The New York Times

Arab and Coming Out In Art That Speaks Up

DEARBORN, Mich. — Nabil Mousa’s first solo art exhibition was a joyous occasion, but it still brought tears to his eyes when he introduced his husband to the audience. Mousa was born in Syria and immigrated to the United States with his conservative Christian parents. In 2000, when he came out, they soon cut off contact and disowned him. Now, he was melding his two identities — gay and Arab — in a show of paintings here. And what was more surprising was where his work was being displayed: the Arab-American National Museum, which was focusing for the first time on a gay artist’s exploration of discrimination. Mousa, 51, is among a small but growing number of LGBT artists of Arab descent incorporating their sexual identity into their work. In doing so, they confront their own apprehensions, along with censorship and surveillance in the Arab world, and what some educators and curators say is a reluctance by some institutions in the United States to exhibit their work on its artistic rather than political merit. In “American Landscape: An Exploration of Art & Humanity,” on view Mousa said he manipulated the American flag to address “the hypocrisy in our Constitution, where they talk about every man is created under God, equal to others. But when you really look at it, people like me who are gay or people of color, we are substandard.” Arab details seem more clandestine: Richly decorated arabesques peek though thick, muddy brown paint that veils their underlying beauty. A single color — orange — pervades the work as a visual metaphor for the fear experienced by Arab-Americans in a post-Sept. 11 world, used in the coded terror warning system introduced by the George W. Bush administration. Mousa’s gallerist, Oksana Salamatina, approached the Arab-American National Museum last year because of difficulties finding a space to exhibit paintings by the artist, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Devon Akmon, the director of the Arab-American National Museum, said the “American Landscape” show “challenges that small narrative that exists” about what ideas Arab-Americans will accept. “We’re trying to shed light on the diversity of our community,” he said, adding that there is a place in his museum for dissenting voices. He added, “This isn’t just a place to come and look at objects on a wall.” Dearborn, bordering Detroit, has one of the largest Arab-American communities in the country and is the home of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. Known as ACCESS, the group opened the National Museum in 2005 to promote Arab-American culture. In June 2016, the museum examined the subject of gay discrimination with the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer, Hamed Sinno, identifies as queer. A panel discussion drew several dozen participants, without incident. Kathy Zarur, a curator and professor at the California College of the Arts, who has also worked for the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, said she did not know of any other Arab art-focused institution holding an exhibition with LGBT themes. “It’s really useful because it offers audiences the opportunity to learn that this art exists at all and then gives them an idea of the depths and the breadth of it,” Zarur said.

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