The path to Dagmar Painter’s office at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al-Quds leads past a crimson wall, painted that color in mid-August as a backdrop for a piece in the current show, Helen Zughaib’s “Fractured Spring.”
To explain her responsibilities as gallery director, Painter refers to the wall. “I just finished the three coats,” she says. “I got it all off my fingernails, too, which is nice.”
The Foggy Bottom gallery, whose name pairs the Hebrew “Jerusalem” with the Arabic “Al-Quds,” was Painter’s idea. With the exception of a break in 2001, she has run it since its founding in 2000. “I do everything here. I pretty much sweep the floors, do the publicity, design the cards. If it has to be done, I do it.”
“She’s just very devoted and very motivated,” says Painter’s friend Sylvia Ragheb, who has exhibited Egyptian and Arab art at Syra Arts in Georgetown since 2012. “She’s pulling in absolutely fabulous artists and works relentlessly. ”
To Zughaib, Painter is a partner as well as a patron. “I’ll talk to her about my concepts and what I want to do. And she’ll listen to me and interject certain things. That sort of collaboration is quite unusual,” says the Lebanese-born Washington artist. “She is quite realistic about the space and the limitations of things and yet somehow lets us have our freedom to do what we want to do.”
The exhibition space Painter runs is one of three divisions of the Jerusalem Fund, which was created in 1977 to raise money for philanthropic projects — mostly medical and educational — in the Palestinian territories. Later came the Palestine Center, a think tank. Painter arrived after a two-year stint as gallery director at the Embassy of Tunisia.
“I thought it would be interesting to, quasi-independently, run a gallery that would concentrate on contemporary art from the Middle East, the Islamic world, Arab Americans — I defined it very, very broadly,” she recalls, “with an emphasis on Palestinian art, but not solely.”
When Painter says she’s quasi-independent, she’s referring not only to her status as a consultant rather than an employee, but also to her lack of supervision. “I answer to the board in the greater scheme of things, but I don’t have anyone giving me any kind of direction,” she says.
Painter has worked in museums or written about art in a half-dozen countries: Nigeria, Thailand, India, Tunisia, Pakistan and Egypt. If Cairo resonated particularly, it might be because she is descended from Europeans who lived there for several generations.
“There was this sort of Mediterranean mix that went on in my family,” she explains. “My dad lived in Egypt until he was a young man. He went through World War II there, fighting for the British.” After the war, he was assigned to Germany, where he met Painter’s mother. A German-born British subject, she became an American when her parents immigrated here.
As an art scholar, Painter’s speciality is the symbolism in antique wedding textiles from the Middle East and Asia. But her principal current interest is contemporary Arab and Arab-
American art, “partially because it was so underrepresented in the United States.”
“A lot of the artists are doing really interesting work, which is not necessarily about being an Arab,” she says. “Although, like any artist, their life experience informs what they do. And they are expressing themselves using really contemporary modes. But they don’t have a lot of ability to be shown.”
“I’m pretty much the only full-time space on the East Coast that shows this kind of art,” she adds.
The shows change every six weeks, Painter says, and “I try to vary it up.” That includes photography, textiles, sculpture and painting. Once a year, she mounts what she calls a “concept” show. Last year’s show — “The Map is Not the Territory” — gathered artworks about walls, partitions and lost lands by Palestinian, Irish and Native American artists.
Equally political, if gentler, is Zughaib’s show, which includes pieces that are typical of her work but also some experiments. The artist says the project began with a trip to the Middle East shortly before the Arab Spring in 2011.
It was her first visit since leaving Lebanon 35 years ago. “I went to Beirut, and I had a big show there. And I was in Syria to see where my father was born, in the old city in Damascus. And then Jordan. And then several months later, the Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire. So many of the places that we had seen started deteriorating just a few months after we had been there. So after the initial hope of the Arab Spring, my work kind of changed.”
Rendered in Zughaib’s colorful style, which melds traditional Arab motifs and Western pop art, the show includes images of poverty, cultural fragmentation and spiritual imprisonment.
Despite presenting work with such themes, Painter says she’s never encountered any resistance in her years at the gallery. “Interestingly enough, the kind of commentary that we’ve gotten on a lot of the shows I’ve done has been more a question of surprise.”
One of the gallery’s early exhibitions, “Palestinians . . . Meanwhile,” featured 180 large-scale photographs of daily life. “Kids in Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms, and weddings and bakeries. The most mundane and ordinary kind of life things,” Painter remembers. “And the response was very much, ‘I had no idea.’ ”
“I want to bring lots of people in here who have never seen these kinds of images. Who didn’t know this kind of life existed. My idea is not preaching to the converted,” she says. “It’s not my mission to be polemical. I don’t think it’s useful.”
The response to the work Syra Arts shows has been similar, says the Dutch-born Ragheb, who lived in the Middle East for 30 years. “People are very open to it. But it’s a learning process for everybody involved,” she says.
“People will come into the gallery just wanting to know what kind of food do you eat, or how do you move around in Egypt, or what are the people like,” Ragheb says.
“I would say, in general, I have felt more of a welcoming than not,” reflects Zughaib, although she has encountered some people who had already formed an unshakable opinion of the Arab world. “What I try to do mostly — whether or not it’s successful, I don’t know — is make the work attractive, so that people are at least drawn in by that. Then, after they’re looking at the piece and wondering about it, maybe the dialogue can begin — as opposed to forcing an idea that they may or may not be receptive to.”
In Painter’s view, political objections are more likely when the topics are most specific. “It’s a question of people’s perceptions of what people are protesting. If the perception is that they’re protesting general injustice, in the world in general, I think that’s more accepted.”
That’s one reason she brings in non-Arab artists or tries to create dialogue between Palestinians and others. She smiles as she remembers the opening reception for “The Map is Not the Territory,” when she invited a Palestinian oud player, an Irish fiddler and a Native American singer and drummer to perform together.
“They had no rehearsal — nothing,” she says. “They sat down and just seamlessly started playing their music. It was so interesting to see how that worked.”
In that spirit, this fall’s concept show will enlist 40 artists — Arab and not — to make small pieces based on a poem Painter selected from the work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “That’s what interests me,” she says, “this sort of merging of cultures.”
Fractured Spring: New Work by Helen Zughaib. Through Oct. 17 at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al-Quds, 2425 Virginia Ave. NW; 202-338-1958; www.thejerusalemfund.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.