Dagmar Painter transformed an ad hoc exhibit space into Washington, D.C.’s only full-time art gallery featuring the work of Arab and Arab-American artists. She has lived and worked in the Arab world for over 12 years and has traveled extensively in the Islamic world for over 30 years. In Washington, she previously established and ran the art gallery of the Embassy of Tunisia. She also directed Gallery Patina, a non-profit gallery of the National Council on Aging, which was featured on NBC’s Today Show. She was an Advisory Review Panelist for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Grant Panel, a nominator for the Smithsonian Institution SARF awards, and a Juror for the Torpedo Factory Art Studios. She has written and lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad on cross-cultural and arts issues, at such venues as the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. and Meridian House International. She also taught seminars on Middle Eastern textiles at the University of Tunis and the Centre D’Etudes Maghrebines, as well as classes at the National Museums of Lagos, Nigeria and Bangkok, Thailand. Selected publications include Arts in the Islamic World, Ornament, Cairo Today, Focus on Pakistan, The Herald, India Today, Arts in Embassies, A Practical Guide to Cairo and Savior: Tunis.
Can you tell us about the history of the Jerusalem Foundation and your projects?
The organization itself is called the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development. It was founded by Palestinian professors in the US, as a non-profit and we are still a 501c officially, so we are not political, we do not lobby, and we do not affiliate ourselves with any political parties and organizations. Mainly the organization does charitable giving, and we have things like 3 diabetes institutes in Palestine. We give charitable grants to small NGOs mostly for educational purposes for children, etc. we also hold series of lectures, book talks, at the part of the organization called the Palestine Center, and we get scholars from all over the country and world who have something to say about Palestine and Middle East and give their points of view. We have a disclaimer that says the point of view of the speaker does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the Jerusalem Fund, but we are very open to having people speak about these issues from a Palestinian or Middle East point of view. We feel that there are lots of other venues for other points of views, but not many from this point of view, so we are very interested in making sure that there is opportunity for people to come. We do book talks, we have film series every summer. We have a program manager who is also an expert on Arab film, and we have events such as arts and crafts exhibition with Arabic calligraphy jewelry, small paintings, we sell olive oil, and we also have an exhibition coming up of abstract art. But our main start is in September. Yearly we host an important series of lectures, including those named for Edward Said and our founder, Hisham Sharabi, to which we invite well-known people to come speak. We also do conferences and a lot of educational events. In my case, I present about 8-9 exhibitions a year in the gallery, inviting Palestinian artists, contemporary artists, either from Palestine or those from the diaspora, as well as Arab Americans from all sorts of different backgrounds, also non-Arabs, who have interesting views about the Middle East. I am mostly interested in contemporary art, and sometimes I present solo shows, or sometimes concept shows, inviting artists to come and answer a question or a concept, using poems, such as the concept of censorships, and other types. We have photography, painting, abstract and expressionist, we have sculpture, sometimes we have things that are just seriously beautiful and coincidentally have been made by Arab artist, for example Flowers, photographed by an amazing Egyptian artist Amr Mounib. So, we had this spectacular exhibition of gorgeous flowers. The emphasis is on the artist and the art work, and I am open to what people want to do, I don’t censor, and some art is without question political but most of it isn’t, in the sense that they are focused on what the artist wants to say. I’m interested in artistic thought, where they are in the world now and what they want to express, I think that’s one of the most important things and my main criteria for what I choose. I schedule them out a year in advance, and I can’t even tell you how long the waiting list is.
You mentioned censorship in expression. While living in DC, the art scene is growing, but there is still challenges facing the Art community. So as a curator that’s been working in the city, how has that influenced the curatorial process and your decision making? As far as the pieces that you pick, and even your philosophy or your style. Has that influenced you?
Well, yes as a curator I think that I have the responsibility to shape an exhibition. I don’t believe that it’s of any real value to just offer a hall and let people hang stuff, I don’t think that’s very useful. I think for the artists themselves as well as the audience, it’s very important to have some kind of a dialog, and a trialogue perhaps. I like to engage artists to have a very distinct point of view. Whether they are doing abstract art, whether traditional art, I want to see their point of view. I don’t believe in shock for shock’s sake. I do think of sincere expression of whatever your issue is. Artists live in the world, and if you are a good artist, they cannot help but being affected by the real world and how that has been affected them and making statements about it. I’m happy to help them shape and showcase that and offer a positive experience to the audience. I like to have my audience learn something new, be surprised by what they see, have them say “I never knew this”, and understand that Palestinian artists and Arab artists are part of the contemporary art world, in a way that is not showcased in DC. I think that it’s kind of difficult to present Arabs and Arab art in this city. Even in New York, there are very few galleries that specialize. It’s complicated and difficult to mount and make exhibitions like that. Some galleries think that there might be economic constraints, and certain constraints in terms of how they worry about negative press and feedback from their audiences. I think that since we are small here, we are lucky that we are flying under the radar in the art world, but I think that’s changing.
