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Baltimore’s Prodigal Daughter: Asma Naeem

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Chief curator Asma Naeem’s office at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) sits just across a tree-lined parking lot from her undergraduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. After traveling the world and earning multiple degrees in various East Coast cities, Naeem says it is “absolutely surreal” to have returned to the same geographical map dot where she began her collegiate studies. Naeem has lived in Baltimore for the majority of her life since immigrating from Pakistan as a girl, and says this city is part of her “emotional fabric.”

Her mother works at a medical clinic nearby, and, growing up, their family belonged to a Muslim congregation that met on Hopkins’ campus, so Naeem, a graduate of Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County, is a kind of prodigal daughter, returning to where she began. “Baltimore is part of my DNA,” she says, but her time away has given her a global perspective.

After graduating from Hopkins, Naeem earned her law degree at Temple University in Philadelphia and then went on to work in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for four years in the 1990s. Naeem wanted to be a public servant, so she pursued a career in law thinking she could move the needle of progress from within. However, after a few years of this work, looking at what she calls “the underbelly of humanity,” she realized that the system was too broken to be changed, and the emotional toll was too overwhelming. Every day working as a lawyer was “pushing against the moral fiber of my being.” Two decades removed from the stress and strain of her years in NYC, Naeem confirms, “I do not miss it at all.” She pauses, then repeats, “I don’t miss it at all.”

“Baltimore is part of my DNA,” Naeem says, but her time away has given her a global perspective.

Naeem considers her shift from law to art history, which had been an early passion, to be just that: a shift and not a U-turn. For her, the throughline between the occupations is public service. “I’ve moved from the criminal justice system into the art and culture sphere, but my role is to connect to the public, strengthening the understanding of our differences and how we relate to one another,” she says.

In 2000, Naeem returned to the DMV area to raise a family and took a job with the Office of Bar Counsel in Washington, DC. Beginning first with night classes, she decided to pursue a master’s in Art History at American University, and then a PhD in Art History at the University of Maryland. It took her nine years and change to complete her doctorate degree, in which time she was working, completing museum fellowships, and raising three young children, a son and twin daughters.

After concluding a fellowship at the National Gallery of Art in DC and a year lecturing as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and Catholic University, Naeem accepted a curator position in Prints, Drawings & Media Arts at the National Portrait Gallery, where she worked for four years before joining the BMA’s staff as the Chief Curator in 2018, a position later endowed as The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator. She believes she began working at the BMA at the perfect time, when the museum was reimagining many of its systems and forming a new strategic plan, to which she was able to contribute curatorial and research aspects.

Naeem and the BMA want to reaffirm the museum’s place as a scholarly hub, drawing on the talent of nearby universities and highlighting the collection’s many treasures. The appreciation of the museum’s collection was reinvigorated for her in the last eighteen months, when the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic reminded Naeem again of the opportunity her job provides “to just be with the objects and look at the depth of what Baltimore has given us and what we collect . . . the sense of connection and communion with an object where it’s just me and the object—that’s a pure joy as well.”

The joy of bearing witness to great art is one that Naeem wants to share with the public, and she has made a focus of her work considering the ways in which the collection can be shared with the community. She prioritizes the “breaking down of previous barriers that existed between various kinds of communities . . . through exhibitions” that showcase artists from underrepresented communities.

Alongside her colleagues, Naeem sees exhibitions like All Due Respect—which opened in November and showcase work by Baltimore-affiliated Joan Mitchell Foundation awardees Lauren Frances Adams, Mequitta Ahuja, Cindy Cheng, and LaToya Hobbs—as “lifting local artists and making sure that their works are being recognized, understood, and interpreted . . . We have to show that commitment through our acquisitions and exhibitions programming.”

 

Lifting local artists and making sure that their works are being recognized, understood, and interpreted . . . We have to show that commitment through our acquisitions and exhibitions programming.
Asma Naeem

Naeem acknowledges that museum exhibitions help establish living artists and get collectors more interested in acquiring works. This has proven especially meaningful to Baltimore-based artists like Jerrell Gibbs and Taha Heydari, who might sell work in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Europe, but have fewer opportunities for sales at home.

“As a failed artist, I can tell you, there is nothing like having that work being bought,” Naeem says. “There’s nothing that gives you more affirmation and that desire to continue.” She doesn’t draw anymore, even for fun, but explains that her creativity is “channeled into the ways in which I think about our collection, our programming, our staff, the new directions for the museum.”

Another coded way Naeem channels creativity is in her fashion choices. Although she laughs when asked about her clothing philosophy—and culture instructs that fashion is frivolous or anti-feminist to write of when we write about powerful women—Naeem frequently peppers her language with textile terminology and allegory and it’s clear this passion sits close to the surface of who she is.

A self-described minimalist when it comes to dressing, Naeem frequently wears monochromatic vibrant colors which reveal a keen appreciation of color and shape but explains she’s focused on quality and comfort, emulating a lesson from her mother that “simple is best.” She says that clothing choices are an “essential part of communicating and also telegraphing your values” and admits that her outfits do serve as a reflection of her to anyone who wants to study them.

In the three years that Naeem has worked at the BMA, the museum has been both celebrated and criticized for everything from the upcoming show curated by security guards to the deaccessioning of works from the collection to fund the purchase of new works. Naeem explains that discourse is essential and should be a part of everyday conversations in all communities.

“Culture permeates the fabric of our everyday life,” Naeem says. “It’s about how we relate to others, how we give dignity and respect to those around us and how we can make this world a better place.” Her clarity of purpose combined with lived experience makes Baltimore a richer place now that she has returned.

 

This story is from Issue 12: More is More,

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