Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 24

Jacob Lawrence was one of the great painters of 20th century America. His Great Migration series is an extraordinary work both of art and social history, documenting the migration of African Americans from the South to the Northern cities. I have published the full set of 60 paintings over a series of six posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Helen Zughaib, a Lebanese-born American artist, has taken Lawrence’s series as a template for a new set of paintings on a new migration – that of Syrian refugees. It is both a wonderful homage to Lawrence and a striking work on its own. Here is a small selection, with each of Zughaib’s paintings preceded by the Lawrence image to which it refers. (The full set is on Zughaib’s website; it has also been  showing in a number of galleries worldwide.)


great migration panel 51

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 1


great migration panel 3

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 4


great migration panel 18

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 3


great migration panel 13

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 12


great migration panel 1

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 14


great migration panel 42

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 16


great migration panel 50

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 18


great migration panel 58

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 21


great migration panel 55

Helen Zughaib Syrian Migration Series 23


  1. damon

    They’re nice as abstract art, but I don’t think they work much more beyond that.
    Politically, they would “lend themselves” towards some pretty loose and woolly thinking.
    “Open Borders” is a quite well defined and easily understandable goal.
    And if that’s the position people want to present, then fair enough.
    But I’ve never found that it’s arguments actually add up as properly coherent.

    Both of those artists paintings remind me of political obfuscation.
    Saying they were as significant as a Che Guevara T shirt might be too crude a way of putting it, but actually they remind me more of the “International Wall” on Belfast’s Falls Road.
    That is twenty plus political murals painted along a long wall. The images support every supposedly “progressive” cause and freedom struggle. Including the IRA, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis and Frederick Douglas, to Palestine, the Basque Country, Cuba and Roma gypsies.
    It’s Belfast’s number one tourist attraction with taxis and tour busses pulling up at it all day, but I always found it to be vacuous and shallow.

    What I find more useful than those kind of images is actual stories of real people.
    Like the refugee/migrants that I saw in Belgrade Serbia last week.
    They get that far, then they get stuck there because of the closed borders to the north.
    I saw them hanging out in “Afghani Park” and it would be interesting to know their actual stories.
    Like why have they left their countries. And why head to Western Europe. And which countries particularly were they heading for and why. Also, why they felt that they had no other options but to do this journey.

  2. damon

    I should have said that I think that the original paintings of the American Great Migration have merit and that I was less impressed by their more recent copies. Because it had that oversimplification aspect about them and that they were somewhat “riding on the coattails” of the originals. In the same way that Irish Republicans were doing on that wall of murals in Belfast.
    The modern refugee migrations are far more complicated and problematic.
    In the past in the US, citizens of the country were just starting out on new lives in their own country.
    But the refugee situation today is a mess and no one really knows how to make it all better.
    In place of that we have ideological positions – like put forward here on the Open Democracy website.

    People like those are not really up for debating the subject with people who don’t fully support their view.
    The (more or less) ‘open borders’ idea, doesn’t really want to get into the possible negative consequences of the West throwing open its borders to all-comers. Does it just encourage chain-migration for the foreseeable future? With young boys living in Afghanistan for example, just waiting a few more years until they’re old enough to set off to join their older brothers and cousins who are making these journeys right now.
    Even Syria is a problem. Are all Syrians to be encouraged to leave the country? If countries are willing to host refugees from all over the world that’s OK. But there aren’t many countries where it’s not a contentious issue.
    I always have the question as to why it was that two leading Labour politicians were not willing to send their sons to one of the very diverse “75 different languages spoken” London schools. And what was the effect of this “multi-culture” on everyone who attended such schools. The development of that basic street-speak dialect was one such effect I think. I have heard of people saying they moved out of London because they didn’t want their children speaking like that.
    I passed the German embassy in Pristina yesterday. Queues of people applying for visas.
    At least they’re doing it the proper way. With the wider Albanian/Kosovan diaspora, there is lots of deception and false stories being given. Like people saying they were from Kosovo when they were not.
    And now that it’s peaceful in Kosovo, a common story is that they are fleeing clan and vendetta violence. Which might be true, or it might not be.
    Googling the words “Albanians in U.K.” does not show many positive results.
    It’s not fair to only look at things from that perspective, but is one to be taken into consideration too imo.

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