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This new art exhibit wants to change the way you think about the Syrian refugee crisis

Helen Zughaib’s paintings are bright and accessible. They also depict a people in crisis.

Syrian Migration Series #5.
Syrian Migration Series #5 by Helen Zughaib.
Courtesy of the artist

Syrians have been fleeing war for the better part of eight years — and their plight barely registers on the news anymore.

But the slow-motion train wreck that is the Syria conflict is still happening.

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

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

It was also inspired, she says, by something a little closer to home: artist Jacob Lawrence’s famed Migration Series, which depicts the challenges African Americans faced during the Great Migration out of the South in the early to mid-1900s.

While the two migrations are vastly different in many ways, they also share some similarities, Zughaib said. And it’s the desire to bring home the impact of this seemingly far-away crisis that has inspired Zughaib to spend three years on this particular series.

“This massive displacement of people ... has affected the world, and has had ramifications here, Europe, certainly 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

Zughaib’s paintings are bright and accessible. They also depict a people in crisis.

Gallery Al-Quds, which houses Zughaib’s latest exhibit, is a small, intimate space within the offices of the Jerusalem Fund, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that focuses on educational and humanitarian work on behalf of Palestinians.

Walking inside, you’re greeted with racks of Palestinian olive oil, books, and art prints for sale. But Zughaib’s colorful paintings, which line a corridor, quickly command attention. They also appear suddenly, around curved corners, and on small, hidden walls. If you want to view the collection in its entirety — the way it’s meant to be viewed — you’re forced to go on a journey.

Zughaib begins the series with an artist statement, which grounds viewers in some of the history of the Arab Spring, the wave of protests that swept much of the Middle East beginning in late 2010. It led to the overthrow of dictators in some countries, but to grueling civil war in others. In Syria, the ensuing conflict has displaced 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 start documenting the political changes sweeping the region. “Everyone was so optimistic in the beginning, and then the years dragged on, the revolutions continued,” she said. The result in Syria was civil war.

For nearly eight years, Zughaib has sought to highlight the most vulnerable victims of the war — as she writes in her statement, “the women and children left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.”

One might expect, then, that her paintings would be dark and dismal. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Instead, her 25 gouache and ink-on-board pieces are awash with bright, vivid colors and lively geometric patterns. At first glance, they’re almost whimsical, until you look a little closer.

The brilliant rainbows, it turns out, are actually fire and explosions. The colorful robes, hijabs, and bows that adorn her figures distract us from noticing that they are fleeing their Syrian towns in droves, heading to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, or mourning their injured or dead family members.

If you follow the narrative arc of the paintings, and learn to see past the brilliant color and geometric shapes, the war’s horrors become startlingly clear: arrest, interrogation, chemical weapons attacks. The most somber painting in the entire collection depicts the tens of thousands of Syrians who have been “disappeared” — many in Syrian prisons — by showing a few figures dressed in black and white against a stark black background.

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

What the caption doesn’t say is that those boats are still coming. 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 cast blame on one side or another in her work, she was inspired by the need to show that the consequences of this war are still happening, and are having long-term effects far beyond the immediate region.

The migration crisis has strengthened the rhetoric of right-wing groups in some countries and led to political parties that are “a little fanatical” taking power, she told me, amid a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Far-right leaders like Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, have pushed for stringent anti-migrant policies. Salvini recently drafted legislation that would revoke humanitarian protection for migrants and refugees in the country, and make it easier for them to be deported.

“It’s the largest displacement of people that’s ever been recorded, and many times the unwillingness or inability of different countries to host them, take care of them, assimilate them, to deal with the myriad of problems that come with a huge influx of people — it’s a day-to-day situation that hasn’t been resolved,” Zughaib said.

The exhibit draws subtle parallels between Syrians and African Americans fleeing the South in the past century

In some ways, the arduous journey that many Syrians have embarked on is emblematic of other forced migrations as well.

Zughaib is Lebanese American, and her parents are both US citizens. They were living 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 several months. “He told me we’d be back in a week,” she said. “We didn’t actually return until 35 years later.” Though Zughaib is not an immigrant, and does not consider herself a refugee, she feels that her experience helps her relate to what Syrians today are experiencing.

Part of her inspiration, as well, came from artist Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, which is on display at The Phillips Collection, a modern art museum in Washington, DC. His 60 panels, painted between 1940 and 1941, depict the arduous journey that many African Americans took during the first half of the last century to leave the South and find new economic opportunity in the North.

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

The composition of one painting in particular also spoke to her.

“I looked at one of his pieces in the beginning of The Migration Series, where people are going to St. Louis and Chicago and New York; I thought, the Syrians are going to Germany and Turkey and Greece,” Zughaib said. “It felt like a natural progression to me, to link them up.”

Zughaib considers Lawrence an influence on her own style, and when she had the opportunity to meet the renowned American artist before he died, she was overcome with emotion. “I got to shake hands with him, and since he was one of my artist heroes, I just ended up crying. I was so overwhelmed. I love his work and style, and feel a kinship to his style, regardless, with the pattern and color, and sort of geometry and the movement of his pieces,” she said.

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

For a painting of Lawrence’s that depicts African-American migrants traveling under a blue sky lined with birds, for example, Zughaib has chosen to paint Syrian refugees traveling in a similar manner, and replaced the birds in the original image with airplanes, carrying bombs.

Painter, the gallery curator, told me that the exhibit was intentionally meant to foster a feeling of intersectionality — that one group of refugees’ struggles can share similarities with other people’s migration struggles.

Zughaib seems to agree.

While she has purposefully chosen to depict the journey of Syrians fleeing war, “within that context that brings up the whole idea of immigration and migrants. That seeps into the whole drama of what’s been happening,” she said.

Eight years into the process, her attempt to document the crisis is not over. “I will keep at it,” Zughaib told me. “I will keep telling the story until there seems to be a natural end.”

Helen Zughaib’s Syrian Migration Series will be on display at the Jerusalem Fund’s Gallery Al-Quds from January 25 to February 28, 2019.

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