Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America

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Updated 18 November 2015
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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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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”