Utopian Visions

Have you ever dreamed of a better, more perfect world? The word “utopia” represents a grand vision for an ideal society, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects. This imaginative concept reflects the human desire for civic improvement and perfection.

In Utopian Visions, running from September 25, 2008 through March 29, 2009 at the Arab American National Museum, four artists of Arab descent, all women, each conceive their own vision of a more perfect place. The exhibition, in the Main Floor Gallery, is free with Museum admission.

The works created by these artists – Rima Al-awar, Rana Chalabi, Roula Ayoub and Emna Zghal – draw upon disparate forms of inspiration, ranging from nature to poetry to spiritual belief, challenging the viewers to consider their own interpretations of utopia. (see artist biographies and statements below).

“This exhibit is a remarkable medley of color, texture and imagery that evokes our universal yearning for a more perfect world,” says AANM Curator of Collections Suzy Adra Mazloum, who led the development of Utopian Visions. “It also encourages our viewers to reflect on their own personal visions of utopia and share them with their fellow visitors – in a very real way, our viewers will enhance this exhibit as it continues to evolve over the next six months.”

With four very different and creative artists participating and coming from disparate locations – Toronto, Cairo, Beirut and New York City – there are many interesting aspects to this exhibit. A singular component is a series of 12 prints by Emna Zghal.

“This collection, titled The Prophet of Black Folk, comes not from the artist, but from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library,” says Stephen Williams, manager of the Museum’s Curatorial Department. “It illustrates The Black Prophet by the contemporary Arab poet Adonis, and we made special arrangements with the Schomburg Center to bring these beautiful pieces to Dearborn.”


Utopian Visions: The Artists

Rima Al-awar


Rima Al-awarAlthough she is currently based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Rima Al-awar, 42, was raised in Lebanon and North Carolina, where her family relocated during the Lebanese civil war. During high school, Al-awar discovered her love for oil painting, but at North Carolina State University, she earned a B.S. in Chemistry and a Ph.D in Synthetic Organic Chemistry. She presently works at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, where she directs the Medicinal Chemistry Platform. Al-awar’s paintings have been exhibited in galleries in Indianapolis, Indiana in recent years.

Artist Statement:

The Aden Series was indirectly influenced by my fascination with Chinese characters and a personal effort to write/draw them. Most directly, this series attempts to address the interplay between man and woman balancing the ideal while ineffectively grappling with the complexity of reality. It was named after the great historical Yemeni city and the first known utopian haven painted for man…the Garden of Eden.

Website: http://www.carolina-art.com/Pages/Artists/ralawar.html

Aden 4

Sample Image: Aden 4 (oil on canvas, 36” x 60”)

Rana Chalabi


Rana ChalabiFormal studies in archaeology, architecture and Islamic art helped inform the creative vision of Rana Chalabi, 52, who was born in Syria, raised in Lebanon, and has lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt since 1981. She holds degrees from the American University campuses in both Beirut and Cairo and is also internationally certified as a practitioner of homeopathy, an alternative form of medicine, but considers herself a self-taught artist. Chalabi works in oils, acrylics, watercolor, pen, inks, stamps, mixed media, sculpture (wood and clay) and graphic design. She has exhibited frequently in Cairo; her work has also been presented in galleries in London, Paris and Amman, Jordan.

Artist Statement:

These works reflect two underlying themes of the dynamic and the static. In the male and female dancers it is the challenge of capturing the ephemeral nature of three-dimensional dynamic movement through the static medium of paper, oil, gold leaf, and colored inks. The movement of line and color, the interplay of diaphanous veil, and solid limbs, the highlights of gold within the fields of reds make the dance come alive. The whirling of the dervishes is an ascension, an invitation to let go of the stasis of the body. Movement is life. The calligraphies are illustrations for a book called the Tao of Homeopathy, which speaks about the essentials of healing. These words were meant to provide a Sufi perspective by using Arabic words in a Chinese style. They were then printed as limited editions as art works which can stand on their own. The cityscape, inspired by Cairo, is a vision of the architecture and harmony of the old Arab cities.

