Building the Future While Embracing the Past

By D. W. Aossey

In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab American Artists

Edited by Salwa Mikdadi

The Arab American National Museum, 2005

Etching Our Own Image: Voices from Within the Arab American Art Movement

Edited by Anan Ameri, Holly Arida

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

Telling Our Story: The Arab American National Museum

By Ismael Ahmed, Anan Ameri, Maha Freij

The Arab American National Museum, 2007 

Once a hallmark of our collective social conscious, assimilation into Western culture and society has recently taken on new meaning. In the wake of escalating domestic and international conflict over the past decade, we suddenly find ourselves standing before the proverbial looking glass, repeating what we should have known all along: if we, as Arab Americans, don’t define who we are and for what we stand, someone else will do it for us.  And nowhere is it more important for us to take a stand than in the true heritage of our people – the arts and culture.

Three recent books on the subject, “In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab American Artists,” “Etching Our Own Image: Voices from Within the Arab American Art Movement,” and “Telling Our Story: The Arab American National Museum,” address this issue with a fresh perspective and an eye toward the future.

Showcasing the exceptional talent that Arab Americans bring to the visual arts, “In/Visible” examines the work and ideas of fourteen notable contemporary Arab-American artists. Initially exhibited at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, in October, 2005, two primary themes emerge in this retrospective. The first is a distinct message defined by an overarching sense of conflict and struggle; a heightened sense of urgency as it applies to the "new world order." The second is a notion of the sublime; a universal connectedness historically encapsulated in the calligraphy and infinity of Islamic art and the rich, majestic iconography of the various Eastern churches.

Both of these themes are well represented in this wonderful collection. The bold power of suggestion detailed in the concept art of Emily Jacir and Miriam Ghani, and the otherworldliness expressed in the photomontage of Doris Bittar and Rheim Alkadhi, a tangle of distant memories and nebulous dreams, instill in the viewer the discord that permeates the Arab-American psyche. In the calligraphy of Wasma’a Chorbachi and the expressionism of Kamal Boullata, Abdelali Dahrouche, John Halaka and Helen Zughaib, a sense of unity and the sublime emerge as points of departure. 

Connecting these two worlds are Nabila Hilmi, Sumaya Samaha and Afaf Zurayk, infusing ambivalence and ambiguity into the tone of their art, a reflection of the uncertainty of our world and that of our ancestors. Realism bordering on Pop Art and the cult of personality speak out in Yasser Agour’s portraits, contrasting with Mohammad O. Khalil’s eerie abstractions, dark structures which express a foreboding past, present, and future. The unsettling impressions in the work of Athir Shayota complement the formal yet strangely ambiguous sculpture of Amina Mansour in this exquisitely rich compilation.

Expanding on the Arab-American creative experience, “Etching Our Own Image” is an eclectic collection of essays and personal narratives examining contemporary Arab-American involvement in a broad range of performing, literary, and visual arts. Self-direction through creativity is the primary chord struck throughout this interesting compilation as Arab Americans seek to galvanize a cohesive artistic identity. This high-minded study addresses key topics: Speaking truth to power in poetry, cross-culturalism through the immediacy of theatre, and Hip Hop as a medium for social commentary - in particular as it relates to our Arab-American youth.

The rich artistic and cultural heritage left to us by our forefathers is a tough act to follow, though, which exposes a very esoteric issue. Simply put, the artistic and cultural tradition so woven into the soul of the Arab society leaves Arab-American artists searching for a compass as they seek to both embrace yet resist the past. “The majority of Arab American musicians are either mainstream Arab entertainers or revivalists,” Karim Nagy observes on the subject of innovation in Arab-American music, for example. Put another way, we erect our own formidable barriers as we incorporate our heritage into a new artistic paradigm.

“Etching our own Image” is ambitious in scope as it also tackles Arab-American literature, the visual arts and Arab art collectives and comedy -- perhaps overly ambitious, haphazardly covering too much ground and, at times, seemingly kaleidoscopic in nature. Nevertheless, the narratives and perspectives offered in this interesting volume are significant, and the editors redeem themselves by faithfully expressing the issues and challenges that confront contemporary Arab-American artists, as well as the promises that such challenges behold. A quote from Gregory Orfalea a passage from “Shall We Gather in the Mountains?,” frames the heart of our shared dilemma: “. . . when I asked my cousin why he wasn’t shining both (of his flashlights) on the treacherous path, he said, 'I’m preserving the batteries.' There is a lot of preserving the batteries among the Arab Americans. Couldn’t we just blast out those flashlights full bore and to hell with the batteries?”

The final volume in this set sponsored by the Arab American National Museum is “Telling Our Story,” a comprehensive look at the Arab American National Museum itself. Far from a boring tome on some dusty institution, “Telling Our Story” is an excellent visual tribute to a most unique and interesting museum.

The beauty of this book is that it truly captures the depth and breadth of the Arab-American impact on American society starting with the Moroccan slave Zammouri, thought to have landed in Florida around 1528, through the waves of Arab immigrants flocking to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the success stories of the Arab Americans throughout the decades.

Of course, as “Telling Our Story” so aptly details, Arab Americans represent an extremely diverse group of people and cultures -- from Yemenis to Iraqis to Syrians and Somalis and Sudanese and all the peoples of North Africa, Copts, Chaldeans, Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Orthodox Christians and Catholics alike – and yet at some innate level we tend to think of ourselves as one people. Connected by a common language, the cornerstone of our Arab heritage, the ethnic and cultural diversity represented within the Arab world astounds and in many ways represents the greatest feature of Arab Society. As “Telling Our Story” convincingly articulates, our diversity is the greatest legacy of Arab-American society, as well.

Having visited the museum personally, I can attest that “Telling Our Story” does justice to the spirit and message of this wonderful institution and while, to a certain degree, the book assumes a "feel good" quality – it promotes high profile Arab-American personalities that we all know and love: Jamie Farr, the inimitable Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H; NFL Quarterback, Doug Flutie; consumer activist Ralph Nader; and everyone else in between – it nonetheless collects essential rare photos, facts, and anecdotes covering all aspects of Arab-American life that the reader would be hard-pressed to find in any other single volume.

Making no apologies for who we are and from where we come, “Telling Our Story,” like “In/Visible” and “Etching Our Own Image,” projects a constructive, uplifting, and dignified message in addressing our Arab-American cultural identity and artistic aims, and all three titles are highly recommended.


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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