Interview with George Al-Ama for Modern Art and Artist Estates: Ways, Works and Archives Issue – Vol I
The act of collecting is based on research; I don’t collect for the sake of collecting. I collect based on the urge to complete the puzzle of modernity and Palestinian art in general. I start my research from my private library and archives, including photography, and by relying on my relations with artists and academics, especially leading figures of the art scene in Palestine. I do field research, scouting and physically searching for pieces, I even go to graveyards to find a missing piece of information on the tombstones.
Nicola Saig (1863 – 1942) is well presented, exhibited, and included in the collection of Darat al-Funun – The Khalid Shoman Foundation, in Amman. With the help of the late Kamal Boullata, Suha Shoman acquired a treasury of his paintings and artworks, including his sketchbook. When you open her book, Arab Art Histories, the first pages feature Nicola Saig of whom more than 20 works are among her collection. Two decades on from this acquisition, I was lucky to make my own discovery of 12 Saig artworks in Bethlehem, which I’ve worked hard to restore, frame and research. These works were exhibited at Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in an exhibition titled “The Return to Jerusalem” curated together with Aline Khoury, then in Gallery One in Ramallah, to give the opportunity for people who don’t have permission to go to Jerusalem to see the works. Later in 2018, we shipped out seven or eight works with Gallery One to be exhibited in the modern art section of Art Dubai. The works gained a lot of visibility and were shown to every expert in Arab Modern art.
These works have their own personal history. Their owner was the late Farah Zakharia, who became a refugee in 1948 when he was forced out of his home in Jerusalem and moved to Bethlehem. He was martyred in 1967 leaving behind his six-year-old son, Raja’i. The works remained untouched from 1967 until 2013, when I visited his son and discovered them. Saig used to make multiples of each subject, he was selling artworks like souvenirs, especially the religious ones. Two of the twelve paintings I discovered are similar to paintings featured in Kamal Boullata’s book, Palestinian Art 1850 – 2005; that is how I spotted the pieces when I visited Zakharia’s home. They were signed Nicola Saig, but the owner had no idea who he was. I started researching and writing the history of the owner, of his move from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, why the works were there and the circumstances of his martyrdom. I now have a complete history and timeline of the works. Nine of the paintings remain with Raja’i and three have left his family collection; one was sold through Christie’s to Dar El-Nimer in Beirut, which is the painting of Saidnaya monastery in Syria, and two are part of my private collection.
My initial aim, and the reason why I started to collect and research, was to have a centralised archive of Palestinian art. As Palestinians, we are not as fortunate as other nations to have national libraries or museums. That is why as private collectors we are trying to lead the way for such monumental tasks. Personally, I have found information on Palestinian art and culture across the globe. We need to do this because we were prohibited and prevented from keeping our own archives in Palestine. Even our private libraries at home were ransacked and taken by the Israelis between 1948 and 1967. Thus, we are trying to piece things together from abroad. We draw on a network of good relations to serve the larger cause of completing our knowledge of Palestinian art.
Both collecting and researching serve the same purpose, which is to preserve information and fragments from the Palestinian art scene and material culture. Eventually, I hope my collection will end up in a museum. It is a vast collection of over 4,000 pieces of Palestinian modern and contemporary art, as well as material culture such as dresses, photography, and handicrafts including mother-of-pearl, olive wood and pottery from the Jerusalem Armenian School, which started in 1919 and has had a very significant role in the Palestinian material culture.
My collection is the most complete in terms of Palestinian modern and contemporary art. I have works for over 160 Palestinian artists with a minimum of one piece from each and every artist; this was my method of collecting. I also discovered 12 pieces by the late Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919 – 1994) of which four paintings joined the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection. I have works for artists who have been completely forgotten, like Jiries Jawharieh, Nicola Tadros and Sophie Halaby (for whom I have the largest archive), as well as Nahil Bishara, Fatima al-Muheb and Jamal Badran. I also focused on collecting archives, documents, sketches and of course I have masterpieces in the collection. When financial issues forced me to sell, I became a dealer and despite the competition, I survived.
I would love to share research and information gathered with anyone interested in shedding light on Palestinian art and culture. I already started digitising my collection and archives with the help of the Palestinian Museum two months ago. It is a huge project that keeps us continuously busy. I am happy to have my own team now working day and night. I simply want information to be ready at the press of a button.
Images courtesy of George Al-Ama.
George Al-Ama is a researcher, academic, and collector of Palestinian material culture and art. Founder of Dar Al Sabagh Diaspora studies and Research Centre, Head of the Culture Unit at the Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Member of the Scientific Committee of Terra Sancta Museums, Advisor for Bank Of Palestine Group, and a lecturer at Dar Al-Kalima University and Birzeit University.