Website: http://ranachalabi.com

City Scape

Sample image: City Scape (oil on canvas, 170cm x 40 cm)

Roula Ayoub


Roula AyoubRoula Ayoub’s abstract paintings have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad, including the Appleton Museum of Art in Florida; the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan; the JHS Gallery in Taos, New Mexico; and the Galerie Espace Lucrèce in Paris, France. In addition, her work is in public and corporate collections including those of the Beirut International Airport and the Bank Audi Art Collection in Beirut, Lebanon. Museum collections include those of the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University in Tallahassee Florida and the Sharjah Art Museum in UAE. Ayoub was born in 1964 in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa. She received her M.S. in Interior Design and Fine Arts with honorable mention from Florida State University. Ayoub is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon but frequently visits Houston, Texas.

Artist Statement:

My art is somewhere beyond our world, a self created place, and a mixture of different cultures creatively painted on canvas. It is a serene place where one would aspire to be, far from the rubbish existing in this world where mankind has disturbed what our greatest God has created.

With my various travels, journeys, and cultural experiences, I felt like creating a new world of my own, a world where there is only love, peace, happiness, faith, forgiveness, and understanding. In my art, you find freedom, peace, and joy, a place where one dreams to reach to.

My art is a world with no restrictions, nor distractions. It is a free world. Warm and cool colors, with luminescence uniting the two color schemes, are painted into abstractions where they amazingly complement one another. My art is beyond my description. It is, in fact, another gift from God. Images on my canvas are creations by Him, but only using my hand. For this, I am thankful as always.

Website: www.roula.net

Eternal Sunrise II

Sample Image: Eternal Sunrise II (acrylics, 40” x 40”)

Emna Zghal


Emna ZghalEmna Zghal was born and raised in Tunisia, where she earned a B.A. at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Tunis. She pursued her M.F.A. at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and has studied at the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting & Sculpture. Zghal has several grants, residencies and fellowships to her credit. Two of her works were purchased by the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Hassam, Speicher, Betts, and Symons Purchase Fund and donated to American museums. With collaborator Michael Rakowtiz, Zghal was awarded a 2008 grant by the Creative Capital Foundation. She currently resides in New York City.

Artist Statement:

Poetry has always been central to my art practice; it is my source of inspiration and method of thinking. Whether in my abstract images or in my work with text, I view all the marks I make on the picture plane as words, as emotionally evocative, if not completely decipherable, symbolic entities.

My abstract works include drawings, oil paintings, and mixed-media works on paper. In my mixed-media works I combine woodcuts with collage and drawing on rice paper and mount them on stretched canvas so that the images float in space without borders. Formally, they are studies of organic patterns derived from woodgrain, bark, and the random way pigments settle on a canvas. The infinite quality of these patterns recalls textiles for many, but they are more aptly related to the tradition of pattern-making in Islamic art. While retaining this tradition’s infinite aspect, I question its rigorous geometric grid and its governing Platonic aesthetic. Unlike Plato, I think that perfection is to be found in nature, and not in the human simplification of it. The spaces I create are intended to allow viewers to meander, to recall the vastness, complexity, and mystifying qualities of nature.

A few years ago, I came across these lines by Adonis, a contemporary Arab poet: Black ink is flowing/over the papers of this/world: white cannot/be unless it is fertilized by black luster. They felt like an assignment, not only to make visual the images of the poem, but also to include the text. This encounter with Adonis marked the beginning of a new direction in my work. I began by making a portfolio of prints entitled The Prophet of Black Folk, in which I drew on Adonis’s poetry and accounts of the ninth-century poet Ali Ibn Mohamed who led an African slave revolt in Iraq’s southern marshes.

In 2005, I made an artist’s book, Cultures Of War: An Essay, in which I used the language of American writers, poets, and leaders in order to highlight how certain cultural attitudes – racism, a misplaced sense of strength, or charity — are grounds for effective war propaganda and give rise to war in much the same way as the geopolitical reasons more readily brought up to explain it. My second book, The Tree of My Mind, also borrows the words of others, this time to reflect on trees, their meanings, and their use as metaphors for human beings.

Currently, I am researching the various ways in which poetry was/is perceived as a threat, as did Plato who proposed to expel poets from his ideal city.

Website: http://www.nathirat.net

Waves in Knots

Sample Image: Waves in Knots (mixed media on paper mounted on canvas, 16” x 20“)

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