Talk about powerful credentials. Sabiha Al Khemir is the distinguished scholar of Islamic art in residence at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is also senior adviser for Islamic art at the Dallas Museum of Art, which on April 18 will convene the inaugural Keir Collection of Islamic Art Gallery.
Given her résumé and the exhibition she worked tirelessly to present, Al Khemir is one of the first people we asked about the impact of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, now and in the future.
“It just happened,” Al Khemir said. “So, we’re still processing the news.”
She said she feels a lingering sense of doubt and uncertainty, even fear, but Al Khemir believes strongly that Islamic art “has a role to play in our universal dialogue.”
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She hopes fervently that Trump’s order will not carry with it a lasting negative effect, which in her case would be “to make it harder for scholars and colleagues to come and share.”
It is “wonderful,” she said, that Dallas is hosting the Keir Collection, which holds the potential to lure “scholars from around the world. You want that flow and that dialogue to continue. I so hope that this doesn’t conflict with the cultural dialogue that we have worked so hard to build. This is an international thing, and in that way, it’s very much Dallas.
“Dallas is a powerful city, because it has made it possible for me to do what I am doing. Dallas is now attracting scholars from around the world, in relation to Islamic art, and I, for one, very much want that to continue.”
Al Khemir sighed and said, “I hope it doesn’t affect the show, which is opening April 18, so that’s very soon. I hope it doesn’t.”
Naturalized American citizen
Born in Tunisia, Al Khemir, 57, came to New York six years ago from London. She has staged other major shows, one being “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture,” which toured the U.S.
She has written a novel about Islamic art, titled The Blue Manuscript. She was founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, and was appointed to her position at the DMA in 2013.
Last summer, she proudly became an American citizen, one who revels in the beauty of the Declaration of Independence.
“I find it to be the most amazing document,” she said. “It is so incredible, so powerful, so beautiful.” It alone, she said, gives her the permission to embrace Islamic culture and American culture “and to feel totally comfortable in both cultures, which I love so much. It is a document that I return to again and again and which gives me such great faith in America.”
Al Khemir singled out the trustees of the DMA for praise, saying: “They have shown incredible leadership and commitment to presenting Islamic art to the public as part of the universal experience the museum offers. It complements other works of art.”
She also praised new DMA Director Agustín Arteaga, who recently came to Dallas from Mexico City, noting that he is “a citizen of the world who believes in the power of art to foster cross-cultural understanding and dialogue.”
Al Khemir’s comments are in keeping with a statement released Monday by the national Association of Art Museum Directors:
“AAMD member museums share art from across time and cultures, and convene artists, researchers, educators, students and visitors from countries around the globe. We will always welcome all people regardless of their religion or country of origin. We are deeply concerned that with the current executive order, artistic and scholarly collaborations could now be at jeopardy, just at the moment when cultural exchange and understanding are more important than ever.”