October 6, 2013
AMMANDA SEELYE SALZMAN/ KATE SEELYE
Coloring the Past
American artists Ammanda Seelye Salzman and Kate Seelye grew up in the Middle East steeped in a family history defined by five generations of engagement with the Arab world.
Ancestors Frederic and Sarah Williams set sail from New York for Mount Lebanon in 1848 as part of a growing American mission movement to spread “Yankee” values. Subsequent generations returned to the region as academics, diplomats and journalists.
In the installation Coloring the Past, the artists use mixed media collages, super-8 film, and archival material to examine their family’s long history in the Arab world, highlighting the evolving relationship between Americans and Arabs, the implications of cross-cultural encounters, and the complex nature of East-West relations.
The mixed media collages explore the role that religion and later education played in defining the nature of the early American encounters in the Middle East. By the second half of the 19th century, missionary work was abandoned to pursue the establishment of schools and hospitals. The founding of the Syrian Protestant College in 1866 by American missionaries, which later became the American University of Beirut, marked a unique Arab-American collaboration, which continues to this day.
Later generations of the artists’ family turned to diplomacy as a key tool in building the Arab-American relationship, while the fifth generation - disenchanted by the failures of American foreign policy - pursued journalism in an effort to interpret the Arab world for Americans.
Coloring the Past tells a tell a very intimate story about one family’s enduring connection to the Middle East, underscoring the power and impact of exchanges between people from different cultures. In the process, the installation also raises questions about which histories are told and which are lost as it seeks to recall a largely forgotten period in the Arab-American relationship.