This new art exhibition aims to change the way you think about the Syrian refugee crisis • Good Non profit


Syrians have been avoiding war for eight years – and their condition is barely registered on the news.

But the wreck of the slow-motion train that is the Syrian conflict is still underway.

In Washington, DC, the renowned Arab-American artist Helen Zughaib, whose work has been presented by former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to foreign heads of state, is trying to draw attention to the struggle of Syrians.

Her new art exhibition, the Syrian Migration Series, tells a fascinating story about protests, rebellion and civil war, the events that led millions of people to flee Syria for a safer haven.

It is also inspired, she says, by something closer to home: the famous Migration Series by artist Jacob Lawrence, which reflects the challenges that African Americans have had during the Great Migration from the South in the early to mid-20th century.

Although the two migrations differ greatly in many respects, they also share some similarities, Zughaib said. And it is the desire to bring home the impact of this seemingly distant crisis that inspired Zughaib to spend three years on this particular series.

"This massive displacement of people … has influenced the world and has had ramifications here, Europe, especially the Middle East," Zughaib told me. "It's an important story to tell, and it's not finished yet."

Syrian migration # 7. Courtesy of Helen Zughaib

The paintings of Zughaib are clear and accessible. They also portray people in crisis.

Gallery Al-Quds, with the latest exhibition of Zughaib, is a small, intimate space within the offices of the Jerusalem Fund, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC that focuses on educational and humanitarian work for the Palestinians.

As you walk in, you are greeted with shelves of Palestinian olive oil, books and art prints for sale. But the colorful paintings of Zughaib, which are in a hallway, demand quick attention. They also appear suddenly, around curved corners and on small, hidden walls. If you want to view the collection in its entirety – as it is meant to be viewed – you are forced to travel.

Zughaib begins the series with an artist's statement that made viewers in part of the history of the Arab Spring, the wave of protests that a large part of the Middle East had at the beginning of 2010. It led to the overthrow of dictators in some countries, but to the debilitating civil war in others. In Syria, the ensuing conflict has driven millions and left hundreds of thousands dead.

Zughaib had just returned from a show in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2010 when the uprisings began, she told me, and she was inspired to document the political changes in the region. "Everyone was optimistic in the beginning and when the years went on, the revolutions continued," she said. The result in Syria was a civil war.

For almost eight years, Zughaib has been trying to emphasize the most vulnerable victims of the war – as she writes in her statement – "the women and children have left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives."

One could then expect her paintings to be dark and gloomy. But that can not be further from the truth.

Instead, its gouache and ink-on-board pieces are flooded with bright, vibrant colors and vivid geometric patterns. At first sight they are almost erratic, until you look a bit closer.

The beautiful rainbows, it turns out, are actually fire and explosions. The colorful robes, hijabs and bows that adorn her figures distract us from the fact that they flee their Syrian cities in large numbers, on their way to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or mourn their wounded or dead relatives.

If you follow the narrative arc of the paintings and learn to look beyond the dazzling colors and geometric shapes, the horrors of the war become surprisingly clear: arrest, interrogation, attacks with chemical weapons. The most sombre picture in the whole collection depicts the tens of thousands of Syrians who have "disappeared" – many in Syrian prisons – by showing a pair of black and white figures against a black-black background.

Later, refugees appear in colorful clothes in a boat on a wild sea. The image could be almost cheerful until you read the caption, which reminds the viewer that many such boats capsized, drowning everyone on board.

What the caption does not say is that those boats are still arriving. And those boats are still sinking.

Syrian migration # 9.

Syrian migration # 9. Courtesy of Helen Zughaib

Zughaib told me that while she strives not to blame one or the other side of her work, she was inspired by the need to show that the consequences of this war are still going on and have long-lasting effects that far outside the direct region.

The migration crisis has strengthened the rhetoric of right-wing groups in some countries and led to political parties that are "a bit fanatical" and seize power, she told me, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Extreme right-wing leaders such as Matteo Salvini, Italian Minister of Interior, have called for a stringent anti-immigrant policy. Salvini recently drafted legislation that would remove humanitarian protection for migrants and refugees in the country and make it easier for them to be deported.

"It is the greatest displacement of people who have ever been registered, and often the unwillingness or inability of different countries to receive them, take care of them, assimilate them, deal with the myriad problems that come with a huge influx of people – it's a daily situation that has not yet been resolved, "Zughaib said.

The exhibition draws subtle parallels between Syrians and African-Americans who fled the south in the last century

In some ways, the difficult journey that many Syrians went to is also characteristic of other forced migrations.

Zughaib is a Lebanese-American and her parents are both American citizens. They lived in Lebanon in the 1970s when she and her mother and two sisters were forced to flee because of the civil war there. Her father stayed behind for a few months. "He told me that we would be back in a week, & # 39; she said. "We did not return until 35 years later." Although Zughaib is not an immigrant and does not consider herself a refugee, she feels that her experience helps her to relate to what Syrians are experiencing today.

Part of her inspiration came from the artist Jacob Lawrence The migration series, which can be seen in The Phillips Collection, a museum of modern art in Washington, DC. His 60 panels, painted between 1940 and 1941, depict the difficult journey that many African-Americans took in the first half of the last century to leave the South and find new economic opportunities in the North.

Zughaib said she had known for years about his collection and saw clear parallels between the two journeys, including the fact that many Syrian children were forced to work instead of going to school, just like African-American children who went to school with their families. the North and West.

Especially the composition of one painting also spoke to her.

"I looked at one of his works at the beginning of The Migration Series, where people go to St. Louis and Chicago and New York, I thought: the Syrians go to Germany and Turkey and Greece," Zughaib said. "It felt like a natural progress for me to connect them."

Zughaib regards Lawrence as an influence on her own style, and when she had the chance to meet the famous American artist before he died, she was overwhelmed with emotion. "I had to shake hands with him, and since he was one of my artists' heroes, I just ended up crying, I was so overwhelmed, I love his work and style, and feel a kinship with his style, regardless of pattern and color. , and kind of geometry and the movement of his pieces, "she said.

The museum curator of Gallery Al-Quds, Dagmar Painter, has placed a card under each of the pieces of Zughaib with a caption and a miniature representation of the work of Jacob Lawrence that inspired it.

For a painting by Lawrence & # 39; s depicting African-American migrants traveling under a blue sky full of birds, for example, Zughaib has chosen to travel Syrian refugees in a similar way and replace the birds in the original image with aircraft with bombs.

Painter, the gallery curator, told me that the exhibition was deliberately intended to promote a sense of intersectionality – that a group of struggles of refugees could share similarities with the migration struggle of others.

Zughaib seems to agree with that.

While she deliberately chose to describe the journey of Syrians fleeing war, "within that context the whole idea of ​​immigration and migrants comes forward, which seeps into the whole drama of what has happened," she said.

Eight years later, her attempt to document the crisis is not over yet. "I will keep it," Zughaib told me. "I will continue to tell the story until there seems to be a natural ending."

The Syrian Migration Series by Helen Zughaib can be seen in the Gallery Al-Quds of the Jerusalem Fund from January 25 to February 28, 2019.