An artist’s story: from Lebanon to the White House

Traveling to the lower level of the Watergate complex usually involves a blas? trip to the shabby Safeway supermarket. But Saturday, however, Washington’s classiest patrons headed that way for an occasion that was anything but lackluster.

In an intimate gallery just beyond the market, dozens arrived for the opening of renowned artist and Foggy Bottom resident Helen Zughaib’s latest show. The venue was abuzz as friends and supporters pondered paintings, savored food and wine well above Safeway standards, and got their chance to greet and congratulate the artist herself.

Zughaib has been turning heads as an artist since she emerged from the University of Syracuse in 1981. Her paintings, displayed and published around the world, are now featured in collections at the White House, the World Bank, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Consulate General and the American Embassy in Baghdad.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Zughaib grew up mostly in the Middle East, and was evacuated from her home twice as a child. After moving to Washington, she now sees herself as a participant in both Arab and American cultures.

“Art is one of the most important tools we have for shaping and fostering dialogue and positive ideas about the Middle East,” she said.

Zughaib’s work fuses aspects of Middle Eastern and Western tradition with an intriguing, nontraditional sense of space and perspective. Her subjects range from national monuments to portraits of her cats, and are transformed into a rich tapestry of colors, patterns and textures. Zughaib said she hopes that the distinct style and integrated content of her art offers hope, joyfulness and spirituality in the viewer.

According to the artist, her Arab-American status gives her the “ability to peek into two different worlds, with one foot in and one foot out of each,” a position that she finds both a challenge and a blessing. Zughaib wishes that the Arab world wasn’t always in the news, and hopes her paintings will “start dialogues, diminish stereotypes and open doors.”

Zughaib’s work has had a profound and widespread influence. “Reconciliation,” the painting of hers that is displayed in the White House, was a gift to George W. Bush from the prime minister of Lebanon. It depicts a place in Beirut where a church and a mosque stand almost next to each other, painted a long time ago. Even the artist herself could not have foreseen how poignant an image and idea that would be today.

Another well-known piece of Zughaib’s, titled “Prayer Rug for America,” was part of a post-Sept. 11 art show that toured all over the world. The painting narrowly escaped being destroyed itself by Hurricane Katrina last fall. Its symbolic survival landed it a home in the Library of Congress.

While the themes of her work can be solemn, there is also an uplifting element of optimism.

“I want people to feel good when they look at my paintings,” she said.

Zughaib’s hope is that people will come out of their bubble when they look at her work. She feels that many Americans take the ideals of this country for granted, and hopes that her paintings will provoke people to ask questions.

“My point is not to tell people what to think,” she said. “I’m looking for a bit of a reexamination.”

Zughaib’s current exhibit at the Watergate gallery embodies the theme of conversation. One piece, called “Dialogue in Black and White,” is a play on Arabic calligraphy that draws in a lighthearted twist of humor. The artist has had several previous shows at the Watergate, and is a longtime professional friend of the gallery’s owner. The show will continue through Nov. 25, and is open to all.

Zughaib has not been back to her native country of Lebanon since 1976 and was hoping to return this summer. Though newly ignited violence in the region prohibited the trip, her sights are set on one day returning there with her father to visit her home, the place that has helped inspire her artwork for the past 25 years.

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