Credit Monica Jorge for The New York Times
Faisal Saleh is proud of his Palestinian heritage; his bohemian side, however, has until recently been hidden.
Born in the West Bank city of El Bireh, Mr. Saleh came to America as a high-school senior in 1969, studied at Oberlin College, earned his M.B.A. from the University of Connecticut, and eventually helped establish a small benefits and human-resources firm based in Washington, D.C.
But since June of last year, Mr. Saleh has found himself mingling freely with international artists, angling to display their work in his new Palestine Museum US, a 4,000-square-foot gallery on the ground floor of the office building he owns on Litchfield Turnpike in Woodbridge, Conn. When its doors open on April 22, it will be the first museum dedicated to Palestinian art in North and South America, Mr. Saleh said.
“This is a big event for Palestinians,” he said. “We want to invite people to come and learn about Palestinian art and expression and are creating a space where it can be visible and conspicuous.”
Mr. Saleh is financing the museum himself, but he said he hopes to eventually attract enough financial backers to relocate the gallery from its suburban, turnpike setting to a major city. The museum will be open on Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
On display at the opening will be works of 20 artists, mostly from the West Bank and Gaza, who are either still living there or are working as expatriates.
The range of media includes paintings, textiles, installation pieces and photography. The unifying, and qualifying, theme of the artwork is that it is either by Palestinian artists or represents Palestinian life.
“This is a dream,” said the artist Manal Deeb, whose mixed-media works — incorporating photographs, oil paint and Arabic calligraphy — hang in the gallery. Her work was also exhibited at the United Nations Visitors Center in New York in 2012—2013. Born in Ramallah, Ms. Deeb moved to America as a teenager in 1986. Speaking by telephone from her studio in Fairfax, Va., she said the new Palestinian museum will provide her and other Palestinian artists with an outlet where there was none before.
“As Palestinians, we all have the same core search for identity, and this is a way for us to all come together and save that identity,” she said.
Mr. Saleh said that the museum’s agenda is neither political or religious, but few of the artists on display have avoided the historic and ongoing conflicts between Palestinians and the State of Israel. The impacts of war on women and children are a theme of Ms. Deeb’s art, as well as that of 47-year-old Rana Bishara, born in 1971 in the Upper Galilee village of Tarshiha where she still lives part time. Her paintings in the museum feature abstracts that explore memories of childhood growing up amid political demonstrations, contrasted with the beauty of the natural world. To this end, much of her work features actual pieces of cactus, a symbol of razed villages where nothing remains but the prickly vegetation.
“For me, cactus means to be patient,” said Ms. Bishara, speaking by telephone during a recent visit to Savannah, Ga., where she earned an M.F.A. at the Savannah College of Art in 2003. “One of my famous works has pieces of pickled cactus, packed tightly in a jar, which depicts Palestinians who are living in Israel under the pressure of laws that treat us like second-class citizens or worse,” Ms. Bishara said.
Yet for every statement of political resistance, there are images that simply evoke the human experience. In a vaguely Post-Impressionist interior by Ayed Arafah, a painter from the Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, a cat looks up mischievously from an unraveled roll of toilet paper. A series of boldly colored portraits by the gallery’s youngest painter, 18-year-old Malak Mattar, recall the stylistic primitivism of high Modernism. Ms. Mattar, a resident of Gaza, started painting therapeutically when she was 13, amid shelling during the 51-day military conflict with Israel in 2014. So despite the playfulness of her art, Ms. Mattar’s life story draws gallery visitors back to the turmoil she and other Palestinian artists can face, which in turn informs their art.
“Very often, when artists are under that kind of war pressure, they produce some of their best work,” said James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston. In 2003, the Texas gallery hosted “Made in Palestine,” probably the first museum exhibition of Palestinian art in the United States. The exhibit then toured nationally, and “was the most popular show we’ve ever had,” Mr. Harithas said.
Among the 23 artists in the Houston show, and one of its major organizers, was a Jerusalem native, Samia Halaby, whose work is also on display in the Woodbridge museum. Ms. Halaby now lives in New York and, at 81, is something of a doyenne of the Palestinian art world. In her 2001 book, “Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century,” she traced the roots of modern Palestinian art to American abstract expressionism and the social activism of the Mexican muralists of the early 20-century. The powerful, revolutionary works of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as Picasso and the Cubists — whose blocky abstractions echoed the geometric patterns of classical Islamic art — planted seeds of inspiration for Palestinian artists of the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Halaby said.
“It was a high period for Palestinian artists, and one of the very important things to them was that their own people understood what they were doing,” she said. “Today, there are Palestinian artists who are now concerned with explaining the Palestinian issue to the outside world and a Western audience, which is why this new museum is so important.”
Both Ms. Halaby and Mr. Saleh are aware of how quickly that message can become controversial. When the “Made in Palestine” exhibit traveled to New York in 2005, two state legislators and at least one assemblyman raised objections to the show, suggesting that it endorsed terrorism.
So far, the museum has faced no blowback from the local community, Mr. Saleh said. In fact, he enjoys good relations with one of his nonprofit neighbors, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. When the organization’s Jewish Community Center needed a temporary home last year after a fire, Mr. Saleh rented the Center space in his Woodbridge building, across the hall from the new museum.
In an email, the organization expressed appreciation for Mr. Saleh’s support of the community center, and the Jewish Federation’s chief executive, Judy Alperin, affirmed that she hoped there would be opportunities for bridge-building and dialogue once the museum opens.