Curating Contemporary Art: Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi

Although not an artist herself, Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi is a pioneer in contemporary Arab art. Her objective as an independent curator is to humanize the voice of Arabs to the western world through art. In Nashashibi’s view, contemporary artists themselves are living and breathing contemporary culture. In 1989, inspired by this philosophy, she established the International Council of Women in the Arts (ICWA). ICWA’s mission is to promote the contemporary artistic practice of the Arab World through exhibitions and educational programming, and although the organization’s title would indicate a dedication to women artists, it has been involved in promoting both male and female artists since its inception. Nashashibi explains the personal appeal of her endeavor: “I look at art as the best medium for communication and the artist as the ideal representative of culture and time. They are the first to feel change, culture and growth. Humanity is represented in their works and that is what motivates me.”

Her passion to mobilize a resource for contemporary Arab artists ignited when she moved to the United States in 1972. Thereafter, she soon realized how very little the outside world knew about the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab peoples and their cultures. She decided to attempt to humanize this vast region for strangers through the voices of artists. As Nashashibi began to introduce the contemporary art of Arabs, she was immediately confronted with the realization that most westerners were only aware of the traditional arts from this region and did not imagine that contemporary art even existed. This fact inspired her to make a lifelong commitment to sharing the contemporary, progressive and intellectual minds of the living Arab World through their fine arts.

Nashashibi grew up in Jerusalem and later lived in Lebanon, where she attended the American University of Beirut. In 1968, she organized her first exhibition of a Palestinian artist in Lebanon. In 1985, after moving to California, she curated her first exhibition of the works of Joumana El-Hosseini. While she found it easier at the time to introduce individual artists versus assembling group shows, Nashashibi quickly recognized the need for a larger, more broad introduction in the United States to contemporary Arab artists. So for five years, she worked to create Forces of Change, a traveling exhibition of 160 works by seventy contemporary female Arab artists from 15 countries. The largest collection of its kind ever presented in the United States, it opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC in February of 1994.

As a curator, Nashashibi does not just aim to create visually thought-provoking exhibits, but is equally committed to the educational programming that surrounds her projects. She believes that exhibitions do not simply stand alone, but are capable of providing a platform for understanding cultivated through education.

Today she is working on a most hotly-anticipated project — The National Arab-American Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, due to open in October of 2004. The institution will celebrate the Arab-American lifestyle and cultures with 38,000 square feet containing permanent exhibitions tracing the Arab immigration, stories and accomplishments. Nashashibi is curating a temporary exhibition of 15 contemporary Arab-American artists for the grand opening. The show will feature works that discuss and reflect the in-between world in which many bi-cultural Arab-Americans live.

Nashashibi is also currently at work on the “Cultural and Visual Art Resource,” a division of ICWA. This web-based resource will serve as a comprehensive site that documents, archives and highlights artists’ accomplishments and important events surrounding the Arab art world. It will make possible the exchange of articles, online exhibitions and other resources with artists, curators and gallery owners interested in understanding contemporary Arab art on a global level.

Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi is a rarity in the art world. As an independent curator, she has dedicated herself to providing platforms for creating greater understanding of a region of the world that is now more misunderstood than ever. She receives no funding from any organization or government, and yet has managed time and again to open the eyes of the west to the talented artists of the Arab world through her curated exhibits, research and in-depth knowledge of contemporary Arab art. Nashashibi has not spent her years researching artists from afar, but has instead devoted considerable time and personal resources to travel all over the Arab world and become intimately involved with the artists. In doing so, she not only honors the art but above all pays respect to the artist and their creative process.