Atlanta-based painter Nabil Mousa’s “American Landscape” series (2008–12) trades in readily identifiable symbols: the American flag, the gendered iconography of restroom signs, and the Human Rights Campaign’s logo of a yellow equals sign on a blue background. Only a painter as gifted as Mousa could make such generic source material feel personal. It’s a testament to his talent that the works in the series, including nine that on view at the Arab American National Museum through April 8, manage to resonate for both artist and viewer.
Mousa emigrated with his family from Syria in 1978, when he was a boy, and “American Landscape” represents a continuation of his own struggle with questions about American identity, sexuality, and patriotism. Accessing universal themes through personal stories is a common and powerful artistic device, but it is more challenging to craft personal narratives from universal imagery. The symbols are omnipresent but individual associations with them are subjective. While many people respond with conditioned patriotism to the sight of the American flag, denizens of the art world tend to style themselves as resistant to blind nationalism. Though it is easy to imagine people who struggle with the gender binary to feel alienated by the limited imagination of restroom symbols, it is difficult to imagine anyone strongly identifying with them. But these are the figures that populate Mousa’s landscapes, many of which take altered American flags as background imagery. Neutral icons with only the minimal indication of gender as stand-ins for his particular experience of homosexual relationships, life in the United States, and his connection to Christian values. (Like many Middle Easterners who arrived in the 1970s, Mousa’s family is Christian.)