DEARBORN, Mich. — Just over a century ago, in 1914, a regional conflict in the Balkans erupted into a global inferno. Four years and an estimated 20 million lives later, the “War to End all Wars” ended with the Treaty of Versailles, sneeringly referred to by British Viscount Alfred Milner (who helped draft it) as the “Peace to End All Peace.” During and after World War I, as Britain and France carved new borders into what was previously the Ottoman Empire, millions of people were displaced, and a surge of migrants found sanctuary in the United States. Many settled in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.
The Far Shore: Navigating Homelands at Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum commemorates the 100th anniversary of the armistice in November 1918. The exhibition brings together the work of five artists and five poets who are all immigrants or the direct descendants of immigrants. The current tone of national discourse lends this small but significant exhibition a timely relevance.
Curated by Melissa Chimera, whose grandparents came to America from Syria during WWI, the exhibition addresses the immigrant experience, with artworks in various media that each respond to a poem. For example, a poem by Sharif Elmusa (originally Sharif Said Hussein Elmusa) wittily ponders the inevitable truncation of Arabic surnames to something more palatable to Western ears:
casual and efficient
inventor of the T-shirt
that simplifier of the race,
found my name baroque,
bulging with self importance,
yanked out grandfather
and downsized father
even before old age
to an initial, S.
Lebanese-born artist Helen Zughaib’s cycle of paintings responds to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Art of Disappearing.” The poem is a poignant meditation on the inevitable unraveling of identity that occurs when one assimilates to a foreign culture. Zughaib’s paintings speak to the void created in homelands when people are displaced. Her stylized compositions, comprised of geometric patches of lucid color, recalling tile mosaics, portray domestic interiors eerily bereft of any signs of life.
A second set of paintings by the artist — whose work is in collections ranging from the World Bank to the White House — offers a narrative of the immigration process, beginning with an image of a drone-filled sky, followed by boats overcrowded with migrants, recalling photos of refugees crammed into barely seaworthy rafts, making their way across the Mediterranean.
The themes addressed in the show are intersectional, which is fitting, given the artists’ varied backgrounds. Haas Mroue’s poem “Arabes Despatriados” is a reminder that some of the first inhabitants of the New World were from what is now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Speaking of his Phoenician ancestors, the Lebanese author writes,
No one believes me when I say
my ancestors found America […]
They did not run back for gold
or Black men. They had the alphabet.
They had no use for chains.
Mroue ends on an incriminating though justified note, evoking demons from America’s past forever embedded in the fabric of our history.
Palestinian-born John Halaka’s enigmatic sculpture “Rooted/Uprooted” daringly addresses the moral ambiguity that accompanies immigration to America, a nation of immigrants who violently occupied territory rightfully belonging to Native Americans. Drawing historical parallels between the United States and occupied Palestine, Halaka writes that “As a Palestinian-American, I cannot truthfully criticize the occupation of my ancestral land, without rigorously critiquing my occupation of Native-American lands. Our histories of forced displacement are linked through surviving cycles of theft, denial and neglect, as well as our mutual struggle against colonial oppression.”
One of the exhibition’s final artworks is Reem Bassous’s painting of a car submerged in water. The painting is paired with the poem “Mother and Daughter” by Hayan Charara, which movingly describes the final moments as a mother and daughter slowly drown together. Though the poem provides little context for the tragedy, its placement of the mother and daughter in a car implies travel. Installed across from Zughaib’s painting of migrants in a boat, it alludes to the dangerous passage refugees make across the Mediterranean, as chronicled by haunting photos of lifejackets and empty rafts that have washed ashore.
This muscular ensemble of internationally decorated talent lends The Far Shore some serious weight. The exhibition amplifies individual immigrant voices, presenting them as fully human rather than as statistical abstractions. And, given the heightened rhetoric on the issue of immigration, the exhibit is unnervingly relevant. After all, the Trump administration recently amended the mission statement of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which now no longer contains the offending phrase “a nation of immigrants.”
The Far Shore: Navigating Homelands continues at the Arab American National Museum (13624 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan) through April 7, 2019. The exhibition is curated by Melissa Chimera.