WASHINGTON — During Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to the United States last week, President Barack Obama presented the leader with a gift, a painting by Arab American artist Helen Zughaib. Zughaib’s art work is notable for its rich use of colors and for depicting scenes of Arab life in hopeful, healing and spiritual ways.
Zughaib’s “Midnight Prayers”
Zughaib was born in Beirut, Lebanon, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art. She received her BFA from Syracuse University, College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Her works are exhibited widely in New York and the Washington metro area. Her paintings are included in over 80 private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, and diplomatic locations. They also can be found at the Arab American National Museum, and Washington, DC’s Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, which is showing her work in a current exhibit focused on Gaza.
Zughaib, like her art, has served as a bridge between nations. She served as United States Cultural Envoy to the West Bank, Palestine.
How her art became a gift between the United States and Iraq begins in Dearborn. The State Department called Zughaib “after they had contacted the Arab American National Museum for recommendations for artists,” according to the artist.
The State Department’s Office of Protocol, which obtains gifts for the President, First Lady, Vice-President and Secretary of State to present to visiting heads of state, purchased her work.
The piece they chose, “Midnight Prayers,” is about the prospects for peace she sees in faith. Created in 2006, Zughaib was inspired by the Muslim “Call to Prayer one hears in the Middle East,” where she grew up.
She added, “The beauty of the call to prayer, combined with the rich detail of intricate Islamic designs in blues and greens, symbolize the beauty and lushness of the Arab world. As always, it is a painting that reflects my hopes for peace and tranquility in that region.”
For Zughaib, this is a notable development in her artistic career, yet is not one without precedent. “This is the first time my painting was selected by the White House to be given to a head of state,” she noted.
Two years ago, one of her paintings, “Reconciliation,” was given to President George Bush by then Lebanese parliamentarian (and current prime minister) Saad Hariri as an official gift from Lebanon. That was a painting of a mosque and a church, together and side by side, in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut.
Zughaib is also involved in promoting art in the Arab American community in Washington, DC, where she currently resides. Her art is currently on display in an exhibit at the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, an organization that gives charity to Palestinians and sponsors educational and cultural events about Palestine.
The exhibit is called “Gaza Conversations” and she helped put it together at the group’s Foggy Bottom-based facilities.
She said the exhibit “is meant to focus attention on the situation in Gaza.” There are three artists showing and each offer “different interpretations of what this means.”
With her works in that exhibit she tries to “show the strength, beauty and resiliency of the women who face so many challenges.”
The Arab American National Museum referred to Zughaib as a “leading Arab American artist.” Her work has gained more visibility with President Obama’s gift to Iraq.
Her paintings serve as positive representations of the Arab world. And they have been used by politicians and institutions as gifts and for display. Yet, Zughaib does not consider herself a “political artist.”
“My intention as an artist, especially after 9/11, is to further the dialogue between East and West, continue to try to understand each other and bring people together in conversation with the hope of mutual understanding, acceptance and respect.”
With heightened prominence, her art will have greater potential to do just that.