American artist Ammanda Seelye Salzman and videographer Kate Seelye grew up in the Middle East steeped in a family history which began in the Arab world in the mid-1800s. Ancestors Frederic and Sarah Williams set sail for Mount Lebanon from Upstate New York 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. The artists see their family’s long history in the region through the lens of a complex, always evolving relationship between America and the Arab world.
In the installation, Coloring the Past, they have mined their 164-year old family history to explore the implications of cross-cultural encounters and the charged nature of East-West relations. The mixed media collages, based on old family photos, depict the first exchanges between Americans and Arabs, usually in the form of encounters between missionaries and local Christians. Those evolved as Americans set up educational institutions like the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1866, which advocated independent and critical thinking. There, Laurens Seelye, the artists' grandfather, taught philosophy in the 1920s and ‘30s and encouraged his students to rebel against French rule. 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 - turned to journalism in an effort to interpret the Arab world for Americans.
Coloring the Past culls from family photos and letters, super-8 family footage, and materials from the family archive, including exams given by the artists’ grandfather to his AUB classes, YMCA fliers distributed in the Arab world in the ‘30s, and newspaper articles reflecting the foreign policy crises that characterized the later Arab-American relationship. Through these materials Ammanda Seelye Salzman and Kate Seelye tell an intimate story about one family’s enduring connection to the Middle East and its impact on their own sense of identity and belonging.