Washington multimedia art show celebrates bygone era
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.”