My follow up question is the space’s experience with the city so far. What are the limitations with promoting Arab-American artists? How has the locals’ feedback been regarding a space like this?
I reached out to a few other galleries and I had the pleasure of hosting artists here who are affiliated with some of the Washington DC galleries. So that we can develop a cross-cultural communication with other art galleries. I spent a lot of time explaining what we are and what we do to the press, and the Washington Post did a full-page profile on me and the galley a couple years ago, which gave us a huge amount of presence in the city and was a huge help in bringing people into the space. The other thing for curator is to work with any organizations that are in the city. DC is very generous in giving grants to artists who live in DC, and as a taxpayer I’m very glad that some of my tax is going to the artists, and I worked with my own artists to get grants and help them, and some of them have received major grants from DC. I try very hard to be out there in the community and working hard on developing context. There is a lot of intersectionality between issues of Palestinians, specifically Arab and Middle Eastern artists, and organizations like Black Lives Matter. I do a lot of outreach to be inclusive in those groups as well so that they know that we are here and are interested in what they are doing, and we like them to realize that there is solidarity there as well. I think outreach is one of the most important things.
When you mentioned earlier having a show every six weeks, how do you keep up with so many artists?
When I first started out, it was a question of contacts. I lived overseas for 30 years, in Egypt, Tunisia, I’ve travel extensively in Middle East and North Africa, so I have a lot of contacts in Jordan and Morocco and the Middle East. I’ve studied Arabic and spoke Arabic when I lived in Egypt, but it is now very rusty. I started out with initial contacts in the art world, and with internet, people will find you. I did a very small show a few years ago, with 2 Algerian artists, and we didn’t have publicity, and the next thing I knew, it was reviewed in the Arabic version of the Huffington Post, and I started getting emails from Arab artists in Algeria, Morocco, etc., and they all found me. They can find me now, and it’s hard for me to choose from all the good art that’s out there. But I follow very closely the big prizes, such as the Jamil prize, and other things that the big international organizations do, and I work with people who try to do surveys on contemporary Arab art.
So, if you’re not familiar with Arab art, what are some spaces that someone can visit to start exploring different trends that are in place right now?
I think there are a couple of galleries that have good websites, both are in New York. It gives you unusual points of views but also follows the trends in Arabic art. There are several great gallery spaces specifically dealing with contemporary Arab art, showcasing all those artists. Don’t forget Syra Arts right here in Georgetown, where you can see amazing artists from Egypt and all over the Arab World.. A group called Culture Runners, was started by a British and a Saudi artist out in Saudi Arabia, and they bring Saudi artists to United States and do workshops with them in various areas of the country and will take them around places that no one has seen things like that, for example in Alabama, and hold talks and educational series. The Middle East Institute in DC, has done a lot with the visual aspect, and they will be having a very big beautiful space for the Middle Eastern art. There are also a lot of galleries in London who are very open to showcasing Arab art in London. I’m going to do a show in London next year. That and Berlin are two places that I find very interesting for Arab artists, notwithstanding their political issues, but in general how open they are, Berlin especially. A lot of Palestinian artists have moved to Berlin because of that. The place that’s not great to start working with, are the cultural associations of the embassies, that give very limited point of view in terms of cultural trends, because most of the work that comes through them is very much government sponsored and we must be careful in making judgments.
Earlier you mentioned the difficulties in selling and promoting art. What do you think it would take Arab art to become popular in the States? Why is there bias when someone, a buyer, discovers that this piece is from a Palestinian-American?
I think the bias isn’t there once they see the art; I think the hardest part is to get people to come and see it. I get people walking into the gallery, and I market heavily to non-Arabs, and there is always a surprise, because they are not expecting to see “art”. They are probably expecting to see something highly politicized, offensive, anti-Zionist, etc. that is not what we do, we are interested in showing art. I have a saying that I use repeatedly, it is “you have to look before you can see”. What that means to me is that if art itself has to be beautiful, exceptional, engaging in some way, to make people look at it, once they look at it, then you can try to find out what’s behind that work, if there is a personal or political statement. Artists don’t work in a vacuum, they always have something to say. It is very important to show work that’s engaging to look at, and when I’m promoting, I try to show that. In any communication that I make, the art is foregrounded, and information about the artists is available and important, but first I need people to look at the art.
I’ve seen many curators when they are working with artists from these countries, a lot of times they call it Palestinian art, but it does not have any connection with the Palestinian history or identity. How do you maintain that line? It’s a gray area right?
