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In the galleries: A century apart, Khalil Gibran and contemporary artists explore questions of home and displacement at MEI Art Gallery

"Twenty Drawings" by Khalil Gibran, best known as the author of “The Prophet,” taken from a book of life-study drawings he made in 1919. (MEI Art Gallery)

The artworks that might appear to be the oldest in the MEI Art Gallery’s exhibition “Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the U.S.” are four antique-looking photographs of women in traditional dress. The photo process is vintage, but the pictures are from 2019, and made by their subject, performance and conceptual artist Sama Alshaibi. Both the costumes and the photos actually parody the sort of images Westerners once made of Middle Eastern women. The Iraq-born Arizonan uses her assumed poses to subvert received ideas of Arab life and culture.

That approach distinguishes Alshaibi’s photos from the show’s actual oldest entry, a 1919 book of life-study drawings by Kahlil Gibran, best-known as the author of “The Prophet.” Born in what is now Lebanon, Gibran moved as a child to the United States, where he drew and painted in a Western style while writing books in both English and Arabic. A century apart, Alshaibi and Gibran developed quite different styles and themes.

In fact, the 17 artists in this survey diverge as much as converge. Two of them address the plights of displaced Palestinians: Jacqueline Reem Salloum constructs a birthday cake of bullets, and John Halaka covers a drawing of a ruined building with the hand-stamped word “resist.” Much less contentious are the abstract pictures of Nazar Yahya and Kamal Boullata, influenced by such Americans as, respectively, Cy Twombly and Washington’s mid-20th-century Color School artists.

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Yet the patterns in Boullata’s work are based on an early form of Arabic calligraphy, and the use of decorative writing is a motif common in both the abstract and the political works in the show. The title of one of Boullata’s silk-screens translates as “in the beginning was the word,” and the Arabic word “beit” features in text pieces by Zeinab Saab and D.C’s Helen Zughaib. It means “home,” a concern that surely links all these artists.

Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the U.S. Through Nov. 17 at the MEI Art Gallery, 1763 N St. NW.

Open on K

Almost two years after Hemphill Artworks relocated, the gallery is finally celebrating its new home. Although Hemphill has mounted shows through most of the pandemic, access to them has been limited. “Open on K” is its first exhibition since 2019 to allow walk-in visitors. What they’ll see is an overview that features nine artists, most of them represented by a single large-scale piece.

Among the painted highlights are a Steven Cushner abstraction that interlocks four figures over a heathered background; a Renée Stout composition that juxtaposes numbers on a blackboard with an interstellar scene; and a Julie Wolfe rendering of a multicolored diamond that powerfully simulates depth. The notable photographs and prints are Franz Jantzen’s stitched-together vision of a multi-mooned night sky, viewed through oaks and Spanish moss; Colby Caldwell’s near-abstract tree trunk, digitized with a flatbed scanner; and Tanya Marcuse’s update of “The Book of Miracles,” a 16th-century illuminated manuscript, that arrays plants and snakes on a coal-black backdrop.

Nature themes also play out, less naturally, in aStephanie Garon sculpture and several sign-inspired pieces by Mark Kelner. Garon impales a wedge of red oak on an easel-like steel framework, while Kelner makes “Strip Mall Landscapes” that distill what the suburb-raised artist’s statement calls his “natural world.” The text is simple, but the names of the multicultural businesses jumbled together testify to a polyglot environment that must resonate with Kelner, the child of Russian expatriates.

Open on K Through Nov. 24 at Hemphill Artworks, 434 K St. NW.

Frank Stewart

From 1992 to 2019, Frank Stewart was the lead photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center. He’s followed that organization’s orchestra around the world but has also undertaken many solo trips to photograph such scenes as a solstice crowd at Stonehenge and a trio of camels in Mali. That’s why his show at Gallery Neptune & Brown, his second there, is titled “Diary of a Globetrotter.”

The exhibition is the result of a covid-year shutdown during which Stewart revisited his archives, printing many photos that had never been shown publicly. The range, both visual and emotional, is wide. The pictures can cut as deeply as “Only God to Watch My Back, N.Y.” a 1987 portrait of a shirtless man who displays a rosary and a bullet wound. But they also include several images that focus on curtain-like surfaces, whether raindrops on glass or multicolored sticky notes that blanket an empty storefront’s windows.

Stewart came late to color photography, and his color pictures have a different feel than the black-and-white ones. They’re bigger, brighter and often more populous. But they retain the artist’s eye for found patterns and striking compositions. Globe-trotting has taken Stewart far from the Manhattan streets and jazz clubs where he developed his craft, but it hasn’t diluted his style.

Frank Stewart: Diary of a Globetrotter Through Nov. 27 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW.

Soomin Ham

Local photographer Soomin Ham doesn’t offer permanence. Often addressing her own family history, Ham devises images that are damaged or incomplete, thus suggesting absence and bereavement. “Lingering Glimpses,” her Multiple Exposures Gallery show, returns to a previous strategy: printing photos with an expired developer and no fixer, so the pictures turn almost entirely black. What’s new is that Ham’s subjects are American men and women in the military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, grouped in a somber memorial.

Ham often combines analog and digital modes. For this project, she found images on the Internet and transferred them to negative film to make the inky 11-by-14-inch prints. The nearly indiscernible faces are arranged in grids, with another grid atop them: regularly spaced vertical and horizontal pencil lines that divide the darkness into hundreds of precise squares. This represents “endless loss,” the artist’s statement says.

The portraits are contrasted only by two landscape photos, one on each wall. The first depicts a watery vista framed by mountains; the second is of dot-size birds in front of billowing gray clouds. Both are stark and soft-focused, yet they have a sense of openness the gridded black portraits lack. The landscapes aren’t lush, but they do offset the show’s overwhelming solemnity.

Soomin Ham: Lingering Glimpses Through Nov. 28 at Multiple Exposures Gallery, Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria.

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