the Middle East and the plight of the refugees looking for support: “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. “.


On April 12th, Helen Zughaib’s, Syrian Migration Series, will make its community debut at Arab America’s National Arab American Heritage event in Washington DC.