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A Nomad of the Art World

Stephen Stapleton's journey in the anatomy of Middle Eastern art

By: Ahmad K. Minkara


It is very hard to pin down Stephen Alexander Stapleton (SAS as he signs his emails) for he spends most of his time globetrotting between art events and the open road.

“I’m an artist traveller at heart. Although my life took a very different path when I established the Edge of Arabia project in 2003; I started out with a passion for creative journeys and a belief in the power of artist explorers, especially in the digital age of the mass media. I’m coming back to this spirit now.”

Stephen Stapleton drawing behind the Camel Race Track in Dubai, 2002. Courtesy to Stephen

Stephen Stapleton drawing behind the Camel Race Track in Dubai, 2002. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

Stapleton is currently immersed in Edge of Arabia’s US Tour in partnership with Art Jameel; a multi-year, multi-faceted initiative inviting artists to work, travel and collaborate across what he describes as “one of the most contested yet interconnected ideological and political borders of our time” – that of the wider Middle East and the United States.

He seems to have re-discovered his original nomadic spirit and his faith in “the power of traveling artists to open the public imagination and inspire greater empathy across international borders.” At the heart of all his projects is an openness to collaborate across cultures and disciplines and the US is no different.

During the initial phase of the project, Stephen joined forces with Iranian/American artist Ava Ansari, who became the tour’s associate curator and later Azra Aksamija, Associate Professor in the Program of Art, Culture, and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At MIT, they came up with CULTURUNNERS as a new model for cultural exchange across physical and psychological borders around the world; one that combined the localised rituals of an artist road trip with the far reaching power of communication and cultural technologies.

In September 2014, Edge of Arabia bought a 34ft 1996 Gulf Stream RV and launched CULTURUNNERS first expedition from The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, with a group of American and Middle Eastern artists in search of interconnected stories and common concerns between the Middle East and US.

CULTURUNNERS gathering of artists, scientists and curators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), September 2014. Courtesy to Stephen

CULTURUNNERS gathering of artists, scientists and curators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), September 2014. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

CULTURUNNERS is an ambitious project which has already supported over 50 artists and collaborated with, amongst others, Louisiana State University, The Armory Show, Middle East Institute, MIT

Next month, CULTURUNNERS will embark on the second phase of its road-trip, heading East to West over 5,000 miles across the US, from New York to San Diego, in the ‘re-imagined’ CULTURUNNERS RV.  From Palestine, Ohio to the Badlands of South Dakota, they will be sending regular artist-led ‘Dispatches’ from the road through social media and their interactive website.

Stapleton says, “I’m really excited about the CULTURUNNERS model which positions artists as alternative journalists, unearthing unofficial histories and challenging the dominant mainstream narrative … I feel like the culmination of my particular journey”

Nothing Gold can Stay, Drawing, Stephen Stapleton, 2002. Courtesy to Stephen

Nothing Gold can Stay, Drawing, Stephen Stapleton, 2002. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

Stapleton started his nomadic art journey between his studies at the several art schools he attended in England.  While studying ‘Critical Fine Art Practice’, one of the only courses in England that incorporated critical theory as an integral part of being an artist, Stephen was encouraged to focus as much on the theory of art as its practice.

Stapleton maintains that he later rejected the idea that art needed to be contextualized within any kind of theory. While studying during term and traveling in America and Africa during breaks, he discovered that so much of the art that inspired him existed as a kind of “pre-intellectual experience”, and that too much theory and over-explanation in art might be counter-productive.

In Stapleton’s experience, many art students on his course stopped creating art because they were intimidated and limited by the theory they were asked to attach to it. His reaction to that education became a key motivator in shaping the organisations he later founded. “Artists have different types of intelligence. Some are critically intelligent and some are visually intelligent. Some are analytical and some are more intuitive. Visually intelligent children are usually the ones who choose art at a young age. They don’t intellectualise what they are doing. It’s expressive. I felt this very strongly when I began teaching in London Secondary schools after I came back from my first journey to the Middle East.” Stapleton later founded The Crossway Foundation as a London based charity giving young artists the chance to experience the world through creative journeys and away from formal learning environments.

