Selections interviews Terry Rakolta, the wife of the current United States Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, to learn more about her museum-standard collection of works from the region and her own ambitions to be an ambassador for Middle Eastern art.
You have built an impressive collection of Middle Eastern art. How did this journey begin?
When my husband became an ambassador to the UAE, the Smithsonian approached us for the Art In Embassies Program, which allows you to choose art to hang in the ambassadors’ residences. I was not really in love with what they showed me. I came to the Middle East and I was contemplating what to do, as it takes so long to send artwork from the United States to a foreign country anyway. Additionally, before I left the USA my husband and I had decided to buy some Middle Eastern art to have as a remembrance of his time as the U.S. Ambassador to the UAE. So, when we arrived here, I decided to start a collection of art from the region.
I arrived in the UAE on October 28, 2019. I did not know what to expect, having read so much about the turmoil in the region. What I found was a country that made me feel very much at home. It was sophisticated with its museums, universities, architecture, shopping, governing structure and safety ranking. Yet, I thought to myself, why was I not feeling the tension, conflict, turmoil and pain of the region?
I didn’t really know much about Middle Eastern art at that time. I had never been exposed to it and I hadn’t seen much of it at any auctions. So, I decided to attend the Abu Dhabi Art Fair to start the process of collecting and this is where I met my future best friend, collaborator and curator of our collection, Salwa Zeidan. When I first saw Salwa, we instantly had a connection and I asked if she would help me to put together an art collection. She showed me images and I chose exactly what I liked and then we decided to have a theme for the collection that also resonated with me: Victims, Fighters and Oppressors.
What was it about Salwa that made her your choice?
Salwa performed a great balancing act, managing to represent and protect the interests of the artist as well as my own as the collector during the negotiations for works of art. Sometimes when I felt a piece of art was a little overpriced, she would fight on behalf of the artist, and sometimes when I really wanted to buy a piece, she would kill the deal because she could not get absolute authentication on it. I trusted her implicitly to spend my money as if it were hers, valuing her judgment, trained eye, ethics and negotiating skills. She is an acclaimed artist in her own right, having opened the first gallery in Abu Dhabi, which now has a 40-year history, and she knew many artists personally.
What are your recollections of building the collection together?
Salwa shepherded me patiently to many galleries to look at a range of established and emerging artists. One day we walked into a gallery and both happened to notice one statue in particular at the same time. We looked at each other and knew instantly this would be our first purchase. It was a 2,200-pound, white carrara marble statue of a young man, bound and blindfolded, waiting to be beheaded. The statue depicted a contemporary event in the Middle East that had taken place. The artist was Reza Aramesh, Iranian by birth, who now lives in the UK. This was the first acquisition in my collection to depict the daily pain and suffering in the lives of the citizens in a region whose wars are relentless.
I wanted a collection that would impact the viewer’s heart, to challenge them emotionally and intellectually to think about the human suffering that takes place within miles of the UAE, and to consider the everlasting toll on a person’s psyche from constant fear, forced migration, refugee camps, bombings, food insecurity, money devaluation, corruption, imprisonment, relatives disappearing and much more.
Can you elaborate more on the theme of Victims, Fighters and Oppressors?
I wanted to create a collection that would be interactive on a primal level between the artist and the viewer. These artists are from the region. Their pain has been transferred to the viewer through their fearless depictions of their reality. Their world consists of victims, fighters and oppressors, and these are interchangeable at any point in time. It is serendipitous. On any given day you can change from fighter to victim, victim to oppressor, and so on.
I believe there is a price to pay for everything, good or bad: for example, there is a price to pay for war and a price to pay for peace. This is not just about a price paid in money: it is paid in sacrifice and facing down an enemy every day, which is what these artists do through showing the truth through art. I believe we should love and support them.
What drew you to this theme?
The UAE is a wonderful country that is peaceful, organised and very Western in the way it operates, but to me it didn’t represent the region, which is filled with conflict, sorrow and unhappiness. These things such as conflict that are happening here also resonate with me. I thought that when Americans and congressional committees come through the UAE it didn’t make sense to show them American art. I decided I would show them Middle Eastern art, as something they haven’t seen.I think I am drawn to the tough images. The collection is provocative because it makes people think. If you like the collection or not, it makes no difference to me; what makes a difference is that people leave with some sort of feeling, negative or positive, or they’ve been moved. Artists are brave, fearless and passionate to put this art out, and this is unlike any art I have ever seen.
What do you hope that people take away from viewing the collection?
I purposefully want this collection to be uncomfortable because we can only evolve as human beings if we feel the pain and despair of others. On a personal level, I want to be an ambassador of Middle Eastern art in the USA. I want to show Americans the artists’ talent and I want to show Middle Eastern Americans the pain of these artists and ask them not to forget their roots in the sense of showing their children they come from a proud heritage of people that manage to survive under the worst conditions.
This region has had so much trauma in every way. One woman came to look at the art and said, ‘Why don’t you have happy art?’ I replied that this is what the artists paint and this is their feeling.
Was there a conscious decision to focus on well-established artists?
