Many things in life will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart,” says Charles O’Brien, who has specialized in Orientalist art for Bonhams auction house in Paris. Orientalism is characterized by paintings by Western artists of people and scenes in what was then regarded as “the Orient.” O’Brien continues: “Very occasionally one encounters a collection that not only speaks about the artists represented, but also shouts about the person who had the passion and energy to put such a collection together. Such is the collection of Shafik Gabr.”
Widely acknowledged as the world’s leading collection of Orientalist art outside of museums, Gabr describes his three decades of collecting more than 180 paintings as not only “a personal journey,” but also “a message I want to pass on.”
In 1993 Gabr bought his first painting: “Egyptian Priest Entering a Temple,” painted in 1892 by Ludwig Deutsch, a Paris-based artist of Austrian heritage and one of the most prominent Orientalists. Its pharaonic theme, Gabr says, resonated.
“I am proud to be an Egyptian and greatly value my country’s contribution to world culture,” he says. For three years before the purchase, while in Europe on business, he says he became intrigued with Orientalism—much as the painters, primarily from Europe but a few from America, had become intrigued by the “East.”
“I studied Orientalism and visited museums and auction houses,” he says. “When I felt I knew something, I bought that Deutsch of the Egyptian priest.”
He says what he sought were culturally engaged artists, “not ‘armchair Orientalists’ working from their comfortable European studios who never set foot in the East and who relied on second-hand accounts to paint imagined, often eroticized scenes that had no bearing on observable reality.” On the contrary, he sought those artists who “made the time and effort to actually visit the places they painted, some living in the Middle East, others in North Africa, immersing themselves in the culture and its people, depicting them in a respectful way.
“Through my collecting, I have tried to redefine the term ‘Orientalism,’” he adds. “What I am trying to show is that Orientalism in its true form signifies the art of face-to-face engagement between East and West, promoting a better world by constructing bridges of understanding.”
In 2012 this helped inspire Gabr to establish East-West: The Art of Dialogue, an annual intercultural exchange program for emerging leaders, primarily Americans and Egyptians, but also of other nationalities. After a hiatus due to COVID-19, The Art of Dialogue held its most recent edition in October and November. The fellowships are provided at no cost to the participants.
Central to Gabr’s collection and philosophy are nine paintings by French artist Étienne Dinet. Classically trained at the Academie Julian in Paris, Dinet made his first visit to Algeria in 1884, when he was 23 years old. The experience set the course for his life and career. He began to travel there frequently, and he immersed himself in the culture and Arabic language—all at a time when the cultures of Algeria were ignored at best, and despised at worst, by the French colonial administration. In 1904 Dinet made the move permanent, and he bought a house in a southern oasis town, Bou Saâda (Place of Joy). In 1913 he became a Muslim and took the name Nasreddin (Defender of the Faith). In addition to painting, he collaborated in the production of illustrated books, says Claude Piening of Sotheby’s auction house in London, and he did this often with his friend Slimane ben Ibrahim. “Dinet’s complete assimilation into the local community lends his Orientalist paintings a particular authenticity and reflection of understanding of Muslim life,” says Piening.
Art historian James Parry, author of Orientalism Lives, notes it was ben Ibrahim who saved Dinet’s life during a tribal skirmish, and it was also he who taught Dinet much about “the folklore, legends and history of the peoples of the Ouled Naïl, a Berber tribe with a strong tradition of music and dance.” When Dinet died in 1930, it was said that more than 5,000 Algerians attended his funeral in Bou Saâda.
In Dinet’s paintings of the life and culture of the Ouled Naïl people around him, Gabr wrote in the catalog The Art of Étienne Dinet from the Shafik Gabr Collection that he experiences “a combination of intensity and softness of manner that invites the viewer to become a participant.” This shows in the first Dinet painting Gabr bought: Six girls on a rooftop terrace enjoy their view of celebrations in the street below. Each face, dress and piece of jewelery is carefully observed and uniquely rendered.
Polly Sartori, director of Gallery 19C in Los Angeles, wrote that Dinet “always represented accurate, first-hand depictions of the secular and sacred culture of the region, especially his depictions of its inhabitants, who had become his neighbors.”
“The artist needs to have traveled ... witnessed the region, people and the culture.”
—Mohamed Shafik Gabr
“Dinet had the ability to enter the states of mind of both women and men,” says Gabr. “In one of my paintings, ‘The Night Dance,’ you can see the faces of men watching the women dancing, not necessarily erotically, but each man reacting individually. One is holding his head, as though entranced. Another is coolly smoking a cigarette. It speaks volumes of emotion about what you can’t see,” says Gabr. In two other paintings in Gabr’s collection, “Council in the Night” and “The Lookout,” Dinet evokes the intensity of both fear and commitment of Algerian men resisting French occupation. His approach, Gabr wrote in his catalog, afforded Western viewers “not only a glimpse, but also a profound understanding of a culture so different from their own.”
In the foreword to the comprehensive, large-format book, The Shafik Gabr Collection, Gabr elaborated on other Orientalist artists who were, like Dinet, “respectful onlookers.” These include the prolific Scotsman David Roberts, who “chose to focus on our architectural treasures, such as the Pharaonic temples,” as well as Belgian artist Émile Deckers, notable for his “in-depth depiction of the people and faces of North Africa, such as his expressive close-up portraits of Algerian men.” The German painter Gustav Bauernfeind painted himself into “A Street Scene, Damascus” wearing a pith helmet, trying to sketch but attracting a small crowd. Even a camel is intrigued.
