How Franci Neely's Middle East Travels Have Shaped Her Appreciation for Islamic Culture and Art
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How Franci Neely's Middle East Travels Have Shaped Her Appreciation for Islamic Culture and Art
Franci Neely at a caravanserai in Koya, Kurdish Iraq, on April 10, 2021. [photo courtesy of Franci Neely]

Franci Neely’s lifelong passion for travel has not only been spiritually and emotionally rewarding, but the Houston-based philanthropist has also found the journey to be culturally nourishing. Neely has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and it’s been an experience she’s passionate about sharing with others. Neely has been deeply involved with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Art of the Islamic Worlds Gala for the past 16 years, co-chairing the subcommittee for the event.

Neely is now gearing up for the March 5 opening of the New Galleries for Art of Islamic Worlds and the New Beginnings Spring Festival. The free festival welcomes patrons of all ages to partake in the ancient traditions of the Middle East and Asia that have been celebrated during spring for more than 3,000 years. Set designer Afsaneh Aayani is designing turquoise and blue archways inspired by Islamic art for the event, and Riyaaz Qawwali will be performing devotional music from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Islamic Art and Culture To Be Honored by MFAH

Persian and lute music, traditional dancing, Islamic poetry readings, and a traditional Islamic call to prayer are part of the lineup. Arabic calligraphy, mehndi — painted body art created with henna — and a workshop with Middle East fashion design will also be part of the festivities. Eventgoers will also have an opportunity to snack on Middle Eastern and Indian fare like succulent kebabs from Miri’s Kitchen and the sugary goodness of honey-soaked and walnut-stuffed baklava.

The multicultural extravaganza will evoke fond memories for Franci Neely.

“In traveling to Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, the Emirates, and beyond, I have experienced the rich tapestry of the desert and sea, and the warm and welcoming embrace of the people who live there, who share their stories with me, and whose lives, enriched by their art and culture, enrich and expand my worldview and understanding,” she muses.

Gala for a Good Cause

In January, Neely was part of Art of the Islamic Worlds Gala, which raised more than $616,000 for the museum and showcased three new works for its permanent collection. The black-tie event was a kickoff celebration to the March 5 opening of the 6,000-square-foot space that will feature 1,000 pieces of Persian art on long-term loan. It’s the result of the generosity of Kuwaiti collector Hossein Afshar. MFAH has publicly expressed its gratitude for Afshar and hopes its partnership will help Islamic cultural appreciation blossom throughout Houston, which is currently home to more than 200 mosques and around 100,000 Muslims.

Nurturing the appreciation of Islamic art in the Houston community has long been a passion for Franci Neely.

She says her travels to that corner of the world had a tremendous impact on her life and her conversations with the people there have been priceless. She adds that absorbing their rich art and culture expanded her worldview exponentially. She says she hopes to bring some of that enrichment to the people of Houston through the Art of the Islamic Worlds exhibit, which will be housed in a space double the size of where it was previously located and include hundreds of objects — from paintings and manuscripts to ceramics, carpets, and metalwork — on display from Morocco, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other nations.

Neely traveled to Iraq in 2021 and spent time meeting some of the locals and touring ruins such as a caravanserai — an ancient roadside inn — in the town of Koya in the Kurdish region of Iraq and visiting the 1,600-year-old St. Matthew’s Monastery in Mount Alfaf, also in Kurdish Iraq.

Forever curious about other cultures, Franci Neely hopes MFAH’s expanded space will inspire others to take a deeper dive into Islamic culture and art. It’s a mission that’s been in the works for more than 15 years.

Franci Neely’s Adventures Have Opened Her Heart and Mind to Beauty of Islam

“Diverse cultures have opened my eyes and therefore my heart to the majesty of the world,” Franci Neely says. “I want to encourage others to explore and experience.”

MFAH released an official statement stating the newly designed space
has become a reality thanks to the donations at the biennial Art of the Islamic Worlds Gala and support from Friends of the Art of the Islamic Worlds patron group chaired by Franci Neely and Sima Ladjevardian.

When MFAH initially began collecting and exhibiting Islamic art in 2007, the museum had to start from scratch.

Persian, Incense Burner, 12th century, bronze, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. [photo courtesy of]

A 12th-century bronze incense burner from Iran, a 14th-century Quran from Morocco, and a 16th-century tondino (small plate with a shallow bowl in its center) made in Iznik, Turkey, are now some of the prized pieces in the collection.

Turkish tondino from the first half of the 16th century. [photo courtesy of]

“Rudaba’s Parents Converse About Her Love for Zal” is another work MFAH is eager to have patrons peruse. The opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper is a mesmerizing piece from the Hossein Afshar Collection.

“Rudaba’s Parents Converse About Her Love for Zal.” [photo courtesy of]

“The new galleries are a culmination of the strong partnership between the Museum, our dynamic Houston communities, and two extremely significant collections of Islamic art,” Aimée Froom, curator of Art of the Islamic Worlds at the MFAH, said in a press statement.

“We are proud to be one of the largest permanent displays in the United States for art of the Islamic worlds. The galleries are as diverse as Houston itself, and our goal is to continue to expand our presentation of the rich multiplicity of cultures and traditions as reflected in the extraordinary art from Islamic lands.”

The al-Sabah Collection, which was established by the museum’s 2012 agreement of cooperation with the late Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, will remain on display. There are also plans in place for the installation of a fountain and landscaping inspired by Islamic gardens.

The new gallery space will also include a magnificent carpet from Iran called the “King Umberto II Polonaise Carpet,” an early 17th-century creation crafted from silk pile, silver-gilt, and foil-wrapped silk thread on a foundation of cotton and silk, featured as part of the Hossein Afshar Collection.

Another standout is the “Huqqa Base With Landscape” from India. The mid-17th-century, zinc-alloy piece inlaid with silver and brass is a rare piece of metalwork depicting architecture.

MFAH has also included a multitude of Islamic cultural programming over the years, including virtual lectures on Islamic art and Islamic cultural experiences for families and exhibitions on the history and archaeology of Saudi Arabia, the ancient Arabian peninsula, and Persian treasures.

“We have watched the Houston collection grow from almost nothing to thousands of objects in all different mediums, representing the rich tapestry of the Islamic world,” Franci Neely concludes.

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