Middle Eastern artists begin road trip across America – Edge of Arabia interview

Edge of Arabia launches a two-year programme promoting encounters of the artistic kind.

London-based collective Edge of Arabia kicked off the first leg of its US tour at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on 29 March 2014. Art Radar interviewed Edge of Arabia’s co-founder Stephen Stapleton to learn more about the organisation and why the exchange between American and Middle Eastern artists is especially relevant now. 

Edge of Arabia Founders Ahmed Mater, Stephen Stapleton and Abdulnasser Gharem in Abha, Saudi Arabia, 2003. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia.

Edge of Arabia Founders Ahmed Mater, Stephen Stapleton and Abdulnasser Gharem in Abha, Saudi Arabia, 2003. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia.

Edge of Arabia, an organisation founded in March 2003 by Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and Stephen Stapleton, was launched to foster education, networking opportunities and promotion of Middle Eastern contemporary artists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, within the region and abroad. To learn more about the impetus behind the collaborative organisation and its two year “cross-cultural tour” around the United States in partnership with Art JameelArt Radar spoke with co-founder Stephen Stapleton.

Some of our readers may recognise you as an artist. Tell us more about your own artwork.

I always wanted to be a travel artist. That was my dream. When I say travel artist, I mean that I really was excited about the viewpoint of an artist – against the backdrop of the increasing number of images, the increasing power of the media – to make everyone feel like they knew everything about different places. I was really motivated to tell stories from a different point of view, so I used to make collages. I still do.

I formulate my collages very much around storytelling and travel art: being in a different place, telling a story in a very subjective way. I would make collages, finding bits of found things and I’d do a lot of portraits of people. I would meet someone, I would go to their house, I would go through their stuff. I was really kind of intrusive! I wanted to find some kind of point of connection, I guess, for the people and places.

How and when did you first become interested in Saudi Arabia?

Before I went to the Middle East, I did a big trip across America on my bicycle in 1999. I cycled about 5000 miles on my own. That was like a big expedition for me. Then I did a big project in Ethiopia and went to the Middle East in 2002.

I had a personal interest in the geometric designs and in mosques. I used a lot of that in my collages. I like the idea that in this religion, God was a pattern or God was mathematics. This I found really interesting, given that I went to a very Christian school, where [religion] was very much to do with images of people and saints. Also, let’s face it, after 9/11 the whole world changed. A light was shone on this part of the world and this incredible negativity began to develop. Negative storytelling. I think the media and the images had a big role in helping to endorse that negativity and that polemic.

I felt, as a travel artist, that was where I should be. In the 1920s you should go to Paris, if you were in the 1950s, you would want to go to New York. In our time, I wanted to go to that region because it was a contested story.

 Abdullah al-Shehri, Captain America-Refugees, 2013, handprinted photo etching. Image courtesy of artist and Edge of Arabia.

Abdullah al-Shehri, ‘Captain America-Refugees’, 2013, handprinted photo etching. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

How did your expectations or stereotypes about Saudi culture and art mesh with the reality during your initial visits?

First of all, I travelled [around] the whole Middle East. My first impression was that it’s not one [entity]. It should be split up into its different elements, countries, communities and generations. It’s not a homogenous place. It’s a very different place from country to county and city to city, including Saudi Arabia.

My second thing was that there was a huge distortion of what we experienced, compared to what impression was being given off, especially by the news media at the time. We were in Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. What becomes really clear is that the lines of communication between places are very much controlled, including images and stories. You felt like, “Wow, how did everything get so distorted?” and “Who’s doing this!” and “Is it just the nature of how the media works?”

The motivation was because what we found was a diverse place, definitely one of the most friendly, hospitable and safe places. In fact, one of the safest places I’ve ever been to. I am talking about being in Iraq and Yemen. It’s very safe because communities are very strong and families are very strong.

I found the religion to be really interesting on the spiritual side. The idea of the last of the monotheistic faiths, uniting so many people. The practice of Islam was very interesting in the different places that we went to. The rigor with which people followed [religion] in Saudi Arabia was something new that I had never seen.

As an artist, what interested you about contemporary art in Saudi Arabia?

Firstly, I related to [artists] telling stories. They were trying to tell stories and in Saudi Arabia those stories were really interesting, because they hadn’t been heard before. Here’s these artists who are shedding light on a really, really dark area of understanding. They were exploring their own religion, their own situation, the enormous changes in their society through art. Through that, they were providing a story so that outsiders and even their own society could then understand more of the truths about what was actually happening in a part of the world that had become so influential.

