Meet The Artist: Helen Zhugaib
Helen Zhugaib is an internationally recognised artist who creates work to encourage dialogue and bring understanding and acceptance between the people of the Arab world and the United States. We met with Helen to learn more about her practice and how she uses her art as a tool to encourage this vital conversation.
Fine Art Giclée print on Hahnemühle German Etching
107mm x 152mm / 6”x4”
Limited Edition of 100
Accompanying certificate of authenticity with the artist's digital signature
You consider art to be one of the most important tools we have to help shape and foster dialogue and bring understanding and acceptance between the people of the Arab world and the United States. Why is this? And what role do you think your own artwork plays in this conversation?
I do think art plays this vital role in our world as artists can “speak” to issues that even lawmakers and politicians cannot. It serves to bring people together in dialogue and (at the very least, even if they disagree) at least a conversation has begun and stereotypes are harder to throw around. Here again, it creates a space, if you will, to recognize the “other” even if you both disagree with one another. And this leads to a path for openness and dialogue that bring people together.
Your work often focuses on Arabic women and celebrates their heritage and culture. What changes have you seen develop in recent years? And how have these changes affected your own practice?
Yes, my work does usually center on women, and children, in general, as much of the time they are faced with picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, for instance the Syrian civil war) has been my focus for close to four years now. The women now must work, many for the first time outside of their homes as many men have died, so they are the ones to provide for their family. The perseverance and strength the women show is admirable. I portray them as beautiful and strong in the face of much. I feel as an artist, it is important to “visually” document my surroundings or issues that are important especially coming out of the middle East where I primarily grew up.
Your paintings are colourful and vibrant. What role/significance does colour have in your work?
I think the element of beauty is a strong device in my work, to have my message of deeper, often painful issues, such as war, displacement, victimization of children and women, be heard more easily. If my work is beautiful or attractive to look at, I have gotten the viewer one step closer to my story behind the painting, and even a bit closer to creating empathy for the “other” which is very important to me.
Tell us about a day in your studio. Do you have a creative routine?
A day in my studio, begins with a couple of cups of strong coffee, feeding my cat, Stumpy, and then heading down into my studio. I am most energized to work when I am actually at the point of painting. I tend to procrastinate and find reasons not to approach my drawing board when I am sketching out an idea, or beginning a new piece. Rather like being in the middle of a great book, you do not want it to end, but starting a new book, before you really get into it, it is a harder point for me in my process and one I do not necessarily like. I have tons of notes and sketches all over the place, which I sort through to jog my memory of the image I visualized in my mind, and then begin sketching always in pencil first. I also have the radio on constantly!
Helen Zughaib was born in Beirut, Lebanon, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art at Syracuse University, earning her BFA from the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Helen currently lives in Washington, DC, and works fulltime as an artist. She paints primarily in gouache and ink on board and canvas. More recently, she has worked with wood, shoes and cloth and mixed media installations.
Her work has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Lebanon. Her paintings are included in many private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, US Consulate General, Vancouver, Canada, American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, the Arab American National Museum in, Michigan, and the DC Art Bank collection. She recently was awarded a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and currently included in the new Washingtonia Collection, in Washington, DC. Helen was also invited as artist in residence at George Mason University, Virginia, and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Her paintings have been included in several Art in Embassy exhibitions abroad, including Brunei, Nicaragua, Mauritius, Iraq, Belgium and Lebanon.
In 2008, Helen was invited as US Cultural Envoy through the US Department of State, to Palestine, where she led a month- long workshop with Palestinian women artists from the West Bank. This exhibit titled “Women’s Art, Women’s Vision,” presented an opportunity for both American and Palestinian women to share their stories and culture celebrating International Women’s History Month. In 2009, she was invited to Switzerland and France, under the US Department of State’s Speaker and Specialist Program, sharing her work with universities and schools. In October 2016, she traveled to Saudi Arabia as US Cultural Envoy, speaking to young Saudi women artists and exhibiting her work at the Quincy House in Riyadh. Her paintings have been gifted to heads of state by President Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
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.
I hope through my work, to encourage dialogue and bring understanding and acceptance between the people of the Arab world and the United States, especially since 9/11, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the more recent revolutions and crises across the Arab world.