Other work that resonates today, Gabr says, includes Deutsch’s “majestic palace guards,” which Gabr counts among “interesting paintings in which people of color are honored,” he says. Similarly, “The Black Maidservant,” by Frenchman Jean-Léon Gérôme, is a “simple, unadorned but deeply sympathetic portrait,” and Gérôme’s “Napoleon and his General Staff in Egypt” is a poignant depiction of the French general—and the colonialism his invasion brought to Egypt—in retreat.
“I always choose paintings each of which must tell a story,” says Gabr, in addition to qualities such as “attention to realism, detail and color.” These come out in ceramic tiles in which Arabic calligraphically is rendered in faithful kufic style, ornate incense burners, rugs and carpets as well as clothes and embroidery. This attention to detail and near-photographic accuracy is characteristic of the empathetic ethnographic approach of Orientalist masters. “The subject matter needs to have been treated with genuine curiosity, compassion, and respect,” says Gabr.
But “Orientalist art is more than superb examples of the painter’s art,” he says. “My collection has been carefully selected to contribute to the message I want to pass on…. The art of face-to-face engagement between East and West, of listening, looking, and learning—with the objective of understanding cultural, religious and ideological differences to allow for a better world by constructing bridges of understanding between all the peoples of this earth.”
Each year The Gabr Fellowship accepts roughly 20 applicants, all young leaders in arts, sciences, law, media and entrepreneurship, and invites them to join East-West: The Art of Dialogue, to “enhance critical understanding and cooperation amongst young emerging and entrepreneurial leaders in the Arab world and the West through global exchanges.” The Gabr Fellows then meet for two-week visits to each of the US and Egypt, where they have met with staff of US President Barack Obama and leaders at top universities and businesses, including Yale University, Google, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Huffington Post. Visits in Egypt integrate historic and modern aspects of Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria. At each site, there is learning from local leaders, assessments of needs, brainstorming of ideas and face-to-face discussions. These culminate in a series of collaborative Action Projects that the Fellows carry out in the months that follow, thus both addressing regional needs and fostering enduring cooperative relationships and friendships.
Looking back on her experience, 2017 Gabr Fellow Sarah Badr wrote, “I got involved in policy advocacy with a focus on humanitarian causes and gained confidence in public speaking. I became involved in the UN major group for children and youth, advocating for young migrants’ rights in the MENA region. I was nominated to become an official spokesperson of the World Youth Forum, becoming the voice that represents millions of young people. If world peace can be established through global understanding, ultimately establishing acceptance of differences and bonding over similarities, then the Fellowship is succeeding at doing exactly that.”
“Listening, looking, and learning—with the objective of understanding ... allow for a better world.”
—Mohamed Shafik Gabr
Amr Seda, also a 2017 Gabr Fellow, shared that “after the Fellowship, I felt encouraged and motivated to engage with similar activities outside my daily job, one of which was joining the organizing committee of the annual Youth Forum—one of the biggest in the world—that aims to bring youth together for the cause of world peace, which is a very similar mission to the Gabr Fellowship.” In 2022, 4,000 young women and men from around the world came together “in meaningful dialogue about world peace, sustainability, and climate change.”
“It breaks a lot of taboos,” says Gabr. He recalls one session in Washington, D.C., when an American participant asked one of the Egyptian women Fellows what had impressed her about the experiences she was having. She answered that she had been afraid at first, saying “I’d never been to the West, and my English is not perfect. I thought that reading about what Muslims are being called, that I would be looked down on. I found that young American girls are facing some of the same challenges of having to meet deadlines at work, looking for a good husband, etc., that young women everywhere face.” Gabr comments that this exchange, more than furthering her career, increased “her experience of well-being.”
“It took Dinet and his colleagues time, effort and open minds, getting to know the people of the East in order to understand and depict them.... [This is] part of what inspired the launching of East-West: The Art of Dialogue.”
—Mohamed Shafik Gabr
Each fellow is selected through a process that includes a written application and five interviews, two of which Gabr attends. “The fellowship is a transformative experience,” says Gabr, and preference is given to applicants “who would not otherwise have such an experience. We look at the applicants, and what they can do for their country. A young Egyptian man who was extremely shy and introverted in the interview, finally opened his mouth, without my prodding him. Today, he is a member of a very distinguished think-tank in Egypt. I’ll give you another example: A young man who participated came from a town in Virginia, USA, of only 600 people. And he had no interest in global issues, but after coming to Egypt, he became intrigued. After the Fellowship experience, he finished up teaching Egyptian history in his little town. Furthermore, a young woman from New Orleans was fascinated by Luxor and changed her entire career to become an Egyptologist in New Orleans.”
Gabr goes back to Dinet’s artistic legacy. “His paintings were part of what inspired the launching of East-West: The Art of Dialogue. It took Dinet and his colleagues time, effort and open minds, getting to know the people of the East in order to understand and depict them, thus creating and building a bridge between the East and West. I felt that in this face-to-screen rather than face-to-face age, it is more important than ever to put effort into really, truly getting to know one another.”