Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America
Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America
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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