Washington multimedia art show celebrates bygone era

Sunday 24/04/2016
Seelye sisters, artist Ammanda (L) and videographer Kate at the opening of the At Home in the Garden of Eden exhibit.

Washington - Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Memories can be comforting, even in­spiring. They can also provoke wistful reminis­cences laced with regret for a lost, happier epoch.
The Jerusalem Fund’s recent gal­lery show At Home in the Garden of Eden presented a celebratory but also poignantly pining perspective on the Middle East that was — from the accomplishments of determined missionaries to audacious diploma­cy — over five generations of early US engagement in the region.
Who better to deliver such a ret­rospective than Kate and Ammanda Seelye, daughters of one of the fore­most pioneering American diplo­mats, Talcott Seelye. He, with their mother, raised his family in the Mid­dle East across decades while serv­ing at posts in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia and Syria — the last two as US ambassador.
In the 1840s, Talcott Seelye’s great-grandfather was a Congre­gational missionary in the Otto­man empire. His grandmother and mother persuaded their husbands to live in eastern Turkey and Leba­non, respectively, where Seelye was born. His mother had earned a PhD in Islamic Studies at Columbia Uni­versity. This was a family that had the Middle East itch, cultivated over many decades.
Kate Seelye is an irrepressible doc­umentarian who, for many years, was a journalist for National Public Radio, the BBC and other broadcast­ers based in Beirut and now serves as vice-president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.
Ammanda Seelye is an artist whose creative painting over the archival photographs elevated what could have been simply a dry collec­tion of historic pictures into a lively, colourful experience in which they are brought alive with a contempo­rary context accented with new lay­ers of painted imagery and interpre­tation. Her talent for painting highly detailed colourful large-format pat­terns was also on show.
From concept to execution, the collection reflected a commitment to accurate history and impressive collaboration. Kate Seelye had been collecting audio and visual artefacts for years. She discovered her fam­ily’s archival history dating to early missionaries to Mosul, Iraq, in 1848 and pursued the discovery of her pa­ternal ancestors, tracking colourful characters across five generations: missionaries of all types, foundling home and school builders — all a foundation for the more complex dealings of the mid-1900s when re­lationships with Arabs evolved to be more reciprocal, rather than the preceding one-way colonial, patron­ising cast.
The exhibit offers a lens on the transition in the US experience in the region, from self-ascribed “colo­nialist” moralism to a more curious eagerness to develop an apprecia­tion for and understanding of Arab culture to foster diplomatic and commercial ties.
Kate and Ammanda Seelye used family photos and a loop of 8-track tapes documenting various family frolics and childhood scenes — per­meated by Middle Eastern culture from the people to the food and dé­cor.
Official photographs showed early missionaries and Talcott Seelye’s diplomatic career, such as meetings with the emir of Kuwait and Syrian president Hafez Assad. Photos of a visit to Palmyra are especially mean­ingful today given its destruction by the Islamic State (ISIS).
As the archive grew, Ammanda Seelye suggested integrating art to enliven the family history and make it more appealingly accessible. “Am­manda saved me,” Kate Seelye said, referring to the result of their collab­oration, which produced a cohesive and intriguing show.
Ammanda Seelye worked with the original photographs, painting within and over the images, lending a contemporary commentary and enlivening the characters. Embel­lishments included paint drips and fine vertical lines as well as various colourful accents, creating mixed-media collages layered with paint­ing and silk-screening to juxtapose scenes of the past with today, and so transformed, yet preserved the staid images to reflect her narrative. She then digitally enlarged the col­lection.
Gallery Curator Dagmar Painter oversaw an excellent installation featuring the welcoming lively col­our of Ammanda Seelye’s oversized canvases, then the artfully recreated photographs and finally a corner de­voted to family videos, affording a glimpse into the sisters’ formative years in Lebanon where their par­ents “built the first house on Hamra Street” in Beirut.
Kate Seelye also enumerated US influence in founding educational institutions in Lebanon. She said she hopes to eventually make copi­ous family diaries accessible to the public.
As Kate Seelye related, Talcott Seelye had “entered the foreign service when America was step­ping into its role as a super power after World War II and he saw [our] potential for good. He became… particularly [concerned about] the Palestinian issue and because he [was fearless in expressing] his dis­pleasure, [Henry] Kissinger used to call him ‘Our PLO man in the State Department’, which was not a ca­reer booster.”
Kate Seelye reflected on Ameri­cans’ changing perspectives on the Middle East and Islam in particular over the centuries. “Most Ameri­cans, she said, “have not had [Arab world] experience so it’s more diffi­cult to have an exchange of equals.”