"I am exactly like you! I hate my house more and more because it is becoming for me an island," artist Saad Ghosn says during a recent interview. "I come here ... I am so angry with everything that is going on in society. I come here ... I isolate myself."
If you know of Ghosn's accomplishments in Cincinnati, you might never believe he shuts himself away. Like most of us, however, he does. Ghosn is an artist and activist. He is also a highly respected professor at the University of Cincinnati and the director of the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
In SCREAM, his current exhibit at Over-the-Rhine's Clay Street Press (1312 Clay St.), his activism is strongly on display. He has made work that is subversive, questioning, even muckraking. The woodcuts of SCREAM are dark. They expose the ugly side of society, but also invite us into the artist's own psyche.
"In the past few years I often felt trapped in my adopted country," Ghosn writes about the show's "Trapped in my Country." A naked man hunches over, as if trapped in an isolation chamber. The woodcut explores the imprisonment he feels, at times, 30 years after migrating to the United States. Ghosn grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and moved to the U.S. in 1976.
"Trapped in my Country" and other woodcuts in the exhibit appear to be autobiographical. The male figures share certain physical traits with the artist, such as the beard and a warm expression in the eyes.
Ghosn's native language of Arabic plays into much of his latest work. In the woodcut "Issmee Arabee" ("My Name is Arab"), a crowd of people stands under the stars. From the sky, arrows shoot down toward eight of these figures. The bodies of these selected few are covered in Arabic writing. Their names give them away as not being American. We can see in the image that racial profiling is not just about physical appearances. A name on paper or an accent on the phone can bring us to just as many conclusions and assumptions. "Issmee Arabee" and other works by Ghosn address the treatment of Muslims and Arabic-speaking individuals in post-911 America.
Ghosn's art is a plea for peace, but there is an implicit understanding that peace and freedom cannot be imposed. Only individuals can create freedom and inner-peace. "The Road to Peace" examines what happens to the human spirit when peace and freedom are enforced upon a human being. In the woodcut, a human body is dismembered by a thorny road, "the road to peace." The barbed wire along this road represents an "imposed" peace rather than a "transparent" peace. This might be an argument against U.S. occupation in Iraq. How can elections be free and fair if they are imposed upon the Iraqi people by an outside nation?
In sheer contrast to the somber tone of SCREAM, Ghosn brought an inviting and lighthearted atmosphere to the gallery on the opening night of his show. Music was playing, a kind of ominous, religious chant. Ghosn's black-and-white woodcut prints hung in a state of angst and sorrow. Steady flows of people sought out the artist to kiss and embrace. Ghosn is so humble yet so alluring; he can really draw a crowd into a gallery.
His good nature must also account for some of his great success in putting together the annual S.O.S ART show. It is no small feat that he organizes more than 100 artists to create work about peace and justice. In addition, he hosts a quarterly get-together brunch at Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine.
S.O.S. ART grew out of a desire Ghosn had to evolve his own work from aesthetic to political. Looking at some of Ghosn's earlier sculptures, I can see the evolution. Ghosn retains some of the bright colors and primitive style from before, but his black-and-white woodcuts are shaped and the cut is deep.
"My art in the beginning was very non-political, was really kind of fun-looking," he says. "They were playful. And then my work completely shifted and started becoming a very political kind of statement and all of my work since has been very political."
SCREAM is on view at Clay Street Press through Sept. 13. Get gallery details and find nearby restaurants and bars here.