Meeting Shafik Gabr is a memorable experience. A vastly successful businessman with global and varied interests, a publisher, an art collector and a philanthropist, he is also a man of consummate charm, wit and a quick repartee.
Gabr has built one of the most important collections in the world of Orientalist art which he is currently deploying as a launch pad for a new cultural exchange initiative, The Art of Dialogue: East/West Initiative.
If you take the view we take, namely that the Art of Conversation has eroded through the decades, with the advent of mass market entertainment and virtual communication devices, you would see your faith restored to a large degree should you cross Gabr’s path.
Not only is he passionate about dialogue and cultural exchange, he is arguably one of its most accomplished global diplomats – by way of personal example, sheer force of personality and no little charisma.
The Art Collector had the pleasure of his company for an extended conversation.
Do you have any plans for your art collection?
The collection is in a trust and I keep adding to it. I’d like to keep introducing people to Orientalist paintings. What we should celebrate about the Orientalists is that they didn’t come to my part of the world to colonize or find oil or conquer – they came to paint and I think that’s the beauty of it. One day I wish I could show that every painting has not only a visual message but also an articulated message. You could almost see the different aspects of the Middle-East in these paintings.
The collection has gone on to New York and Washington from London and was very, very well received. Travelling with it is nerve-wracking, however, as I keep worrying about the works getting accidentally damaged – until this last trip to the Metropolitan when we used a professional shipper, I used to travel personally with the paintings.
Do you not think that the art of dialogue is dying, that such are the times we live in?
We are human beings, not machines. Do you know what is amazing? Since I launched the East/West Initiative in London on the 15th of November I have received a huge number of emails from people that I have never met in my life – reasonable people that are speaking out in favour of face to face dialogue. To me this is amazing because what I am saying is so basic.
The art of dialogue cannot be allowed to die. I am quite a stubborn, persistent and persevering person and have tried many other things at bridge building – when they failed, I thought, there has to be an alternative. I was inspired by my art collection of some 20 years. I thought, today we have Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry, iPad, iPhone, satellite… you name it, and we communicate 24/7 but often the communication is flawed. One of the reasons I was successful in business is that I always need to know the people I am working with – I need to know about their families, their life, I need to know what they like or dislike. I would fly for a meeting to get
to know the person I am dealing with for a day, rather than just do the business on the phone.
I am inspired by the Orientalist traveler painters. At a time of no television, no satellite, no phones, no photography, there were these American and European artists who resolved to go to the Middle-East, on a trip that would have taken them 6-8 weeks to accomplish. They were carrying their canvases, paint and brushes; they didn’t speak the language; they didn’t know the culture; they didn’t understand the traditions and customs, yet they went. I can’t imagine them landing and starting to paint the very next day. They would have first had to get to know the local people and have acceptance from the society, which would have enabled them to work there. Then they would have needed to understand a little bit about the culture and the traditions.
At a time of very limited communication and often erroneous perception, this would have been a feat to accomplish and to me, that is truly inspiring. We need to communicate by understanding, by sight, and by the touch, not just electronically. You may have read the story of a family being stranded with no electricity during hurricane Sandy for five days. The man went on television and said, ‘In those five days I got to know my wife and family much better because we had to sit and talk’.
By Vassilissa Conway