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Unseen War Protest: A Quiet Art Exhibition Makes a Loud Statement

By Steve Ramos · February 26th, 2003 · Arts Beat
The visual arts exhibition in Cincinnati that's essential viewing right now is one visitors have to seek out.

Artist Saad Ghosn stands alongside 40 of his pen-and-ink drawings in the stark gallery on the sixth floor of University of Cincinnati's Edward Center. It's a cold weekday afternoon after the latest snowstorm, and he has the gallery to himself.

That's the case most days, because the nondescript gallery is off the pedestrian grid. The building is on the very southeastern corner of campus, tucked behind Old St. George. There are no signs in the lobby or the hallway outside the gallery space promoting the show. There's been little if any publicity put forth by UC.

If I were more cynical, I'd say that UC officials would prefer people miss the exhibition entirely since Ghosn's drawings are some of the most powerful, persuasive and hauntingly beautiful anti-war statements in town.

Granted, there are other artworks that take a jab at U.S. plans for invading Iraq. Artist Chris Hoeting's small piece in the current Semantics Gallery show comes quickly to mind -- a piece in which a black woman's bare breasts hover above a grinning President Bush.

Hoeting's work is colorful, clever and comical. By contrast, Ghosn takes a more sober approach to the impending war, and the impact is even greater.

Ghosn is an Arab-American artist who also works as a medical practitioner at Veterans Hospital.

The majority of his days are spent in the hospital, but he's too talented to be discarded as a Sunday artist.

Across town at the Playhouse in the Park, members of Cincinnati's Muslim community are up in arms over the Playhouse's plans to produce Paradise, a play about two West Bank teenage girls, one Jewish and one Palestinian, as part of their educational outreach program. I'll come back to the Playhouse controversy in a future column.

For now, I'm interested in hearing what the Muslim community might think of Ghosn's drawings, many of which deal with discrimination against Muslim people in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That is, if members of the local Muslim community make the effort to see the exhibition before it closes March 6.

There's been no debate surrounding Ghosn's drawings because few people have seen the work. Some of them were part of a BASE Gallery show last fall. At the Edwards Center gallery, Ghosn finally has the opportunity to group the complete series of drawings together.

In "Look What They've Done to the Statue of Liberty," he shows the New York City landmark under attack. Lady Liberty is reduced to minimal form, and the abstract nature of the drawing is a plus. The work is intentionally basic, simple strokes of ink, marker and pastel. In fact, there's honesty to these black-and-white drawings that wouldn't be true if Ghosn's work contained the colorful scribbles found in Jean-Michel Basquiat's sketches.

The Statue of Liberty piece is the most ambiguous of Ghosn's drawings, and for that reason it's a highlight of the show. The war against terrorism is a complex issue, and these drawings reflect that complexity.

"A lot people think that the work is about what terrorists have done to the Statue of Liberty," Ghosn says. "But my intent was to show what government policies have done to the Statue of Liberty. ... I want to rally around the flag, but it depends what the flag means."

Some of the drawings were completed late last year, and others go back closer to the 9/11 attacks. The figures in the drawings are ethnic abstractions at best. The forms could be anyone, and that sense of universality, I believe, is integral to the power behind the work.

Some people might refer to Ghosn's work as obscene, but I find the drawings more peaceful than upsetting. There are elements of calligraphy, and Arab text is often used as a border around the drawings of tanks, barbed wire and missiles. The work is appropriately minimal and intentionally brutal.

Ghosn has an honest pen, and that's something we always need. Something is happening in America today, and this exhibition wants you to know about it.



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