Shulamit Nazarian: A “Keeper of Culture” Who Pushes Our Buttons
I’d been wondering for a while about the Shulamit Gallery. What was behind this place that focused on Israeli and Iranian art but had opened up its space to events that allowed for dialogue on political and social topics? Last Monday I attended an event in the beautiful gallery organized by New Israel Fund in which their Law Fellows, a Palestinian Israeli and a Jewish Israeli, both women, spoke about their work in Israeli human rights law.
Art, politics, presentation—all of this on Venice Blvd? What is the gallery’s role in the maze of the LA Jewish community?
On June 2, 2013 I met Shula at NCJW/LA’s Annual Meeting, which she attended as our Keynote Speaker, and I finally got some answers. Shulamit Nazarian, the Founder and Director of the gallery is behind the mystery that makes the Shulamit Gallery so intriguing and unique (not to mention her fabulous Co-Director Anne Hromadka who is a true expert on Jewish art and deserves a shout out). Born and raised in Iran, Shula and her family moved to Israel in 1978 when the revolution started. Because it was difficult for her father’s company to conduct business in Iran from Israel the family decided to leave Israel for the United States after 9 months there.
Arriving to Los Angeles in 1979 was no easy feat for the family as there was a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment among American Jews, who, as Shula explained to me, “misunderstood who we are as Iranian Jews and what was happening in Iranian politics at the time.” Despite the challenges they faced upon their move, Shula’s father always told her that the best thing that ever happened to them was the rise of Khomeini because they were able to come to the United States and have the kind of freedom they were never able to have in Iran.
During her keynote talk, Shula mentioned her indebtedness to her parents for raising her with the concept of Tikkun Olam and for teaching her of her responsibility to give back and help others. In every way they felt they could make a difference, Shula’s parents and family have supported art, music, educational, and other nonprofits in both the U.S. and in Israel through their family foundation. Shula’s pride in her family’s philanthropy is almost tangible when she speaks about her parents and about it, but her passion for her heritage stands out most when she speaks.
“Our history goes back to Queen Esther in Iran and Iranian Jews are the keepers of Iranian culture because even Islam and other religions came to the Persian Empire after we were already there,” Shula explained to me. This deep connection to the history of her community in Iran and their role as keepers of the culture played a role in leading Shula to be “a keeper of culture” herself.
Much of the art shown at the Shulamit Gallery makes a subtle political statement. “Artists have no boundaries so they can use the language of art in ways that are more ambiguous and open to interpretation,” says Shula. “I know for a fact that Iranian artists can get away with expressing themselves in ways that are important to them. It transcends beyond the boundaries of their country. So their art becomes their language for advocacy and expression and it becomes a lot less in your face. It allows the viewer to interpret it or understand it on their own. I think it’s important that they express those challenges that they experience as a community, as women, as people with political limitations.”
For Shula, showing coexistence and collaborations through art that already takes place in Israeli society is important: “people outside Israel don’t hear about it and are not aware of it and it’s so important that American Jews who have a huge fallacy about what’s going on in Israel see it because these are the strengths of Israel. “ Through exposing the art of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Israelis, Shula hopes to show the diversity within Israel and to help American Jews more deeply understand the Middle East.
Beyond art, politics, and the Middle East, starting the gallery was a significant milestone in Shula’s personal life as well. Around 7 years ago, Shula purchased a home designed by renowned mid-century architect A. Quincy Jones. Shula herself is an architect and, at the time, had recently divorced and found herself searching for meaning in her personal life. In expressing how she felt at the times, Shula said: “I felt that one of the ways was to support women and people in my community through something, but I wasn’t sure what that was.” As things happen when you least expect them, Shula fell into showing art in her new home. A few of her Vietnamese friends asked if they could show their art in her home and she agreed to do it, discovering a new passion for showing art. Shula was already involved with the USC Hillel Art Committee and soon ended up showing an exhibit of Iranian Jewish art at USC Hillel. She then transported the exhibit to her home to exhibit there. With her newfound passion for showing art, Shula felt that her home was not the ideal space for public art viewings. Thus, eight months ago, Shulamit Gallery was born.
For Shula, starting the gallery was part of her personal transition after her divorce. When I asked Shula what her advice would be to other women going through similar transitions in their lives, here’s what she said: “I think that transitional times are difficult and you feel like you’re in the air, you don’t feel the ground under your feet. But at the same time it’s the ambiguous times in your life that are a huge opportunity to start really going back inside and going back into your own essence. It’s actually a beautiful moment in your life. As difficult as it is, you have to trust yourself to know that we all have a role. Within time you will see the changes and you will see people coming into your life that allow you to push towards achieving your goals.”