Dalal Al-Nafisi, center, poses with US filmmakers Ruchi Mital (left) and Petter Ringbom before the lecture.— Photo by Joseph Shagra

In the world of art, many are admired for being self-taught. Some of them are unknown and unrecognized, yet they certainly leave a remarkable imprint on the world. One out of them was Nellie Mae Rowe, an African-American self-taught artist from Fayette, Georgia. People respect her for her simple yet expressive work. Relatively unknown during her lifetime, she is now recognized as one of the most important American folk artists.

When US filmmakers found out that Dalal Al-Nafisi, an art studio owner and an art school founder, teaches Rowe as part of her art curriculum, they decided to visit Kuwait. The two filmmakers – Petter Ringbom (Swedish) and Ruchi Mitall (American) – are here to film “This World is Not My Own”, a creative documentary on the life and influence of Rowe (1900-1982). Rowe’s work can be seen at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, among other venues.

Why in Kuwait?

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982)

Dalal is an alumna of the Rhode Island school of Design and the Design Institute of San Diego, California. At her school, she has featured several unknown but exemplary unique artists from all around the world. One of the artists is Rowe, whose work is not just displayed in the studio, but is being used as a part of the ‘Manifesto13’ art curriculum. Dalal said Rowe deserves the highest respect and recognition. Although her work was not widely known when she was alive, her legacy remains as a self-taught artist.

“My art school is located in Hawally. It is very essential and it is our goal to bring such unique art to the people,” Dalal said. “We want to use art in social awareness campaigns to connect with children, and perhaps help these kids become more aware of what’s going on in our society,” she added. Launched in 2014, Manifesto13 teaches several works of international artists. “Nellie Mae Rowe’s work is on level 3 of our art foundation program Manifesto13. One of the many reasons why I love Rowe’s work is because kids can connect to it easily and it emphasizes on the importance of self-expression,” she said.

Rowe’s art is all about self-expression – one very a distinct characteristic of her art is how she uses art as a tool, especially while sending out a message. She expresses every tiny detail and essence of personal issues through art. The work of Nellie Mae Rowe has been regarded as the easiest to understand by kids – children love her work; they can relate to it faster than adults. “Art is self-expression – people can explore regardless of education and background as she herself came from a poor family,” Dalal said.

The two filmmakers who were invited by Dalal conducted a lecture yesterday on documentary and filmmaking titled “Storytelling through Film, Globally and Locally: An American Artist Inspires” at GUST’s Global Studies Center. “We are producing a documentary on the life of Nellie Mae Rowe. Though she was a black woman from a poor background, she gained respect for her work in the early 1900s. She was a self-taught artist and her work has been exhibited in many countries around the world,” said Ringbom.

Ringbom pointed out that Rowe wasn’t very well-known, but her work has been labeled as the best example of self-empowerment. “At the art school in Hawally, we are going to film how her story is being relayed to art students at Manifesto13. We will also document the class and the process of teaching children through her work,” said Ringbom.
Dr Zennia Paganini said since the past two years as the US Embassy’s cultural attache, she has facilitated about three visits of several filmmakers to Kuwait, some of them channeled through various NGOs. “They are here for a documentary and lecture. This lecture is a part of the Public Affairs Section’s ongoing programming on the theme of filmmaking in support of the creative economy. We support local filmmakers. There are many young Kuwaiti filmmakers who are very keen to know more about the filmmaking industry, so we are here to support these young people interested in entrepreneurship through this form of the artistic genre,” Paganini noted.

Recent activities include visits by Kohl Glass and Tim Skousen, who conducted a workshop and lectures for filmmakers and university students in Oct 2016, and Bill Megalos, who held a workshop for local filmmakers at LOYAC in Nov 2016.

Ruchi Mital is a filmmaker, producer, and writer with a social justice background. In 2014, Ruchi produced a feature documentary, ‘We Could Be King,’ which won the Emmy for outstanding sports documentary, as well as the follow up short doc series, Hell Week [ESPN]. Her next production, Sky Ladder: The Art Of Cai Guo-Qiang, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. She is currently producing a documentary series for HBO about the women’s movement; and a feature-length hybrid documentary about the artist Nellie Mae Rowe: ‘This World Is Not My Own.’

Her experimental short films have screened at festivals from NYC to UK. Ruchi spent over a decade working in non-profit organizations and published a chapter in critical anthology, Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle. Ruchi is a graduate from New York University and holds a Masters in Media Studies from The New School.

Petter Ringbom’s debut feature documentary ‘The Russian Winter,’ premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. His follow up, ‘Shield and Spear,’ premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs in 2014, and won the silver price at UK’s Passion for Freedom Awards. His films were screened at IDFA, Sheffield Doc/Fest, BAM, the Hammer Museum, Film Society of Lincoln Center, the International Film Festivals of Moscow, Gothenburg, Durban, and Stockholm.

His art video collaboration with Karl Haendel, ‘Questions for My Father,’ was hailed as a “genuine sleeper” by the New York Times, and was selected for the Art Video program at Art Basel Miami. Ringbom has a BFA from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. He started his career as a designer and art director, and previously taught at Parsons School of Design and at New York University. He also served on the Board of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

By Ben Garcia