I was really obsessed by this idea that right on the periphery of both the international understanding of culture and on the periphery of their own society, there was such a clear voice. Part of the motivation was because it was Saudi, because nothing had been written about it. There was no network at that time, the opportunity was open to do something interesting.

Nouf Alhimiary, 'What she wore', from the series of the same name, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Nouf Alhimiary, ‘What she wore’, from the series of the same title, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

What did you find surprising? How and why?

What surprised me was, once we got a few opportunities or they got a few opportunities, how quickly these artists developed without the infrastructure like art colleges, libraries, museums. It was really inspiring to me, that creativity thrives with just a sprinkling of people and networks. It didn’t need to be Paris or New York. That’s kind of a nice thing to think. Then you start to think that creativity is an instinct, it’s a human characteristic. It’s nature, not nurture.

This whole area, the whole written, oral and visual culture, it was wide open to being explored, in a contemporary sense. You have the whole Islamic art, you have the whole Koran and all the stories in the Koran, and these artists were exploring that sort of area and that hadn’t really been done that much before.

What was the impetus behind founding Edge of Arabia?

It was kind of organic, to be honest. It started as a friendship, a community. It took five years of going back to Saudi Arabia and developing something organically, without a plan to build something as big as it is now. It didn’t set out to be a business. It didn’t set out to be a movement. It just started out as a group of friends. It started out towards just one exhibition that we wanted to do in London.

I guess the impetus was to push ourselves and the idea as far as we could. The idea being that here was a blind spot, here was a group of people, including a British person, a Saudi person and a Yemeni person and how far we could push it.

Mohammad Sharaf, 'Lost Authority', 2012.  Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Mohammad Sharaf, ‘Lost Authority’, 2012. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Please give examples of how you and the co-founders have mentored the young group of artists who are part of the Edge of Arabia community.

With the exhibitions that we did, every time that we did an exhibition, we would push the artists to make new work, improve production. The exhibitions acted like degree shows, graduate shows, in some ways. If we hadn’t had those exhibitions, there would have been nothing for them to work towards. It was in that working towards [an exhibition] that the learning happened.

We also travelled a lot internationally before we went back to Saudi Arabia, so there was this interesting time when we were getting the endorsement of the West, without realising it. That had a powerful effect back home in Saudi Arabia, because there are all these issues around status, and what is accepted in the West is validated and then can go back. We also did a lot of educational work around our exhibitions. We did a lot of seminars, workshops. I am a trained secondary school teacher, so I tried to integrate that practice of talking about the work and putting discussions together. There’s a lot of artists who don’t have many people to whom they can talk about things, which I think is a bit of the case in the Gulf.

In terms of mentoring the young artists, there was a combination of educational aspects to what we were doing with workshops and things, but also this idea that we threw everybody into the deep end. You have an exhibition in a big venue in Berlin and everyone is jumping to do the best that they can. In that period of moving towards this exhibition, we would come in with all these contacts, ideas and books. It’s the idea of learning on the go.

Has the founding of Edge of Arabia helped both Saudi and international audiences learn more about Saudi contemporary art? How?

It has actually helped audiences learn about issues. It’s not about the art. The art is a vehicle for ideas. It has helped local and international audiences get a much broader, more realistic picture of what are the ideas, feelings and reality of life at the centre of the Islamic world. It’s such an important place to understand at this time.

Yes, they [audiences] have seen lots of art but it’s not about the art. It’s a vehicle for something else in Saudi Arabia, which is something different than what contemporary art can be about here in Europe. There’s a lot of art here that is just about contemporary art. It’s art about art or it’s about art about culture. This is a very much ‘art about’ society. Art about a moment in history. Art about a generation. That’s what I like about it. It feels urgent. It feels relevant. I was six years at art college. I went to many lectures and all the museums. I know what it is. I speak with confidence when I kind of slightly reject the prevailing wind of the contemporary art world, which is very much a circle, that goes round and round and I just question how relevant it is.

Huda Beydoun, 'Tagged and Documented #04' from the "Documenting The Undocumented" series, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Huda Beydoun, ‘Tagged and Documented #04′ from the “Documenting The Undocumented” series, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Talking about the shared generation of young artists from the Gulf and the West, have there been any examples of artistic collaboration between these groups? 