In the very beginning I really wanted talent first then the name second. As I knew I would only be here for a short time, it was important to acquire the best.Covid prevented us from visiting all the galleries – they were closed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – so although emerging artists are not out of the question, I wouldn’t be able to see them. Making the Abu Dhabi Art Fair virtual is a good idea but I think with art you need to really feel it in more of a dimensional way.
Did you meet any of the artists or is it important for you to meet any of the artists that you collect?
I would love to meet the artists and I have invited them to visit when I am in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. I’d really like to have face-to-face conversations with them because they are so dynamic and interesting. These artists are filled with passion, they have a lot to say and a lot to give. Through their subject matter they are revealing a lot of themselves, how they’ve been hurt and displaced. Many of the artists I’ve talked to would love to go back to their home countries.
Beyond the Middle East, which artists would you usually be interested in adding to your collection?
Arthur Segal, Gene Davis, Roe Ethridge, Stan Bitters, Robert Motherwell, Milton Avery, Leonor Fini, Janice Biala, Rembrandt Bugatti, Suzanne Van Damme.
Are you satisfied with what you have, or will you still be pursuing other Middle Eastern art or art from the region?
I am not finished yet. I have the intention to make a world-class collection bigger than this because I really see it going to a museum. I feel collections should be shared with others, instead of just disappearing into private homes. I want to take the collection home to the United States and create an art space where people can come and see it.
Will you be opening your own museum in the U.S.?
I don’t know what the constraints are for opening a museum. If I could, I would, yes. I would like to open it so that people from the Middle East could come and see it. Westerners will love it too because we haven’t been exposed to this kind of art, at least not on such a large scale; this is a fairly big collection of 30 pieces.
What is the most treasured artwork you have?
That’s a very good question, but it’s like asking me which child I like the best. I wake up in the morning to them, I look at them during the day and I put them to bed at night. They are all important to me.
What are your hopes for the future of the region?
I hope the Abraham Accords will be the start of the peace and prosperity that the Middle East is seeking. The UAE is the hope for the region’s stability and a model of democracy and tolerance.
Below, Terry Rakolta shares with us letters she has exchanged with the artists.
I am so obsessed by the new painting. It is insanely beautiful and powerful. Ambassador Rakolta is so proud to be the owner of your painting of the shattered American Embassy in Lebanon. It captures the American Spirit of pride, dignity, and perseverance in the region. You are truly “a giant” in the Middle East Art Scene and beyond.
You are willing to share your inner feelings, passion, and talent through your art with the rest of the world. You do not shy away from the very tough subjects that surround you in your daily life and the region you live in.
You force the observer to think about the horrors of war and invade their comfort level by flooding their senses with your fearlessness and ability to transfer the event through beautiful artwork into the polite world of dinner parties and diplomacy. Your paintings provoke more interesting conversations at these gatherings.
Let’s keep working together!!!! I love Salwa and she is your biggest admirer.
The series is generally about the deepest emotions and a philosophical aspect of life, with no cultural borders and exploration of the dark side of life which mostly humans are running away from, therefore they never find the beauty and light in it when there is no choice to escape it….
But my satisfaction with this series is that despite the darkness they are elegant and a touch of decorative essence which is required for any piece of art to my view… A lot could be said but I’ll end it here.
Thank you. I’m so thrilled to see Terry’s honest and thoughtful note which is surprisingly in sync with my state of mind these days! The endless journey of creativity has many landings in different destinations with different characteristics and colors but there is one destination which belongs to your heart and soul, that has been my life, a long journey with a wandering soul approaching the promissory destination.
So happy to see it resonates and is understood and so inspired to hear that from Terry Giving away a painting you are emotionally attached to is like giving your child for adoption but knowing that it will be adored brings in more joy and inspiration.
My very special thanks to Terry for her unique vision and yourself.
In the meantime, I wait for the destination address.
R e z a
I am in love with both paintings you sent to me. My husband loves his portrait. He wanted it hung immediately. He is proud of it. I told him we need to get it framed but he asked me to leave it for a couple of days longer so he can enjoy it. He was shocked at how you captured his personality without ever meeting him from a few simple photos. I have four children and now they are fighting over your painting. I keep reminding them “I am not dead yet”. They all want it.
The other painting of the disaster in Lebanon is really gorgeous. The colours, the movement, the action, leave a viewer breathless. It is monumental in all aspects. You are a genius among the “Artistic Giants” in the Middle East. I consider you and Ayman Baalbaki the “untouchables” in the Middle East art market. Your passion for your subject matter, your fearlessness in exposing such tough subjects with the observers and your uncompromising glare into the inhuman world of terrorism, war, and sadness provoke a sadness in people who see it in my house. The military men seem very affected. Your art starts many uncomfortable conversations at our polite dinner parties and world of diplomacy. People need to look and learn, and if the artist who is delivering the message Is brave enough, stylish enough, talented enough, the message can be accepted without fear or resentment. That is the power you have over the viewer. I admire and honour you for everything you share of yourself and your darkest feelings with the world.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #54