Artist Presents an American Landscape
The American flag is a clear symbol of patriotism and is recognizable the world over. Its distinct red, white and blue color scheme, and its well-defined stars and stripes delineate a simple message: this is America. And, for Americans, the flag can be a comforting reminder of home.
However, muddy the bold colors with orange, smudge the precise lines of the flag’s strips with indefinite ones, dashes and background noise and the reaction can easily be translated to one of fear or confusion. “American Landscape: Exploration of Arts & Humanity” demonstrates such themes intentionally in order to examine what it means to be LGBTQ in the U.S., Arab and the tension that can come from those identities. The nationally-lauded exhibit has been on display for nearly five months at Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum. Now, as the display’s closing date of April 8 gets nearer, its creator, 51-year-old Nabil Mousa, said he is thrilled at the recognition his work has received.
“A lot of wonderful things have actually come out of it. I’m blown away. Who knew an exhibit like this would end up in The New York Times newspaper? My friend reminded me this morning, ‘You have no idea how big this is, do you?’” Mousa said. “That’s really true.”
Since the Jan. 12 article by Michael T. Luongo, the openly gay, Atlanta-based artist said that he’s received an outpouring of positive reviews from not only people he knows personally, but strangers.
On Facebook alone, there were more than 25,000 people who viewed the article, with hundreds of overwhelmingly positive comments from Arabic people around the world. The Syrian-born artist said that this has led him to understand that there’s a grave need for prominent Middle Eastern figures to be positively outspoken about homosexuality.
“I don’t want to call myself a leader because I’m an artist, but somebody (needs) to stand up and show that it can be done. I think that’s the important part. I’ve been told by so many young Arabs that I’ve met. I said, ‘What do I need to do to get you to come out?’ They said, ‘Please don’t give up on us. Keep trying, because we need to come out,’” Mousa said. “To hear that from young gay Arabs in general to say that, it’s powerful. It tells me that I need to keep doing what I’m doing no matter what happens.”
And the topic is one that is especially near and dear to Mousa’s heart because his highly conservative Christian family was not approving of either his sexuality or his drive to make art his chosen career.
“I didn’t really apply (my artistic ability) when I was younger. Art in the Arab world is not important, it’s secondary,” Mousa said. “My parents wanted me to get a college degree or open up a business, and that was their priority because they brought us to this country so that we could succeed. That’s how they measure success.”
Additionally, even when he realized he was gay, Mousa said he couldn’t find any LGBTQ role models that resonated with him personally, and especially not ones who were also Middle Eastern.
“… (We’re) not all wearing high heels and carrying a purse and carrying makeup and that flamboyant, because that’s what the media typically likes to portray us as,” he said. “That’s how I perceived it growing up and that’s why I was terrified because I couldn’t relate to it. Like, ‘How can I be gay?’ Looking at these images of what gay people were supposed to be, and saying, ‘This is not me.’ I was closeted because of that.”
The long process of understanding his own sexuality, and how it fits into his cultural heritage took Mousa into his 30s. It’s then he decided to come out. However, his reception was not a welcome one.
“I have been disowned for about 17, 18 years now. My parents are good people, they’re just uneducated and they’re ignorant about the gay issues,” he said. “I can only hope that their humanity pushes them in a direction where they’ll open up their hearts and embrace it.”
That spirit of acceptance is exactly what motivated his creation of “American Landscape,” which he began painting in 2010.
“It was a process that kept evolving over about four or five years and as I kept adding paintings to it, and my thought process kept evolving as I kept painting,” he said.
Mousa said that now, especially with the positive response to his work, he feels as if this experience has been a call to action. Mousa’s plan is to bring his artwork to the countries that he feels need it the most.
“I really want to spearhead this, because I want to take this project to the Middle East. I want to take it to Dubai, I want to take it to Jordan and Lebanon. I want to take it to these countries that are opposed to gay life that actually have laws against the gay community,” Mousa said.
And although he hasn’t fully developed the strategy for doing so yet, Mousa hopes to visit by the end of 2018. Especially to work directly with his native Syrian population and those in Syrian refugee camps.
“I don’t live in the Middle East, but I do not want to forget my culture, and I do not want to forget how difficult it is for others like me to come out in the Arab world,” he said. “So if I can make a difference and empower somebody to stand up and be who they are, then I’m going to keep doing it.”
When asked if he is afraid of exploring these topics in countries that criminalize LGBTQ behavior, he said that the fear is just another motivator.
“There is always fear or danger in anything that we do that is opposed, but I cannot allow fear to stop me from making this happen,” Mousa said. “So yes, I will be cautious I will do everything I can, but nothing is going to stop me from being outspoken.”
And to Mousa, his boldness coupled with his artist’s platform is the ultimate way of positively changing attitudes and mindsets from within.
“It’s a lone track that we get into and we slowly start separating and making that gap bigger, and you get people thinking, ‘Why did I block this?” Mousa said. “Because you’re going to have to show them that there are other ways of looking at stuff. A lot of people sometimes are stuck, and unless you open that door a little bit for them they’re not going to get there. We can sometimes lead somebody in another direction.”
“American Landscape” is on display now through April 8 at the Arab American National Museum located at 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn. The exhibit is free with the cost of museum admission. More information can be found online at http://arabamericanmuseum.org/american-landscape or by calling 313-582-2266.