Interview with Nisa Ari

The image above is a workspace Nisa set-up during her first summer of archival research in Jerusalem.

Nisa spoke to me from her family home in Colorado to recount her journey from art history major, to professional theater performer, to doctoral graduate and lecturer—a story of mutability that informed her scholarly work. Listen to our conversation here. For her dissertation, Nisa tackled the extremely logistically difficult and politically challenging project of writing about art in Palestine. She demonstrates how a group of arts institutions in the Middle East formed a mutually reinforcing network that helped advance the role of Palestinian art in the twentieth century. Working with galleries, local scholars, arts institutions, religious institutions, and private collectors, Nisa sought to highlight these connections. Her perseverance, tenacity, intelligence and charm; alongside a healthy appreciation of the power of collaboration; enabled Nisa’s notable and considerable scholarly achievement. 

Nisa Ari is Lecturer in Art History at the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, University of Houston. She studies late-19th and 20th century visual practices, with a focus on artwork from the Middle East. Her research explores the relationships between cultural politics and the development of art institutions, specifically in Palestine and Turkey. Her current book project, Cultural Mandates, Artistic Missions, and The Welfare of Palestine,” 1876–1948, explores how radical political transformations, from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the establishment of the State of Israel, changed the nature of artistic production in Palestine. Her research has been published in Third TextArab Studies Journal, and Thresholds, and she has recently curated exhibitions at the Qalandiya International Art Biennial (Jerusalem/Ramallah) and the Keller Gallery at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT.

Nisa Ari, 2020

Figures mentioned in our conversation

  • Caroline Jones, Professor of Art History, MIT
  • Wanda Corn, Professor Emerita of Art History, Stanford
  • Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, MIT
  • Noguchi Museum, New York; museum dedicated to the work of sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988)
  • Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts
  • Canter Arts Center, Stanford University
  • SALT, gallery and cultural center, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Ashkal Alwan, Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Beirut, Lebanon
  • Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
  • Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem, Israel; Jack Persekian, founder and director
  • Arindam Dutta, Associate Professor of Architecture History, MIT
Hand-colored glass slide of red anemones (poppies) produced by the American Colony Photo Department of Jerusalem, likely between 1910-1925. Part of the collection Special Collections of the Uppsala University Libraries in Sweden.