Immigrant Arab Artists: Themes of Alienation (1989)

If one is to consider art as a mirror of society, then, as Arab artists, it behooves us to examine how our art reflects the culture from which it emerges. At a time when contemporary art has reached an international magnitude whereby boundaries between nations and cultures become of no major relevance to the development of style, many contemporary Arab artists have turned to the rediscovery of symbols, patterns, and visual themes of their Arab visual heritage. This tendency can be very important in establishing the identity of Arab art. However, such a development is not without its difficulties.

The issue of defining the identity of contemporary Arab art is a problem for artists currently working in the Arab world. It is doubly complicated for Arab artists working in the United States and Western countries. Artists working in the Arab world have the advantage of being closely tied to the growing pains of their emerging societies. Arab artists working away from the homeland, although strongly tied there in sentiment, are caught between two worlds. This duality may translate into a boon or a curse.

As immigrant artists, we are left in the position of proving our creative potential in an alien and often crass milieu. We are expected to function within, and to contribute to, a new system of professional galleries, art organizations, and educational institutions. We are also expected to spice up the melting pot of art with motifs of our native culture for the benefit of our curious peers and intellectual colleagues. In addition to all that, we follow our sense of noblesse oblige in honor of our national heritage and for the sake of our compatriots. All in all, we find ourselves performing a complex juggling act.

Artists everywhere are generally used to conditions of adversity, but the conditions facing immigrant Arab artists add to their predicament of alienation. The burden of making creative choices is much greater. Still, out of what seems to be a chaotic state, Arab artists, working away from the homeland, attain some insights into the status of Arab art as a whole at home or abroad.

The experience of creating art away from the homeland carries with it a series of difficulties affecting the artist's creative spirit. First, there is the need for reunion with the homeland. This need becomes intensified over the years. The more entrenched we become in our immigrant ways the more we feel the pull of the homeland. Picasso was always happiest when he returned to his Spanish turf. Connecting visually and intellectually with the homeland is most essential for the morale of an artist.

Second, there is a need for recognition and support by fellow professionals and by compatriots working in the alien country. Usually, artists constitute a minority within a minority of immigrant professionals. Third, there is the need to establish continuous contact with contemporary artists and art establishments in the Arab world. Fourth is the Arab artist's frustration at being separated from major events in the homeland. Due to the feeling of isolation from recent tragic events in Lebanon and the occupied West Bank, immigrant artists find themselves helpless in their rallying efforts to act and participate as a group. The feeling of isolation at such times is most difficult.

Fifth, Arab artists working in the United States find it difficult to exhibit in commercial galleries due to their limited control within the commercial gallery system. In addition, one is expected to work within a current vogue to become part of the mainstream represented by the commercial galleries.

An artist needs an audience, whether fictitious or real. It is hard to create for two or more unrelated audiences. The choices are: to exhibit to sell, to exhibit for cultural promotion, to create for art's sake, and to create out of technical, professional, or idealistic requirements. Combining choices is possible as long as they do not contradict one another.

As a practicing artist and a teacher, I feel a strong sense of isolation from the homeland. Identification with the homeland, however intense, can suffer by the feeling of isolation and the lack of outside support. Contact, support, and exchanges between the two worlds can strengthen the status of the immigrant artist, as well as the status of contemporary Arab art.

The process of any art development, be it individual or collective, must transit from the specific to the universal. Arab artists, whether immigrant or not, looking back at their heritage, need to examine those elements of culture that are most suited to a universal appeal. Our present-day social, economic, and political realities dictate our participation in all walks of human endeavors. The arts remain one of the best methods by which we can show our participation on a cultural level, and by which we can mirror ourselves to the whole world. It is the best way of telling the world what we think of our past, and how we view ourselves now. Hence, we need to select and then revive those elements that are most descriptive of our humanity and intelligence. Our attempts at revival should not be through mimicking the glorious past, but through interpreting and defining it for ourselves and others. The context and significance of our art, once it becomes comprehensible to us, will become comprehensible to the rest of the world. Once it becomes universal in content and addresses itself to a wider humanity then we become more able to share it with others. Arab art, both conventional and contemporary, must be made to transcend local appeal and seek a wider audience.

As contemporary artists, more than ever we rely on borrowing and regurgitating elements of earlier as well as alien cultures. Picasso borrowed from African art. Matisse borrowed arabesque patterns. Arab culture offers much that can be borrowed and explored. To many contemporary Arab artists, symbols, patterns, calligraphy, and visual themes representative of our culture prevail as a primary source of expression. But indiscriminate use of such sources may lead to overuse, redundancy, and the inbreeding of style. Duplicating the high styles of the past will not constitute a revival unless it can be guided by the spirit of the past.

As we try to shed many of the Western ways of colonialism, we have learned to look inward for the development of our cultural identities. At the same time, we still look up to European art movements for examples to emulate. Identification with Western styles, whether realism, surrealism, abstraction or others has its own pitfalls. Art traditions, in general, instruct us that imitation is not acceptable in creative expression. Art is generally viewed as decadent unless it is supported by individuality and conscious aesthetic decisions. Today, artists have to face a range of stylistic expressions available for their selection. In what is described as the postmodern era, an artist can pick and choose from any vein or style, from superrealism to minimal abstraction. Those choices are no less available to an Arab artist than to a Western artist. Styles such as cubism, abstraction, or expressionism have become common to all artists wherever they may be. They have become international languages.