It’s a gray area. If you talk to artists themselves, they don’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed. Most of these people are artists first, and their identity as Palestinians, etc. is baked into their art. It’s not like you separate the two, they are who they are, and they are made up of all these experiences, whether they are in their home country or diaspora, all of that becomes their personality, and all their experiences influences their art work. So, the label isn’t the most important part, and I try to not label art. In Washington DC, there is a museum called the National Museum of Women in Arts, and everyone calls it the ‘women’s museum’, and it’s a beautiful space, but it is constantly labeled, and some famous artists choose to not exhibit there because they do not want to present work in a ‘women’s museum’. The museum exists because a tiny percentage of art in the world is by women, and women don’t get shown. Because most paintings in museums are paintings by men about women, as opposed to paintings by women about women. I’m in the same kind of situation, in that I’m a space that specifically shows Palestinian and Arab art, and I need to foreground that because there aren’t other spaces that do that. Our goals are to figure out a way
to give these artists enough exposure for the quality of their artwork that other galleries and institutions will pick up their work. A Lebanese artist we worked with, has been picked up through my gallery, at the World Bank, DC Art Bank, and many other spaces. She is very much a contemporary artist and is very interested in refugee issues. Her background per se is not the most important thing, but what she says in her art is. The refugee question is a very important concept, and many other artists have made art about it, and she happens to be Arab. We are trying to figure out a way to showcase the work, give people a chance to get the work out there and be picked up by people who just see it as art.
One thing that came to mind when I was listening to you speak about working with artists from different parts of the world, is the logistics. Getting these pieces here is extremely difficult and such a journey. So, when you are bringing art from Palestine or Middle Eastern countries, how has your experience been? Is it easy or difficult?
It’s very difficult and incredibly expensive. That is one of the biggest problems that I have, we have a very tight budget, and I must get creative in terms of fundraising, grants, and every possible method, and work hard to interest individuals who might be donors. I fundraise only for very specific goals. Then there are the visa issues where the government makes it much harder. So, I work with artists to try and figure out the simplest and easiest ways. A lot of times what we end up doing is that the artists will bring rolled canvases in their suitcases and I’ll have them stretched here with the help of framers and other people. So that we can show the work stretched and framed. We try to do the most creative ways. Most of the international shows that I’ve done have been works on paper. I have worked with art supply places and asked them for free boxes and created my own kind of shipping containers. I’ve physically built a lot of stuff. You really must be a creative person to put things together and figure out ways around it. So, scale is a problem for me, I can’t do big things. Video art, however, is such a trend, abstract arts and projects that are shown in video. I did a show a while back called “Virtual Palestine”; it was works from artists in Gaza, who cannot get out of Gaza. So, I had them send me short videos, 3 minutes or less, and we had 14 screens, and we had all of them going at the same time. We also had some non- Arab video artists participate in this as well, who created specific things for that exhibition. I’m going to replicate that show in London as well in the next few years. So that’s another way for working in the contemporary idiom and letting people see the creativity that is out there.
There is also the augmented virtual reality. I thought with places like Palestine or Iran, it makes showing art so much easier…
It does, and it doesn’t. It very much depends on what you are showing. I am now trying the online sales, where people can buy art when they can’t come here. But I think it is really hard to sell art online, because you are not getting a true picture of what you are actually buying, especially in painting. It’s important to see brushstroke, texture, true color, and it is very difficult to do that. Especially in the higher price ranges, you really have to know photography, and know what you are doing. I am working on doing that, but it is tricky. There is nothing like actually seeing it in real life, and I think it is the most important thing. You have to open as many platforms as you can, because people need to see stuff. I tell my young artists all the time, show your work whenever you can show it. One of the interesting things about Venice Biennale is that in the pavilions, artists are invited to show by representatives from their countries, and then there is the curator who is chosen every year, and they invite artists to show their work. But anybody can just show up, and many artists just gather money, get a plane ticket, and put up their art on the walls outside in a little square, and they are able to show their work at the Venice Biennale! I think it is very important for artists to show their work anywhere they can. The hardest thing for young artists is how to price their work, I always tell people you can always go up, but never go down. Once you establish a price for someone, that must stay that way or go more expensive. You can’t have different prices in different venues, because if someone buys your work, that value has been established. In the Arab world, the more expensive things are, the more valuable they seem. Their work is priced in a market completely different from our market, and I tell those artists that those prices cannot work in the US market! So, I work with artists to find ways to make some of the works affordable. I try to give advice to them, so that more people can buy their art and the artists can earn a bit of money!
Gallery Al-Quds curator, Dagmar Painter, presents a global history of the symbol known as the Hamsa, or Hand of Fatima, in Arab and Middle Eastern culture, which is also a potent symbol in cultures from Asia, Africa, Latin America and among the Native American tribes. Her talk explores the origins, symbolism and interpretations of this potent design with reference to objects from all these cultures hanging in the Gallery Al-Quds exhibit by the same name.