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.
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!