“American Landscape” is Nabil Mousa’s somewhat autobiographical piece about living as an openly gay man from a conservative Arab-American family.

Atlanta artist paints his ‘truth’ as a gay Arab-American

To Nabil Mousa, orange symbolizes fear, loneliness and marginalization.

Those are the feelings he experienced when he came out as a gay Arab-American in 2000.

“I love my culture, but I would be more involved in the Middle Eastern culture if my people would accept me for who I am,” said the Atlanta-based artist and author, who has been married to his husband, Scott, for four years. He found more acceptance among people in other communities. “I wouldn’t stand a chance in the Middle East. Even people who claim they are open-minded really are not.”

Atlanta artist Nabil Mousa, 51, came out to his family in 2000. His family moved to the United States from Syria in 1978. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

So, it’s little wonder that orange is a dominant color in his mixed-media series, “American Landscape: An Exploration of Art and Humanity,” which is on display through April 8 at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

It looks at sexual identity and patriotism through strong imagery.

It’s a big step for Mousa. The museum is described on its website as the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab-American history and culture. It’s his most significant exhibit so far.

His work has been featured at an arts fair in Miami through the Salamatina Gallery. In his show at the Arab American National Museum, there’s nothing overtly sexual about the nine paintings, one of which incorporates his husband’s jeans over a tweaked U.S. flag.

He hopes this latest exhibit will at least open the conversation and help others in the LGBTQ community.

“It’s really the story of my life — my struggles and my empowerment,” the 51-year-old Mousa said. “It’s all in there.”

Museum officials said they have not received any criticism.

Elizabeth Barrett-Sullivan, curator of exhibits, called it a powerful work that spoke directly to civil rights issues, equality and American politics.

Atlanta-based artist and author Nabil Mousa stands in front of one of his projects. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It has a message about freedom,” she said. “We thought this was a theme we wanted to tackle.”

Mousa’s family moved to the United States from Syria in 1978.

He knew he was attracted to other males at an early age. At 14, he was fully accepting because “I realized this was not going to go away.”

When he came out to his family in 2000, the reaction was swift. He said members of his family called him an embarrassment. Some stopped speaking to him altogether.

Mousa’s sexual orientation was not a problem for his cousin, Daniel Yousef, a Miami pharmacist.

“His parents are very religious in their beliefs, and in their culture,” he said. “This was not something that was part of the norm. They started to slowly exclude him from family gatherings.” A brother could not be reached for comment.

Yousef said that strained relationship may have shaped Mousa’s work.

“I think for him it motivated him to pursue his art career,” he said. Before, “he ran a couple of businesses, like real estate. Being cut off really caused him to pursue what was in his heart rather than do things that pleased everyone else.”

A painting in Nabil Mousa’s “American Landscape” series, which is on display at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

His work can be provocative. Some might even say offensive.

In 2015, for example, Mousa created a 13 1/2-foot installation titled “Paradise Built on the Bones of the Slaughtered.”

The piece contained several burned copies of the Bible, the Torah and the Quran.

The city of Grand Rapids, Mich., declined to accept the work for display in City Hall, according to an article on MLive. However, it was shown at Gallery 874 in Atlanta.

“It doesn’t mean I like controversy for controversy’s sake,” he said. “That’s useless and not my objective as an artist. I’m the kind of artist that fights from the soul — from the heart.”

Religion, he said, has often been used to put people in a box and demanded that they follow certain guidelines “instead of allowing us to shine and be enlightened.”

It’s also been used to divide, rather than unite.

“There is a message of love found in all three holy books,” he said. “Why not focus on that? Let’s just get rid of all the clutter.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.