Massoud Hayoun Paintings unraveling personal and collective Arab histories

Cover Image - Massoud Hayoun
WordsDalia Al-Dujaili

It was in 2011, during the Arab uprisings, that Massoud Hayoun first started thinking about “what ‘Arabness’ was all about.” Born in LA, and raised by North African Jewish grandparents, the artist and journalist has since written a book based on conversations with other Arab Americans, and more recently he’s been unraveling personal and collective Arab histories in poignant shades of blue through his paintings. He tells Dalia Al-Dujaili how he wants to show the connective tissue that joins people together across borders, and to illustrate what a more just future might look like in the process.

Born in Los Angeles and raised by North African Jewish grandparents (Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian, to be exact) who migrated by way of Paris, artist Massoud Hayoun’s work tackles themes of colonization, gender and marginalized histories, and brings light to the complexities of Arab Jewish identity. 

Hayoun, who started out as a journalist, says his paintings are informed by the stories he used to write, and each one is a tapestry of symbolism. In one, “Revisionist History, Elkahina,” phrases and symbols confronting colonialism both past and present appear dotted throughout, such as Palestinian resistance fighter Leila Khaled among a crowd of influential Arab women; “Elkahina” herself, an Algerian-Jewish Amazigh female ruler who led indigenous resistance to the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb; and “JUSTICE POUR NAHEL” inscribed in graffiti on a Parisian bridge, referring to the French police’s killing of 17-year-old North African Nahel Merzouk in 2023.

Il-Kahina (2024)
Il-Kahina (2024)

Hayoun paints scores of influential dead people in a ghostly blue with fluid forms. He calls this “joyful mourning,” and to experience his work is taking a trip to an Arab underworld. “In 2011, during the Arab uprisings,” he says, “I started thinking about what Arabness was all about and started hearing for the first time about where my family was from.” He then painted the series ‘Incendies,’ depicting, in various settings, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit cart vendor Mohammed Bouazizi whose action sparked the landmark protests.

Hayoun’s awakening compelled him to write “When We Were Arabs,” a book born of conversations with his grandmother, as well as other Arab Americans. Three months into writing the book, Hayoun’s beloved grandmother passed away. “I was in mourning for her and very isolated,” he says, a feeling which was only heightened at the beginning of the pandemic, and it led him to start painting professionally. With painting rather than the pen, Hayoun continues telling us stories, whether it be grander and more general histories, or the personal and intimate history of his diabetic grandfather’s habits for sweet treats and his love of Oum Kalthoum in “Alexandria, Momentarily.”

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uncynical Tunisian love painting (2024)
uncynical Tunisian love painting (2024)
Alexandria, Momentarily (2024)
Alexandria, Momentarily (2024)

Beginning with a “germ” of an idea, he pulls on its thread until it unravels into a layered scene, likening the process to working in a newsroom. He writes his characters intentionally into the painting: “I’m still animated by a love of people and a desire for a better, more representative world,” he says.

Although the diasporic painter acknowledges that the art industry might call his painting “naive”––the technical term for somebody untrained or somebody who’s pretending to be untrained, he explains––he prefers the term “rebel painting.” Hayoun is not “beholden to the same dictates as people who have Fine Arts degrees.” He is making a concrete choice to complicate our simplified understanding of Arab histories. “Whether people like it or not, or whether people find it aesthetically pleasing, it doesn’t really matter to me so much as what I’m trying to say,” he asserts.

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Can You Believe Some People in this Country don't Eat on Purpose? (2023), ل كوكب و ا/ فندیة • Night Soldiers • Re-Nahda, Après Quelques Années de Retard, le Déjeuner • Les Feuilles Mortes se Ramassent à la Pelle • 8:15, (2023)

At the core of his multilayered paintings, which are treasure-troves of rich marginalized histories, Hayoun says that rather than claiming a romanticized vision of the past, he tries to highlight that his native homelands were and remain “engaged in the same kind of movements for accountability and for equality and for justice that people in the so-called West would find very familiar.” To experience those senses of commonality across borders would potentially heal ruptures, argues the artist, because universality of struggle is also a universality of human experience, or a highlighting of the “connective tissue” between us, as the artist puts it. 

As well as painting the past of the Arab world, both as it is written and as it has been represented by the artist himself, Hayoun says he also enjoys proposing what a more just future would look like. “The idea is hopefully that it will [encourage] younger people to envision radical new futures for themselves,” he tells me, “the way that the Arab world is right now and the way that it's portrayed in the media, it is a radical act to envision a future for the countries we come from.”