Problems of artistic identity seem to arise out of probing the content of art and the intentions of the artist. Confusion over what is being expressed seems always greater than that over how it is being expressed. The intensity of our beliefs and convictions also determines the integrity of our art, and its ability to stand on its own. Regardless of what style is being pursued, the artist must remain true to his perceptions and his interpretation of the world he lives in.

The significance of the visual arts remains in the ability to transmit strong visual messages, rather than to illustrate literary concepts. Because Arab traditions are more founded in literature, this approach might seem a difficult one to pursue. Realism succeeds well with the general public as it points to the familiar and the literal. However it fails when it becomes guided only by fashion or when it caters to class elitism. For example, how often we have seen public taste go after nostalgic representations of what life in our rural Arab villages used to be like. Tendencies to create and to collect for purposes of nostalgia or personal gratification are not truly supportive of original art.

There is also a tendency in Arab realistic painting to promote political and social themes. This approach is most rewarding when its intent is to reach the masses and to sharpen their consciousness toward a communal cause. It can be most effective in reaching the public and achieving its goals through the printed form. Media such as posters, lithography, and photography, because of low expense and ease of distribution, can communicate social and political themes more effectively than painting can. Public art, such as murals, also falls into this category. Several publicly funded mural projects in the United States help reinforce the identities of neglected sectors of American society such as Chicanos, blacks, farmers and so on.

The Arabs were a nation of poets before they were a nation of visual artists. It is a fact also, our poets were always turned on to visual phenomena and the observation of nature. In that sense our poets have always been visually oriented and deeply aware of their visual environment. The tendency to lean toward the literary is understandable. Although painting and poetry have symbolism as a common denominator, the roots of the two disciplines are separate. Painting relies on a symbolic structure suggested in space, form, color, line, and texture. Those elements working together provide us with the visual metaphors and symbols. In my work, I am conscious of what people see in my abstractions. However, any symbols that occur remain subjective and quite often coincidental. If a person sees a bird or a figure, it is not intended as a specific symbol, but rather as one loaded with suggestion. A curve may be reminiscent of a calligraphic letter from the Arabic alphabet. A round shape might suggest an ancient dome. In my abstractions, one might observe non-tangible allegories such as light, levitation, struggle, emergence, isolation, and fragmentation. Those larger concepts in themselves represent a certain state of mind. They emerge in spite of the artist's intentions and manifest themselves in a manner encompassing complex life experiences and hence akin to my growing up in the homeland.

The road to symbolic expression is shrouded with a great deal of ambiguity. The attitude that "you can see in a painting whatever you want" must not prevail. Visual imagery cannot be constricted into a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and its reference. On the other hand it cannot leave too much room for interpretation. Muddled symbolism has no place in either art or poetry.

Middle Eastern traditions are rich with mysticism and spiritual values. Parables and similes are part of our day-to-day language. As artists, we stand to gain from the richness of our traditional and contemporary narratives and poems. However we must be careful not to confuse mysticism with ambiguity. In the same manner, we must distinguish between ideas that are best expressed in words and ideas that are best expressed in images.

Mimicking one's own past can be equally unhealthy. As we realize the urgency of adopting what is Arab and rejecting what is not, we find ourselves amidst efforts of reviving instances once representative of a truly great and rich artistic heritage. In looking through the window to our past we tend to mimic the past as a child would mimic his mother, not fully understanding what it is we are trying to revive. The end result is a redundant and, at most a mediocre attempt at reviving what once we could do best.

The past, with all its glory, beckons studying and understanding based on esthetic awareness of the holistic nature of Arab art. In any culture, art is a direct product of the intellectual stimulus, and the spiritual and material support responsible for its emergence. Artists today need such support as museums, cultural preservation, the development of the crafts, the encouragement of creativity, and esthetic and historical education in schools and universities.

Revival of past cultural patterns can be considered inasmuch as they can be supportive of the present. The contemporary situation demands a greater participation from all the nations of the world. A spirit of fellowship and understanding among artists of different countries strengthens cultural development. Identity and uniqueness are developed through interaction rather than through isolation; art thrives through exchange and interaction.

Islamic and Arab motifs need to be brought to the attention of the world through the emphasis of our art on human achievement, the beauty of our spirituality, and the gracefulness of our writing. In the same vein, we must learn from other cultures those elements that affirm our own. There is spirituality in abstraction, in Arab poetry, and in our geometric design. There is intellect and mathematical relations in abstract art. There is a sense of space, order, and harmony in Arab design and calligraphy. Abstract painting is nonfigurative; Arab painting is also essentially nonfigurative. Symbolism in Arab art is in its concepts of harmony, oneness, and rhythm. Those concepts are essential to the affirmation of life and humanity.

As an Arab artist, I share with my fellow artists the thirst to discover, to understand, and to promote what we have traditionally accepted as Arab art. But, without the dissemination of our artistic heritage we cannot share, exchange, and teach our culture. The conscious efforts among Arab governments, institutions, and groups to coordinate the study of Arab art in schools and university curricula, to promote international exchanges, to update museum collections, to encourage contemporary trends, and to support the spirit of innovation need to be given greater importance. With such support, and improvement of attitudes toward individual creativity, our art will develop and flourish at home and abroad.

SARI KHOURY was born in Jerusalem in 1941. He moved to the United States in 1959 and graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He is currently a professor of Art at Central Michigan University. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in the Midwest, nationally, and internationally.