Gay rights, American freedoms explored at AANM

Michael Hodges
The Detroit News
Syrian-born artist Nabil Mousa uses the American flag in paintings that examine freedom and gay rights in America.

Like many immigrants, Syrian-born Nabil Mousa is dizzily in love with America.

The Atlanta-based artist, who first landed on these shores at age 12, has a show, “American Landscape,” at the Arab American National Museum through April 8.

The exhibition is Mousa’s speculation on being gay in this country, and his own search for identity and sense of belonging. Most of the paintings on display riff on the American flag. But you would be wrong if you took these intriguingly distorted, stylized banners as some sort of anti-American attack.

Quite the contrary. For Mousa, 51, the flag represents the nation’s highest aspirations, however short it may fall in actual practice.

“Who doesn’t appreciate the American flag?” he asked with a laugh. But then he turned serious, and it’s clear how deep his concerns run.

“Being from the Middle East, people sometimes think we’re not patriotic,” Mousa said. “But we’re actually more patriotic than many Americans, because we know what it’s like not to have a voice and not to have freedom.”

Syrian-born artist Nabil Mousa uses the American flag in paintings that examine freedom and gay rights in America in “American Landscape.”

This is particularly the case for a gay man, given the region’s blanket, and often violent, condemnation of homosexuality. Indeed, in some of their most-chilling videos, the so-called Islamic State filmed accused homosexuals being thrown to their deaths from tall buildings.

Still, Mousa — whose Syrian family largely banished him when he came out as gay — is no innocent, and recognizes how fear can be mobilized for political effect.

He points in particular to the second Bush election in 2004, when the “threat” of gay marriage was widely broadcast, allegedly to rouse conservative voters and get them to the polls.

He also recalls the Department of Homeland Security bumping its terror-alert color code to orange, or “high” danger, throughout much of that period — which he calls another attempt to sow fear and anxiety.

As a result, Mousa uses orange as a visual metaphor through much of this work — often in the form of short, sharp slashes that cut across the orderly fabric of his flags.

“In this context, I think of orange as representing ignorance,” he said, “and with ignorance, fear develops.” Both, he argues, are toxic to democratic freedoms.

Blue jeans belonging to Nabil Mousa’s husband make an appearance in one painting, along with a gay symbol for equality.

Museum curator Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan, who organized “American Landscape,” says it’s in this respect that Mousa’s work is explicitly political.

And while the position of homosexuals is central to Mousa’s art and concerns, none of the paintings in the exhibition are in the least sexual. (One includes an actual pair of his husband’s sexily ripped blue jeans, but that’s as far as it goes.)

“The work isn’t about his sexuality,” Sullivan said. “It’s about civil rights, equality and justice, and treating all Americans the same.”

As a result, she said, the museum — some of whose patrons are deeply traditional and conservative — hasn’t gotten any blowback for hosting a show by an openly gay artist.

Indeed, the reaction appears to have been overwhelmingly positive.

When he spoke at the museum in November, Mousa says young people flocked to thank him for bringing the question of gay rights out into the open in an Arab-American context.

“They said they’d been trying to belong for so long,” he said, “and that for the first time they felt really connected to the museum.”


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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Artist Nabil Mousa, who immigrated to America when he was 12, lives in Atlanta.

‘American Landscape: An Exploration of Art and

Humanity by Nabil Mousa’

Through April 3

Arab American National Museum

13624 Michigan, Dearborn

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays

$8 adults; $4 students and educators with ID; children 6-12, and seniors 59 and over

(313) 582-2266