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Voices from Other Worlds: Twelve Gates Arts Brings the East to Philadelphia


On a corner of N 2nd Street stands an unassuming storefront. The awning shades a set of large windows -- depending on the time there may be something strange and beautiful hanging there. This image occupies a small space beside a variety of others in a busy section of Old City Philadelphia. Yet that space represents a rather ambitious aspiration.

"This may sound lofty and dreamy but Twelve Gates Arts came about for the purpose of changing the world, through the power of art," say the founders of the gallery that has brought the expressions of eastern cultures to our home town. "That change will come about through the exchange of ideas between different cultures that mistrust and misunderstand one another."


Building the Gallery

Twelve Gates Arts was established in 2011, and is a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing Philadelphia to the art of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the work of artists from those regions in diaspora.

As the organization explains, "The 'gates' refer to the fortified gates that walled many ancient cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Jerusalem, and Rhodes -- inside which lay the heart of each city's art and culture, and today this reference offers perspectives on history and possibilities."

In addition to monthly exhibitions of visual art, the organization also holds "regular Salon events" displaying film, multimedia, literature and performance works.

Twelve Gates's directors say their goal is to "create and promote projects in the community that cross geographic and cultural boundaries."

twelve gates 2This was not always such an easy task, but the group has never let any encumbrances slow them down. "There are always doubters," says Atif Sheikh, a Twelve Gates organizer. "We... often talk about the future of the organization but that conversation never ends at anyone thinking that this will not work out or that our mission does not matter. We come out with plans that help sustain the org and continue our work."


Staying Strong and Looking Forward

Keeping the wheels of the organization turning is a full-time, multifaceted job. "We write grants continuously," says Sheikh. "We have a major fundraiser/gala held every year. There is a members' circle that pays an unfixed annual contribution and that circle is growing. We're trying to get more people, especially Philly-based young professionals involved in our mission and become members."

Another_Day_Lost03-1200x797Those who become involved have much to look forward to. The gallery has just hosted Issam Kourbaj's "Another Day Lost... And Counting", an internationally exhibited series of installations which powerfully lay bare the conditions in refugee camps using waste materials. The exhibition received critical acclaim throughout the city's art circuit.

This Friday, Twelve Gates will host "Interpret Print," a display of submissions by local up-and-coming artists. The show will feature work by artists of all backgrounds, and will have prints available for purchase.

This summer holds many exciting events for the organization as well. On June 10 to 11, Twelve Gates's Second Annual Experimental Video Art Exhibition will be held at the Pearl Street viaduct tunnel, in collaboration with Asian Arts Initiative.

May 19 will also bring "Lived Experiences," an exhibition of three artists curated by Twelve Gates's Atif Sheikh.

To learn more about Twelve Gates Arts and to get involved, visit the organization webpage.

By Bessam Idani

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