The new exhibition The Far Shore: Navigating Homelands – which opens November 10th, 2018 at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn and runs through April 7, 2019 – explores the themes of migration, displacement and survival, and features five visual artists and five poets who are either immigrants from Arab countries or descendants of immigrants. The exhibition was curated by Melissa Chimera, a visual artist from Hawai’i whose great-grandparents fled Syria during World War I.
Chimera and her mother, the poet Adele Ne Jame, are one of five artist-poet pairings in the exhibition. Other poet-artist pairings are Haas Mroue & Rania Matar; Naomi Shihab Nye & Helen Zughaib; Hayan Charara & Reem Bassous; and Sharif Elmusa & John Halaka. Collectively, their families’ journeys embody the varied and long history of Arab immigration to the U.S. Before the end of World War I (exactly 100 years ago, on November 11th), immigrants came from Arab countries to the United States mainly for economic reasons. But after World War I, tumultuous situations and military campaigns in many Arab countries resulted in migrations across shifting borders and the development of new identities and affiliations.
We asked Melissa some questions about the exhibit…
1. Why are these immigration stories important to tell?
The project was something quite different when I first conceived of it. Initially, the exhibition was supposed to be in Beirut, Lebanon and would address the theme of Arab American artists and poets returning to their ancestral places of origin. That project fell through. I approached the Arab American National Museum who said yes, then Trump got elected, proposed the Muslim travel ban, and the project evolved into what it is now: an exploration of the Arab diaspora in America. It was all coincidental, but The Far Shore couldn't have happened anywhere else but here. So many of us feel under attack and powerless in the current state of politics. The Far Shore is our small part in creating something beautiful from an often misunderstood people.
2. What inspired you to create this exhibit? Why the concept of visual art paired with poems?
I grew up in Hawai`i–a global endangered species hot spot–and spent the first part of my professional career as a conservationist managing nature reserves and protecting endangered species for The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service and the military. I also studied music and art in high school and college, although my degree is in Natural Resources Management. I have always been interested in telling the story of unknown communities under threat–whether they are plants, animals, or humans.
My mother Adele Ne Jame is a Lebanese American poet who has lived in Hawai`i since 1969. Our first collaboration Inheritance: Reclaiming Land and Spirit was for the 2009 Sharjah Bienniale in the United Arab Emirates. This project featured my portraits of Hawaiian flowers displayed beside her Hawai`i-based poetry.
I think that the written word–specifically formal poetry–and visual art is under-explored in American contemporary art. Perhaps there's more of a synthesis of the two art forms in other cultures, i.e., Japan and the Middle East where calligraphy is the visual embodiment of poetry, a practice dating back centuries. For our project I was more interested in the conversation that might open up between the poem and a specific artwork conceived in response to the theme of Arab immigration. One is not an illustration of the other–they are two distinct works–but their pairing creates a new space for the viewer's imagination to roam.
3. Did you know all the artists and poets in this exhibit before putting them together, or did you have to seek them out?
I didn't know any of the visual artists and approached them individually as a novice curator. My mom recommended some of the poets, friends of hers like Hayan Charara and Naomi Shihab Nye. Amazingly, each of them responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” I had done my homework and knew that this stellar roster of artists like John Halaka, Helen Zughaib and photographer Rania Matar had been making work very much about the Arab identity. I wanted a diverse range of art practices, ages and countries of origin. The fun part was choosing the poetry and deciding who would go with whom, like playing matchmaker. Some were obvious–like having my wedding dress with my mother's poem about her grandmother sewing. In the end, I saw certain stylistic and ancestral commonalities between the pairings.
4. Can you describe one or two of the pieces and how they address this idea of the “burden of otherness”?
Reem Bassous' painting “Echo” embodies the spirit of this exhibition. She is a Lebanese American who lived through the civil war. She also lives in Hawai`i and, like me, is about as far away as one can be from Lebanon. She took Hayan Charara's poem “Mother and Daughter” (which is a call and response between a mother and daughter trapped in a sinking car, calling to mind the horrors of migrants traversing the Mediterranean) and painted a very large work over the course of six or so months. She lived with the poem day in, day out, carrying it with her and re-reading it again and again. She took her own feelings of being in this “third space” between two disparate places–Hawai`i and Lebanon–and put that imagery into the 9 ft. painting.
John Halaka's wood panel installation Rooted/Uprooted was created in response to Sharif Elmusa's “Roots.” Both are Palestinian. The poem describes the loss of heritage as one's birthplace and Arabic names are themselves eradicated. John took the outline of Sharif's own shadow to create the life-size figures burned into the diptych.
5. What misconceptions do you feel exist about Arab Americans? How can we all work towards greater understanding & acceptance of different cultures?
There are many. The most common trope is the Arab terrorist, repeated again and again in news and film. My mom grew up in New Jersey in the fifties and was called “AY-rab” at school. John Halaka describes the same thing. I personally never experienced this–probably because Hawai`i is so ethnically diverse — but I cringe every time I hear people make casual, derogatory remarks about Arabs. The only way forward is better integration of minorities among diverse groups–in the workplace, in our social groups, in schools. It is hard to hate someone different when you have contact or a personal relationship with someone who is say–gay, Arab, or Muslim. Otherwise, “the other” is an abstract concept, and concepts are easier to despise than actual people.