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Culturunners: Art for peace

Building a better understanding between the peoples of the Middle East and US is at the heart of a series of initiatives being spearheaded by the leading art and cultural organizations Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.
Next month will see the launch in the US of a major community centered art program called ‘Culturunners’. Pioneering artists, scholars and community groups will pool their talents to cultivate new perspectives on cultural collaboration. The aim is to connect people through creativity and beyond identities defined by culture, religion, nation, citizenship, economic status, profession, gender or age.
Stephen Stapleton, co-founder of Edge of Arabia, explained: “We’re trying to do something which is a cross between a road trip, a technology experiment and an arts project.”
Given the many different types of communities across the huge country, he anticipates a wide range of reactions to the artists as they progress through different states.
“The US is like 100 different countries in one. New York is very different to Texas. We’re going to take each community as we find it,” he said.
He noted that there is an appetite in the US for more knowledge about the cultures of the Middle East. “There’s a new interest in the Middle East from the artistic side at the moment. After 9/11 there were a lot of feelings which is completely understandable, but it meant that people were afraid to talk.”
For Stapleton the networking undertaken by the artists is a critical part of the project.
“Everywhere we go we’re trying to build up networks. It’s not about just coming in and doing something; it’s a conversation and a collaborative effort. We’re finding that approach to be extremely important because the fears and challenges are very community based. For example, in New York there is that big elephant in the room which is that we’re coming from the Middle East and New York is very connected to Israel. People are very nervous about politics. While in Texas, you have a very strong Arab community because of the links with oil and the Gulf. Aramco has its base in Houston.”
Some of the artists in the program are visiting the US for the first time. They include the Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji and Foundland, an artist collective from Syria and South Africa who are the recipients of the first artist residency awarded by Edge of Arabia, in partnership with Art Jameel and the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP), with additional support from the Zedan Group. The residency program aims to support the artists’ practices and to immerse them in the cultural landscape of New York.
Taysir Batniji is an interdisciplinary visual artist who divides his time between France and Palestine. His practice incorporates drawing, painting, installation and performance, often closely related to his heritage. Since 2001 his work has focused primarily on photography and video.
Stapleton has found that when the artists talk about their personal journeys this is a good start point for discussion as for many Americans a journey from another land is at the heart of their family narratives.
“America itself is constructed through individual journeys that people made from all over the world,” he observed.
He added: “There is a lot of fear and irrational ill feeling toward the Middle East. You have to be very sensitive. There’s a lot of pain in the relationship; a lot of Americans have been involved through the military and feel it was a mistake.”
Culturunners will launch at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 21, the United Nation’s International Day of Peace. The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as a sanctuary available to people of every belief. It has a tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and welcomes over 60,000 visitors of every faith from all over the world each year. On the plaza, Barnett Newman’s majestic sculpture, Broken Obelisk, stands in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Supported by FotoFest International and the Arab American Cultural and Community Center of Houston (ACC), the event will start with an inter-generational, cross-cultural discussion on the role of artists’ journeys in generating positive social change. Participants will include Stephen Stapleton, as well as award-winning Houston-based photographers and founders of the FotoFest Biennial, Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, and artists Taysir Batniji (Palestine) and Sarah Abu Abdallah (Saudi Arabia). Rice University Professor Ussama Makdisi, renowned scholar of US-Middle Eastern cultural relations, will moderate the discussion. The panel discussion will be followed by ‘journey’ film screenings by Saudi Arabian artist and Edge of Arabia co-founder Ahmed Mater.
Over the next three years, Culturunners will travel across the US, communicating and archiving new forms of creative collaboration between American communities and the Middle East. The itinerary of this independent artistic collaboration led by US-based artists from MIT’s Art, Culture and Technology Program, Azra Aksamija and Peter Schmidt, and Edge of Arabia co-founder Stephen Stapleton will include Louisiana State University and communities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Massachusetts, with major events to be announced in October 2014.
Edge of Arabia is an independent non-profit arts and education initiative dedicated to connecting Middle Eastern artists with international audiences.
Art Jameel — Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiative’s (ALJCI) arts and culture initiative — aims to foster and promote a thriving arts scene within the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) region and to support the development of creative enterprises. In partnership with art organizations worldwide, Art Jameel develops cultural exchange programs to encourage networking and knowledge sharing.

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