Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America

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Updated 18 November 2015

Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America

Two men are deep in conversation. They are discussing how natural resources once they are found and harvested by mankind bring a multitude of changes that fundamentally change lives, cultures and traditions. ‘So what?’ you might be thinking; there’s nothing so unusual about that exchange. But look closer; this meeting of minds and sharing of experience is between two men who in the normal course of events would never have the opportunity to meet. One is a Saudi artist and the other an elder of the Oglala Lakota Nation, a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, USA.
In South Dakota old tribal traditions have been trampled underfoot in the rush for gold and other valuable natural resources, while in Saudi Arabia oil has ushered in huge economic, cultural and lifestyle shifts.
This unusual encounter happened because a ground-breaking road trip, organized by Edge of Arabia in partnership with Art jameel, is bringing artists from the Middle East into the heartlands of America. The artists, who are crossing the vast territory of the US in a converted bus are called CULTURUNNERS; they have just completed the first year of a three year project that is breaking down barriers and opening up dialogue in a way that many seasoned politicians and diplomats would envy.
Arab News spoke to Stephen Stapleton, the program leader, as he prepared for the next stage of the epic journey which commences in January next year.
Stapleton, alongside Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, is a co-founder of Edge of Arabia, an internationally recognized platform for dialogue and exchange between the Middle East and western world. As a non-profit, independent, social enterprise, Edge of Arabia is committed to reaching new audiences and improving understanding through free exhibitions, publications and public programming.
Stapleton is feeling both elated and exhausted as he talks about the past twelve months on the road. The artists travel in a 34 ft. Gulf Stream RV (recreational vehicle). There is always a core team of driver, navigator, communications person (handling social media, twitter etc.) and up to five artists. To date fifty artists from across the Middle East, Europe and America have participated: each artist typically stays on the bus for up to three weeks working on specific projects. Each member of the team is also tasked with undertaking essential chores such as cooking and maintaining the vehicle.
Stapleton and an American artist called John Mireles (known as ‘The Captain’) have undertaken most of the driving; to date they have driven over 12,000 miles. “When we got to the West coast and saw the Pacific Ocean it was a huge realization that we had just traveled across America and seen and done more in America than most Americans do in their lifetimes,” Stapleton said.
The whole enterprise while highly creative has required military style planning and discipline to manage. During the trip the artists operate on two complementary but distinct levels. They take part in high profile art events at leading museums and institutions with their participation planned months and sometimes years ahead; they also have the freedom and flexibility to react to situations and people that they encounter en route. So, for example, while their attendance at The Armory Show, an international art fair held annually in New York, was carefully planned, the meetings with Lakota artists on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota came about purely by chance. The way the artists travel allows this kind of interaction and in fact the artists ended up staying in South Dakota for a week.
Stapleton said that such encounters are especially memorable because many of the people living on the Reservation would have little opportunity to engage with international artists — and particularly with artists from distant cultures.
As he observed: “You can never underestimate the importance of face to face contact, especially in our digital age. It’s essential to connect on an emotional level.”
Stapleton commented that one of the things that has struck the artists is how many of the small towns look like they are going through hard times. Big retail outlets seem to have swallowed up the little shops which once brought jobs and a sense of community to the high street but now stand boarded up — lending an air of desolation. That’s a story that many people around the world can relate to; witness, for example, the impact of the big, glossy shopping malls on Middle Eastern souks. But the big wealth gap that the artists have witnessed on their journey has been a bit of an eye opener to those who imagined that the US would show a more uniformly prosperous face across its vast expanses.
“A lot of the artists began to see things as being not American or Saudi, not Western or Eastern problems. but about the power that consumer capitalism is having on communities around the world; and this idea of common concerns is something that the artists want to talk about and deal with,” he said.
In some of the smaller country towns the artists encountered people who were not afraid to state their mistrust and even dislike of Arabs and Islamic culture, and who made no secret of their prejudice. But Stapleton noticed that once people sat down and talked to each other there was a definite shift in mood. Maybe, just the act of engaging and sharing views took some of the hard edges off ideas shaped in isolation and largely unchallenged.
Next year with the US presidential election bandwagon in full swing, the artists will have the chance to engage with the key issues dominating the debates. Issues surrounding immigration, border controls and vested business interests. A Palestinian artist will be stationed on the border with Mexico — bringing his personal perspective on what it means to be shut in or shut out.
Stapleton said that he is surprised at how the trip has caught the imagination of the communities through which they traveled: “We are building a network across hundreds of towns across America. They know about the project — and want to follow the story,” he remarked.
Saudi artist Faisal Samra commented: “CULTURUNNERS takes the production and creation of art away from the conventional, static environments such as galleries and museums and transports it to the sites of the masses. My journey with CULTURUNNERS was one of the most important experiences of my long professional life.”
The artists have attracted interest beyond the art world. “We did a talk at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC that drew people from the State Department, the Defense Department as well as political lobby groups. People in Washington are hungry for less mediated information about the Middle East and in particular Saudi Arabia,” said Stapleton.
Looking at the rich and varied elements of the three year program, Stapleton is aware of the importance of documenting the experience.
He is working hard to ensure that a strong visual legacy emerges that can be widely shared across cultures. This will be in the form of art, traveling exhibitions, documentary films and online archives. In 2016, the team will create immersive experiences using the latest 3D technology such as the soon to be launched Oculus Rift virtual reality system to help viewers see what the artists have seen, heard and experienced in remote places.
There are many more adventures to come in the next two years; many more miles to be traveled, experiences shared and bridges built. Here at the conclusion of year one it is safe to say that this imaginative road trip is already capturing hearts and minds.

