Mid-America Arts Alliance Takes Bedouin Art on the Road

In April, Mid-America Arts Alliance offered a rare treat at its exhibition space at 2018 Baltimore, presenting a preview of the travelling exhibit, “Traditional Arts of the Bedouin.” Drawn from the Nance Middle Eastern Collection at the University Museum, University of Central Missouri, the show will stop at up to 14 venues through May 2019 through M-AAA’s ExhibitsUSA touring program. The Kansas City display coincided with preparations to send the exhibition to its first official venue at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where it will remain through Aug. 11.

The Nance Middle Eastern Collection was started by Paul and Colleen Nance when Nance was an executive with the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, the nationalized petroleum and gas company of Saudi Arabia also known as Aramco. Nance worked for Aramco for almost 40 years, living and working in Saudi Arabia when the country was transitioning from a rural lifestyle to an urban, petroleum-based economy.

The Nances were interested in traditional Bedouin culture and collected art and artifacts that had been given to them; they also made purchases. When Nance retired in 1983, he and his wife received permission to bring their collection to the U.S. The couple returned to Missouri and eventually gave the entire collection to UCM in 1999. According to University Museum Curator Amber Clifford-Napoleone, the Nance Collection is the largest collection of Saudi Arabian material in the U.S.

And it’s a stellar one.

Clifford-Napoleone states that traditional Bedouin art and artifacts would not necessarily be considered “high art” by Bedouin people. Rather, it may be more accurate to think of these objects as very functional items used regularly by their original owners. She identifies a number of key pieces in the collection.

The largest work — not traveling in the ExhibitsUSA show due its size — is a complete and authentic Bedouin tent, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Made of wool, the tent measures 90 feet by 50 feet and weighs just less than one ton. Due to its unique status in the U.S., Clifford-Napoleone has the distinction of being the first person in the nation to erect such a tent indoors.

The quality of Bedouin metalworking stands out in a number of jewelry pieces in the show, such as a carefully hammered silver and brass ankle bracelet, silver and carnelian bracelets, and a crenellated pendant with silver, glass beads and silver beads.

Eye-catching coffee accessories abound, such as a highly decorated incense burner with wood, sheet metal, mirrors, paint and metal studs that is used to perfume the tent prior to the coffee ceremony. This ornamented work contrasts with a brass coffee cup container elegant in its clean lines and straightforward form. A bold coffee-bean bag made of leather, silver and fabric adds a note of color to the genre.

Leatherwork and textiles impress as well. Vests for a man and a boy feature swirling tooled markings and silk embroidery. A woman’s mask exemplifies the value that Bedouins place on conserving and re-using materials, as the ornamentation on the mask includes old coins.

Fortunately, UCM seems to recognize the unique value of this asset. UCM still adds to the collection actively, often through connections with Aramco, just as the collection started. In addition, according to Clifford-Napoleone, the collection has had an influence on the school’s academic programming. The university attracts significant numbers of Saudi students, and every fall semester features a number of campus events related to the collection, including a “Saudi Arabia Day,” which will be held this year on Oct. 18.

James Martin

James Martin is Public Art Administrator for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to working for KCMO, he wrote freelance for “KC Studio” and served as public art consultant for the cities of Gladstone, Missouri; Leawood, Merriam, and Olathe, Kansas, and for Overland Park Regional Medical Center. He has held curatorial positions with Truman Medical Centers, Sprint and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and taught art history at UMKC, JCCC, Park University and Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. He holds a B.A. in art history from the University of Kansas and an M.A in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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