Yes. I think that I am almost the best example. I am a walking, living, breathing collaboration machine! My artwork doesn’t really exist anymore. It exists in a thousand encounters. I think that the collaborations are happening very much in an informal setting. We are doing exhibitions abroad and we are just kind of hanging out, talking, as opposed to a formal, “Andy Warhol collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat on this painting” type of thing. It’s more informal.

The more we go forward, the next chapter for us is to encourage this collaboration and actually dissolve the definitions of nation, class or gender, and it will just be about artists. This is more realistic to how the world is. Everybody is quite mixed up in our generation. People are from many different places, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and if you say someone is a Middle Eastern artist, why can’t he/she be a British born artist, living in the Emirates for the last ten years? We’ve done that before, and we’ve had quite a lot of criticism, but I am adamant that in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, where you have such a big Indian and Bengali population, you have to differentiate between what someone’s citizenship is, where they are born, where they have lived.

It was very useful for us to build the Saudi art scene but now it’s time to start to challenge that through encouraging more complicated definitions of what things are and what people are saying.

Why do you think it is important to bring these artists to the United States at this particular time in history?

Since 9/11, something very significant has happened in the Middle Eastern art world. There’s been an explosion of interest. Artists now have this soft power. They have this ability to tell stories and people really listen. The opportunity now is to harness that power. Artists are explorers. Artists are ready to drag stories across borders; that being a very powerful border to cross and very important border to understand and maybe [a way] to reveal the connections and a way from politics and media.

Also, it’s the next chapter. Edge of Arabia started right on the edge. It started with a collaboration between someone from the West and someone from the centre of the Islamic world. We were more successful than we ever imagined in terms of raising the status of the artists in that territory and now what’s the next chapter? Do you become part of the international art world and do all the biennales, or travel and do something really in the spirit of how we started?

Ajlan Gharem, 'mount of mercy #04', 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Ajlan Gharem, ‘Mount of mercy #04′, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Edge of Arabia.

Tell us more about the two-year Edge of Arabia tour in the United States. For example, where will the tour be travelling, what organisations will be participating and so on?

The tour is set up as kind of a road trip, based on the premise that here are two territories – the United States and the Middle East – that also have these two incredibly strong and, in some people’s opinions, polemic ideologies. They’ve emitted very powerful symbols, ideas and stories, but at the same time they are very closely linked. [You see this] especially in Saudi Arabia, through the interdependence on commodities. Saudi Arabia has really been developed as an American country, since it was American companies that first found oil and developed the country, so most of the young people in Saudi Arabia have been brought up very much with American culture and things influenced by America.

At the same time, religion plays a very interesting part in both cultures and plays a central role, and they both have rural populations that were very quickly urbanised. There are lots of things in common and different that make a very interesting story to tell, when you put artists from both territories together, because that’s what artists do. They start to revisit history. They start to explore differences and shared things in a way that I don’t think that any other group does. They do it in a way that can shed a light on new ideas and find unwritten histories. They can find common ground and wonderful things which aren’t being talked about, aren’t being written about in the mainstream storytelling.

The idea is to do a road trip in America that facilitates for artists and writers from the Middle East to come and encounter America on a grassroots level. It started in Houston, Texas. We wanted to start in Texas, because it’s a state with very strong connections to Saudi Arabia through the oil, but it’s also a state with an incredibly strong artistic community and artistic heritage, especially modern and contemporary art heritage through things like Marfa, where Donald Judd has his studio, the Menil Collection and all the museums in Houston.

There are many interesting things about Texas. It’s cowboy country. It’s conservative country. It’s a place where perhaps people presume you have the most conservative opinions. We are collaborating with everyone from small communities to big institutions. In Houston, we collaborated with FotoFest, which is a big photography biennial. We did a talk at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. We then have preparations to go to Boston and New York.

On the way, we’re going through Louisiana. As we’re passing through places, we’re going to have as many encounters as we can. We’re going to record those encounters and then we’re going to share those encounters, especially using social media and some networks that we have in Saudi Arabia, that are very powerful in spreading things – including some new YouTube groups that have hundreds of millions of hits on their channels.

Lisa Pollman 


Related Topics: interviews, Islamic Art, promoting art, touring exhibitions, West Asian, Saudi Arabia’s art scene

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