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2018 Holiday Gift Guide: What to get for the ones you love this festive season

2018 Holiday Gift Guide
Updated 12 December 2018

2018 Holiday Gift Guide: What to get for the ones you love this festive season

DUBAI: Here are some gift ideas for this holiday season.

Long-distance love
Lovebox Spinning Heart Messenger ($100)
A 21st-century version of the classic love letter — perfect to let distant loved ones know you’re thinking of them. When you send a new message through the app, the heart on the recipient’s box revolves and your message is displayed on the screen inside.

Point-and-click. And print
HP Sprocket 2-in-1 Camera Printer ($160)
This smartphone-sized instant camera also lets you print your Instagram pics while you’re on the move. So now you can let disinterested strangers in the real world, too, know just how perfect the presentation of your smashed avocado toast was this morning.

For the watch lover
A Lange & Söhne Triple Split ($160,000)
This 100-piece limited-edition white-gold watch is one of the most complex ever created, with 567 components. The maker claims its “the first mechanical split-seconds chronograph in the world that allows multi-hour comparative time measurements,” and we’re not going to argue.

For the absent-minded
Tile Mate ($25)
Put Tile Mate on your key ring and save yourself from minor meltdowns. Can’t find your keys? Simply fire up the app and listen for the signature tune, or check the on-screen map. What if you lose your phone? Press the button and your phone will ring — even if it’s on silent. Lost your keys and your phone? Oh…

Take your tablet old-school
iPad TV stand ($30)
This cardboard faux-TV set from the Seventies is a great little placeholder for your iPad (or other tablet). For a really authentic nostalgia trip, set all your videos to 144p.

Family fun
Don’t Step In It board game ($20)
Put on a blindfold, spin the spinner, and take that many steps across the mat. And hope you don’t tread in the strategically placed poop. (The poop should be fake — we can’t stress that enough.) The weirdest thing about this weird game is that no one thought of it sooner. Seeing someone else tread in poop is always funny.

For the coffee freak
Espro Ultralight Press ($40)
This 16-oz French press (and vacuum-insulated “hydration bottle”) is perfect for the discriminating traveler for whom a sachet of Nescafe in their hotel room just won’t do.

For the coffee geek
R2-D2 Coffee Press ($25)
Everyone’s favorite service droid (yes, BB-8, *everyone’s*) now performing everyone’s favorite service — preparing coffee.

For the audiophile
Shinola Runwell Turntable ($2,500)
The ongoing vinyl revival means any music-loving hipster worthy of their goatee is once again buying LPs. This sleek belt-driven turntable has a built-in phono preamp.

The year’s best-selling book
‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ ($25)
Michael Wolff’s controversial exposé of what (he says) happened behind the scenes in the first nine month’s of Donald Trump’s presidency tops the bestseller list for 2018. Wolff’s ‘access-all-areas’ pass to the West Wing makes for fascinating reading, regardless of your political affiliations.

The year’s best-selling perfume
Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel ($100)
Apparently, it’s 2018’s most-popular smell-in-a-bottle, so you can’t really go wrong with this citrus-y “sexy, fresh Oriental fragrance.”

For the movie buff
100 Movies Scratch Off poster ($15)
You know those films people keep telling you that you must see? Here’s 100 of them on a single poster that you can scratch as you go to reveal the ones you’ve actually watched. Or the ones you feel like you have to pretend you’ve watched.

The shopaholic’s über-hamper
The Covent Garden Shopping Edit ($13,180)
This is only good if you’re planning a visit to London sometime soon, but for many GCC-dwellers, that’s a regular trip. This hamper features must-have gifts from Covent Garden’s most exclusive brands, including Danse Lenté, Penhaligon’s, Mulberry, The Shop at Bluebird, and more. It also includes a $6,400 voucher to spend on a watch at Bucherer.

For the escapist
Oculus Go Standalone VR Headset ($210)
Running away to another world is probably going to be high on everyone’s wish list for 2019. A trip to Mars is potentially lethal (not to mention Elon Musk could be your travel companion), so we recommend this all-in-one virtual-reality set for now.

Get some sleep
LectroFan White Noise Machine ($50)
Help mask those things that go bump (or screech, or whatever that adorable sound of young fellas revving their engines in the street outside is called) in the night with this ambient noise generator, complete with timer and volume control.

For the person who has everything
A castle in Italy ($18.25 million)
Nothing says ‘I love you’ like an 11th-century Florentine castle. Or any castle, really. This one comes with two swimming pools, two farmhouses, an olive grove, vineyard, and 37 hectares of woodland. And serious bragging rights.