Once-reviled Orientalist art inspires Egyptian industrialist to improve East-West relations
By Bill Turque,
Shafik Gabr’s Woodley Park home is filled with paintings once written off as paternal, even racist, images of the Middle East as seen through the eyes of 19th-century European artists — a world of daring snake charmers, menacing harem guards and exotic women.
But Gabr, a restless Egyptian industrialist who keeps three iPhones and a BlackBerry stacked on a desk in front of him, sees something else. He regards Orientalist painters such as Charles Wilda, Johann Discart, John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Leon Geromeas intrepid early globalists who put themselves at risk to document a new world opened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition from 1798 to 1801. They have compelled him to launch an initiative to improve East-West understanding.
“I have been inspired by these painters,” said Gabr, chairman of the ARTOC Group for Investment and Development, a conglomerate with interests in energy, real estate, consumer products and media. “These people traveled under very difficult circumstances with no knowledge of what to expect. They didn’t travel to conquer or find oil. They traveled to discover and to understand.”
Gabr, 60, listed by Forbes as one of Africa’s 20 richest men (net worth, $720 million), has amassed perhaps the world’s leading private Orientalist collection, most of which he keeps in his principal home, a palatial villa in the Mokattam Hills above Cairo.
But Gabr’s story is more than one of another rich guy excited by the paintings he has collected. It is about the intersection of art, politics and national identity. Orientalism, condemned by literary critic Edward Said in his landmark 1978 book as an erotically charged European obsession with a brown and black “other,” is now viewed by Gabr and other wealthy Middle East collectors as a valuable, if imperfect, set of dispatches from a past that is worth saving.
Art historian Emily M. Weeks, an expert on 19th-century British visual culture, said Gabr and others who collect Orientalist works are engaged in “a reappropriation” of regional identity. They are also part of what she calls an “instaculture,” powered by oil riches, that have led to the new $800 million branch of the Guggenheim under construction on an island off Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and a Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
“They want to take it back and have it for themselves,” said Weeks, who is working on a book about Lewis, the British painter who traveled to Cairo in 1841 and remained there for 10 years, doing nearly 600 watercolors and drawings. “I think they see in this art a kind of nostalgia for a world that is fast disappearing.”
She said the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, energized the genre’s revival. “After 9/11, there was a real interest around the world in how the Middle East was portrayed,” Weeks said. “People began to look at this art not as exclusively derogatory but more complicated, a view of how people saw the Middle East then.”
It means that Orientalist paintings, once a commercial backwater, are now among the hottest properties in the international art market. The French Orientalist Gerome’s “The Negro Master of the Hounds,” which sold for $50,000 in 1980, commanded $1.6 million in 2011 at a Christie’s auction. Lewis’s “The Mid-Day Meal, Cairo” drew $4.4 million in 2005.
“For buyers, [the paintings] are visually stunning,” said Diana Bramham, a specialist in 19th-century European paintings for Christie’s in New York. “There’s an incredible amount of lavish detail. It’s fascinating to think about these people schlepping over there with canvases and cameras, trying to figure out how they were going to create images.”
The commercial success has also kindled a critical reappraisal. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Musee d’Orsay in Paris have recently staged major exhibits of Gerome’s works, often considered salacious.
“Sometimes it takes strong prices at auctions for scholars to pay attention,” Weeks said.
Still, these paintings of Pharaonic splendor, lurid harem girls and haggling merchants would seem an unlikely inspiration for an effort to foster cross-cultural understanding. But Gabr said they have compelled him to spend several million dollars for a major new initiative called “East-West: The Art of Dialogue.” It launched late last year with symposia in Washington, New York and London, peppered with big names, including former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Beginning this spring, in partnership with Humanity in Action an educational nonprofit organization, Gabr will annually fund six emerging leaders from business, the arts and the sciences in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. They will travel and work in other countries, then collaborate on a project and leverage the experience by sharing with peers back in their communities.
“I am very, very concerned that my generation has not succeeded in building bridges between East and West,” he said in a recent interview at home in Northwest Washington, where he was taking a break from overseeing the hanging of paintings.
“I see it all the time, where if you speak to average Americans in mid-America, the first things they think about my part of the world are terrorism, extremism, Islamism. If you speak to an average Egyptian in the streets of small towns or villages, the immediate thought is the United States is helping Israel, Palestine has been occupied for 60 years, the bombing of Iran and the war in Afghanistan are arrogant foreign policy.”
Gabr understands that his is a baby step, what he calls this “little ripple of bridge building.” But he believes it has to start somewhere.
He is a familiar figure in Washington and such networking meccas as Davos, Switzerland. As a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, he is often a go-to for the financial news media when they look for comments on the business outlook in the Middle East. Friends say the bridge-building venture is much in character.
“He’s a bit of a dreamer, an optimist,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who calls the East-West venture “very Shafikish.” “What you get with Shafik is that he thinks outside the box.”
Gabr’s initiative comes at a time when his own country is in desperate need of mutual understanding among factions. Still roiling from the February 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has struggled with its transition to democracy.
Gabr is troubled by the unrest, but said he tries to take the longer view. “To be quite candid, up until the 1950s and 1960s, you were still struggling with the civil rights movement,” he said. “Egypt is a nation of 5,000 years. So this is going to be nothing more than a blip on the radar screen. My only hope is that we get it right.”
He is a child of Egypt’s old order, the grandson of a senator and son of a career diplomat. He was raised in India, Canada, Greece and the former Czechoslovakia with his two sisters before their father retired in 1971 and founded an engineering firm.
The father, Adel Gabr, was an exacting man, as his son describes him. Gabr said that shortly after he turned 16, his father told him, “This is your last allowance.”
His first business was a bicycle messenger service he started in Cairo shortly after the 1967 Middle East war. After attending the American University in Cairo and the University of London, he went to work for his father, who fired him after three years.
On his deathbed a few months later, Adel Gabr told his son that he needed to see if he could make it on his own. He did, and soon returned to his father’s firm and oversaw its expansion into ARTOC, with interests in oil logistics, real estate, steel fabrication and publishing. He also runs the philanthropic foundation started by his grandfather.
As a boss, he is in some ways as driven and unsentimental as his father. When his sister Shahdan was about to have her son, Gabr turned down her request to work part time at ARTOC.
“A tough boss, very meticulous,” she said.
He brings the same rigor to vetting potential investment partners.
“I want to know their families,” Gabr said. “I want to know what they eat. I want to know how they spend their holidays, and I’d like them to come visit me and get to know me.”
Gabr said he has never been interested in politics, despite his connections to the old order in Egypt.
“I’ve declined to be in politics from day one,” he said. “I have no interest in becoming a participant in politics in the old order or the new order.”
In 2010, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Gabr came to Washington on behalf of the Mubarak government to lobby against passage of a Senate resolution calling on Egypt to hold fair, internationally monitored elections and to respect democracy and human rights.
Gabr called the story “entirely bogus” and said he was “never, ever dispatched by the government of Egypt on any mission.” He added that he has called for political and economic reform on multiple occasions, including as chairman of Egypt’s International Economic Forum when President Obama delivered his 2009 speech in Cairo.
Gabr travels obsessively, using his private jet as the rest of us might a taxicab, bouncing among homes in Cairo, London, Prague and Washington, searching for paintings and making contacts.
He bought the Woodley House a few years ago for $5 million to hold as an investment. But when his daughter Malak applied to Georgetown University for next fall, he began fixing it up. If she goes, he said, she will have a place to stay.
And what new college student doesn’t need a $5 million mansion with a pool?