I had been waiting for years for a show like Elizabeth Jabar’s “Kindred” at Waterville’s Common Street Gallery. The reason is that Waterville has been home to a significant Lebanese population since the 19th century — a fact known by far too few Mainers who aren’t themselves of Lebanese descent.
While I wish it were more obvious in the show that Jabar’s Lebanese heritage is her main inspiration, the clues are there, even though they might be largely invisible to casual visitors. However, as someone who grew up in Waterville with many friends of Lebanese heritage and fond memories of events like the community dinners in the basement of St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, I have long been a huge fan of Waterville’s Lebanese culture. My wife and I even served spinach pies, zatar and other delicacies from the humble but ever wonderful restaurant, Lebanese Cuisine, at our wedding.
Fittingly, Common Street Gallery looks over the Kennebec River toward the old Scott Paper mill at the spot known as the Head of Falls which, decades ago, housed a purely Lebanese neighborhood. The Lebanese Maronites had come to Waterville to work in the local factories and on the railroad. Maronites are Catholics, so they attended mass at Sacred Heart and other local Latin Rite churches until a Maronite priest arrived in 1924 and they were able to worship together as a community — in Arabic.
“Kindred” features 12 pictorial works on paper, several rolled “books” and enough additional elements such as scrolls hung from the ceiling and in a display case as to blur the line with installation.
Jabar’s works defy easy categorization, but can generally be described as waxed monoprints with collage elements. While two works are floated in box frames, most are single sheets of paper hung directly on the wall.
The pictorial works are mostly based on variations of three images of Bedouin women. However, the most prominent and legible image is of a woman holding a child; together, they look and feel very much like Mary holding baby Jesus. This idea is reinforced by the altarpiece logic of “Offering,” a large red triptych installation surrounded by celebratory cutouts and scroll streamers. While there is a non-Western nomadic flavor to it, it feels a lot like Christmas.
While Jabar was undoubtedly motivated by her own cultural heritage and identity, her meditations are broad enough — especially in the context of Waterville’s history — to prove that the show isn’t simply about her. (I am no fan of art in which “self-expression” is used as an excuse for narcissistic self-involvement.)
While the repeated print matrix images make for easily recognized starting points, the most compelling thing about Jabar’s work is her quietly insistent and multi-layered approach to process. Any given piece might incorporate lithograph, collagraph, screen printing, woodcut, wax, dye, thread and cut paper — or any combination of all of these.
And rather than playing up some ultra-sophisticated, multi-media, art-world approach to collage, Jabar adopts a craft aesthetic by sewing many of the sheets together with thread — leaving needles and T-pins visible within the work. The tapestry and fabric references have many effects on the status of the work, but the most palpable is the artist’s claiming a respectful affinity with her Bedouin forebears rather than a superior look down upon them.
One work in the show only revealed itself to me after I looked past the main figure, which is the most awkward of the repeated images. It features an ochre sheet covered in layers of printed and cut-out leaves draping down like a lush, hanging autumn garden, but the overall flatness is opened up by what at the bottom of the scene looks like so many leaves reflected in the soft water of a tree-sheltered pond.
A particularly interesting piece, “Bedouin Women, In Due Season,” features a small black image of the Mary figure in the center of a pink folio covered with red paper pomegranates and printed paper tresses. Simple strands of red thread reach from the mother and child like blood lines out toward abstract pie wheels printed on the sides of the image. It seems quite simple at first, but its metaphors and symbols impressively refuse to be pigeonholed.
I think my favorite piece, however, is “Bedouin Women, The Harvest.” It is an ochre-toned work featuring images of wheat and a series of cut-out, hanging resurrection flower roots that, to me, look appealingly like garlic bulbs. Stylized white lines of plants printed on the surface appear as memory wisps of past plenty. In all, it has a pleasant tonal pulse with sectioned rhythms that play up the meanings of its layers and depth.
While “Kindred” has a few awkward passages and a highly abstracted relationship to its subject of cultural identity, it is absolutely worth checking out. It’s quite an accomplishment by Jabar to have produced such a thoughtful show relating to Waterville’s Lebanese history and its unique and largely hidden heritage.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: