New gallery devoted to Arab art aims to start a 'different conversation' in the US

"It’s more important than ever to shine a different light on the region," says the Middle East Institute’s vice-president

'Penelope', by Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh, draws on the myth of Penelope from the 'Odyssey', who weaves and unweaves a tapestry while her husband is at sea. Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects
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A new museum dedicated to Arab arts and culture is about to open its doors in the oldest US think tank devoted to Arab regional affairs. Located in Washington and embedded within the Middle East Institute, the new gallery will occupy about 112 square metres of a refurbished historic building from September, and will focus on rotating shows of Middle Eastern art and photography.

"We're unique because we're a gallery embedded in a think tank," says Kate Seelye, a vice-president of the MEI who oversees the Art and Culture programming strand. "We are very aware of the policy situation in DC and the problems of it, and we very much see the gallery and the show as an opportunity to start a different kind of conversation. 

"Right now, Washington is particularly obsessed with the Middle East as a security problem. They've always viewed the Middle East through a security lens, but now, with the Muslim travel ban and Trump's position on general regional affairs, it's more important than ever to shine a different light on the region and bring new perspectives to audiences that have never encountered much Arab art before."

Rendering showing the courtyard of the new MEI Institute and Art Gallery. Courtesy of MEI

The first show has been put together by veteran Arab curator Rose Issa, a well-regarded expert in the field. For the past 15 years Issa has been exploring what she calls "Arabicity", which looks at how Arab artists represent their heritage and identity. Her book on the subject, Arabicity: Contemporary Arab Art, published by Saqi, will also be launched during the MEI's opening festivities

The gallery organisers first saw an iteration of the show at the Beirut Art Fair in 2017 and felt that Issa's approach covered the kind of contextual remit they hope to emphasise in their gallery programming. "The show explores socio-political and aesthetic conditions in the Arab world as seen through the eyes and the artistic vision of Arab artists," says Seelye. "They're reflecting on the world that they're living in, which of course is a very complex one."

The show, Arabicity | Ourouba, is a mix of 17 established Arab artists including Khalil Rabah who lives in Ramallah, Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj and the late Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian. Its focus is on artists working in Egypt and the Levant. Some of the works are from Issa's own collection. 

'Mrs Souad Labib', a silkscreen work by the late Chant Avedissian from his famous 'Icons of the Nile' series (1991–2004). Courtesy of the artist, Rose Issa Projects, and a private collection, London

Future exhibitions will include Magnum's Arab Documentary Photography Programme in December, showing work from the project in the US for the first time. ADPP provides funds to Arab photographers to create long-form documentary projects – the results of the 2018 project were seen in Dubai earlier this year at GPP Photo Week at Alserkal Avenue.

As MEI is primarily a think tank, the gallery space will be programmed with an eye to opportunities and audience-broadening. The space has core funding for the next three years to cover staff costs, but will raise funds for each individual exhibition. MEI is also looking to collaborate with Middle East institutions for their programming. 

"The success of this gallery is going to rest on our ability to build strong partnerships globally," says Seelye, who oversees the gallery but will appoint guest curators for each show. "We've been reaching out to every art institute and art leader in the region and in Europe – from The Mosaic Rooms in London and The Palestinian Museum in Ramallah to the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Townhouse Gallery in Egypt – to tell them that we're here, we want to work with you, and if you've got a strong show that you think would work well with a DC audience, then we want to bring that to Washington." 

Seelye, a former reporter, grew up in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Syria, and is part of the fifth generation of her family to live in the Middle East. The first generation, in the 1840s, were Protestant missionaries, and her father, diplomat Talcott Williams Seelye, graced the cover of Robert Kaplan's famous book Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite. She joined MEI in 2009 and has been instrumental in reviving its cultural programme, which also includes talks and panel discussions, book launches, and film screenings.

When I think of my time in the region, it is joyous, rich and vibrant – I want to tell that narrative to audiences here

The MEI was given around $20 million (Dh73.4m) from the UAE government in the mid-2010sto renovate its new headquarters, just off Dupont Circle. The think tank, which has no formal relationship with any government entities, aims to inform policy around the Middle East.

“This will be a space of celebration,” says Seelye. “When I think of my time in the region, it is joyous, rich and vibrant – I want to tell that narrative to audiences here.” 

Arabicity / Ourouba is at the MEI Gallery in Washington from Saturday, September 14, until ­Friday, November 22