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How the CIA Secretly Funded Arab Art to Fight Communism


The CIA has a well-known history of funding art for propaganda purposes during the Cold War, most famously in its support for US artists like Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. But as Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi writes in Newsweek, there is a less famous chapter in the CIA’s art-as-propaganda strategy: its funding of the organization American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), which in the 1950s and '60s brought major exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African art to the US. Unlike the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which targeted foreign populations with its pro-US propaganda, the AFME targeted American’s themselves, using art as a tool to build “stronger cultural bonds” between the US and the Middle East, writes Al Qassemi. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.

In his 2013 book America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, Hugh Wilford documents the extent of the relationship between the spy agency and a “pro-Arabist” organization known as the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME).

One of the 24 Americans that founded the AFME in 1951 was Kermit Roosevelt Jr., a career intelligence officer who played a leading role in the CIA-backed coup to remove the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.

Unlike the Congress for Cultural Freedom, however, the AFME’s goals were primarily internal, seeking to “get the truth about the Middle East before the American public," according to its first annual report. Wilford’s book notes that Roosevelt channeled the CIA funding to the AFME to “foster American appreciation for Arab society and culture, and to counteract the pro-Israel influence of US Zionists on American foreign policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The financing allowed the AFME to conduct numerous non-oil and trade activities including funding student exchanges, lectures, promoting diplomatic ties and holding cultural activities. The AFME soon established a Department of Intercultural Relations that oversaw the funding of art exhibitions and visits by Arab artists to the U.S…

In 1954, the AFME funded a major touring exhibition, lecture series and media appearances by Jewad Selim, one of Iraq’s most celebrated artists, which saw 21 paintings and drawings and seven sculptures flown in from Baghdad and displayed in the L. D. M. Sweat Museum in Portland, Maine, the de Braux Gallery in Philadelphia, the Bellefield Avenue Gallery in Pittsburgh and the headquarters of the Mid-western office in Chicago.

The tour finished with an exhibition at the AFME’s newly leased headquarters, which was known as Middle East House in New York City (the AFME eventually relocated to Washington D.C. in 1958). Selim sold a number of works in the U.S. and gave a painting titled “Woman with Watermelon to Middle East House” that was then hung in their offices.

Image: A man walks past Baghdadiat by Jewad Selim at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha December 14, 2010. Selim was one of a number of Arab artists promoted in the US by the AFME. Via Newsweek.


The ending of the paper points out a clear point: centrifuge of American art/policy/worlding is now not only holds a past that was funded by CIA but the Gulf countries and the Arab World that feeds it towards even more successful residing of what American policy wants. American policy against communism. Yet what remains untouched by the author is ‘how’ this really happened. One can’t only look at this from financial point of view and try to make sense of that for the art world. Greater picture that is in charge here is the fact that the policy in question has successfuly ended the notion of ‘community’ possibilities of ‘communal’ art world and has celebrated the individual of the artists without ever mentioning or representing the collective attempts of artists who have held certain politics of ‘communist’ kind in action. One needs to ask as well how can this be addressed to the Arab world, Arab celebrities of the visual art and their patrons and the rest of the middle-eastern counterparts.