Mayar Kotb
Last updated: 31 January, 2013

Bringing Saudi art to the world

Q&A with Stephen Stapleton, founder of Edge of Arabia, an initiative committed to improving understanding of Saudi art through exhibitions, publications and educational programs.

How did Edge of Arabia come about?
The idea was developed after I met with a group of Saudi artists in 2003 in southern Saudi Arabia, following a conversation about how little international audiences knew about Saudi art. It was, actually, really about Saudi Arabia. Because it is such a crucial country – given the recent history of the Islamic world and the Western world and everything that has happened – we found the lack of cultural dialogue and exchanges incredible, as well as the very little exposure to artists and writers from Saudi in the West. We therefore decided to create a platform that would allow artists from the country to reach out to international audiences. It was an idea that was very rough and ready to start with.

What difficulties did you encounter when starting the project?
It was very difficult to meet artists in Saudi, because there was no ecosystem to go through. It wasn’t like you could go to a gallery, an art school or a museum. You had to go by word of mouth instead, and travel quite far to meet artists seeing how they all worked from home. Also, the country is very skeptical towards religious or political activities. There is no denying that the society itself is changing fast, but issues certainly remain with photography, showing the human figure, and anything critical of the government or Islam. So it was about being very sensitive to the context in which we were working in. There was also a lot of resistance from western institutions. No one really believed that there was anything interesting going on there. When we first pitched the exhibition to different institutions in Europe, the interest was quite low. I think there was initially a bit of prejudice against art from that part of the world.

Did you face any problems with the Saudi political or moral authority when you exhibited in Jeddah?
We had to get permission for each piece of art. It was challenging, it took a lot of time, but in the end we got the permissions we needed, so that side of things turned out positively.

Did you have a previous connection to the Middle East?
My connection to the Middle East came about when I traveled around there for a year as an artist. I also have family links to that part of the world through a kind of colonial and military experience. My grandfather was stationed in Yemen, where my father also grew up in the 1960s; so I’m part of this generation, I guess you can call it the “ex-colonial generation,” where we all have connections through the way the world was in the past. However, I certainly became far better acquainted with the region when I traveled there as an artist.

How do you select your artists?
Since each exhibition is different, the theme of it plays a crucial part. We do reach out to artists through our network, but it’s mostly our curators who identify and select the artists, like any other exhibition.

Is your focus the Middle East or do you primarily target an international audience?
I believe it has to be both in this day and age. I don’t think being only local or only international works anymore, and we want to champion the idea that artists and art organizations should be both. We’ve held international seminars, exhibitions and talks, but also want to continue with local projects similar to our exhibition in Jeddah. At the moment we are trying to earn the support of the Saudi community for what’s happening there.

What comparisons can you draw between the audiences of the different countries you have exhibited in?
In Istanbul, for example, the audience was mostly made up of young people. With Turkey being a Muslim country, the reaction towards the idea of contemporary Islamic art amongst its youth was essentially rejective. However, when they saw the work of the Saudi artists, they were indeed evidently inspired. In Jeddah, on the other hand, gaining an audience was a challenge to begin with. Given the scarcity of its art followers, the visitors consisted of a small network of people; yet the reaction thereto was an exciting one because it was something new, and it was talking to the viewers about their own society in a way they hadn’t seen before. In Europe we received the expected stereotypes with their preconceived ideas, but as the project developed, I believe audiences have become increasingly interested in what that part of the world has to offer. All in all, different audiences had visibly different reactions.

Tell us about your educational programs.
Setting up an exhibition is one thing, but getting its work into a school is when you really start to change things. There seems to be very little art education in the international world already, and even less in Saudi. For instance, there was never a section on Middle Eastern art when I attended school in the UK: you had one on African art, but it was very broad and rich with gaps, so having this as a focus is highly important. We’ve therefore held many workshops and have developed resources in local schools and universities in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK and Italy, and we hope that the work we’ve developed with teachers will make it to school curriculums. Edge of Arabia has brought forth an ambitious amount of work to schools, but we are now going to move our education programs into the Crossway Foundation charity for improved development.

Do you feel there is a lack of such initiatives in the region, in general?
I do believe there is a need for more grassroots initiatives. The government, ministries and some corporations are beginning to provide generous contributions. That is great; however, more encouragement for entrepreneurship remains necessary, which is all about individuals developing an idea. And that’s what we did. We are social entrepreneurs who saw a gap in the system and tried to fill it. We didn’t do it from a government or corporate point of view; we did it from the point of view of individuals who want to make a difference. I think there’s a great need for more entrepreneurship in the arts, and that’s really up to individuals.

How do you fund Edge of Arabia?
We fund it through a mixture of sponsorship, grants and some revenue streams. It’s like a business with charitable incentives; when it’s possible, we try and raise as much money through sponsorship, but look for doing consultancy all the same. We have a business producing prints of screen pictures, and the money thereof is added to the funding.

When and where will your upcoming exhibitions take place?
Our next show is in Venice at the Venice Biennale, which we’re already working on. We’re also going to hold a series of shows at our new space in London, and plan to exhibit in Saudi Arabia and the US, so we’re busy working on a lot of things for the future.

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