“I was drawn to those illustrations of the divine through an infinite variation of succinct geometrical patterns. It was liberating for me, having been educated at a very strict Christian school, to conceive of God as a pattern, as an invisible but rational force in the universe… a unified field in nature. To me, it was like Star Wars!” Stephen Stapleton.

The current wave of Saudi artists, which Stapleton helped promote and bring to international attention over the past decade, started out much more visual but developed more critical practice after exposure to the international scene.  “The contemporary art world seems more and more dominated by critical and curatorial contextualization.  Sometimes its very inspiring to follow this development, as is the case with Ahmed Mater’s multi-faceted Desert of Pharan project (recording the re-imagining and urban development in the city of Makkah), but its also painful to see so many young artists and cultural practitioners today trying to over-intellectualize their work in order to gain peer approval. When art is just an illustration of an idea, however ingenious, it tends to leave me cold. As Gertrude Stein once said, this kind of art “has a certain Syrup, but it does not Pour”.  Duchamp was a genius and a pioneer, but if you ask me he inspired an army of bad imitators.”

 

Henry Hemming and Friend with ‘Yasmine’, The Off Screen Toyota Highlux, Jordan, 2003. Courtesy to Stephen

Henry Hemming and Friend with ‘Yasmine’, The Off Screen Toyota Highlux, Jordan, 2003. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

Stapleton’s interest in the Middle East was sparked during art school when he started incorporating visual and geometric elements of Islamic art in his collage artwork.  “I was drawn to those illustrations of the divine through an infinite variation of succinct geometrical patterns. It was liberating for me, having been educated at a very strict Christian school, to conceive of God as a pattern, as an invisible but rational force in the universe… a unified field in nature. To me, it was like Star Wars!”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the growing power of the mainstream media and its servitude to the interest of powerful corporation and political interests and not society, motivated Stapleton to pursue what he calls “journalistic art”. “Between 2001-2003, many people in my generation became more mistrustful of the mainstream media and wanted to travel themselves to the arenas of history to compare the stories they were being told to the reality they found. I wanted to be an activist artist and more socially aware; more direct in my interaction with an increasingly interconnected and globalized world. I reacted against the YBA (Young British Artists) generation of artists that started as Art School Rebels but quickly became the establishment and part of the status quo. They were very self-obsessed and focused on fame and money. It was important for me to travel as a kind of reaction to that, also as a re-education, to experience the world away from the isolation of a Western lens.”

Following this motivation, starting in 1998, Stapleton and a group of British artists including Henry Hemming and Al Braithwaite began planning their expedition to the Middle East.  They raised funds through a series of concerts and bought a quintessential Toyota Highlux and left England in September of 2002. “As we were travelling, the media was constructing this very confusing story in the build up to the invasion of Iraq.  We felt motivated at that time to try and tell a different kind of story, based on our experience. Even though, as lone artists with a very small audience, we felt kind of powerless against the barrage of polarizing information being distributed by the mass-media, it was important to keep trying to communicate the alternative, subjective story.”

Collage made during the Off Screen Artists Journey through The Middle East, 2002-2003. Courtesy to Stephen

Collage made during the Off Screen Artists Journey through The Middle East, 2002-2003. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

“We drove through Turkey into Iran and then Northern Iraq. We visited ancient cities such as Qom, Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo. We held exhibitions in Tehran, Muscat, Amman … selling our art along the way to fund the ongoing trip. In March 2003, I boarded a bus from Yemen into Aseer in Southern Saudi Arabia. I arrived with my rucksack in the artist colony of Al Miftaha Art Village where I met the two Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, as well as the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh and a host of other artists, journalists and musicians.  We got to know each other through visual exchange (through our sketch books and by spending time going through artworks in their studios) as much as through language. I did not speak Arabic and many of the artists did not speak English. I think we made a special connection through the exchange of our visual worlds and through a common concern to use our art to communicate across the borders between our cultures, our politics, our ideologies, which at that time, felt so polarized.

“We were trying to deconstruct what was happening in the world in the wake of the Iraq War. The internet was new to all of us and the Saudi artists were voraciously educating themselves online. One Saudi filmmaker later told me the internet is our oxygen.

Photos of Stapleton with Ahmed Mater, Abha, Stapleton’s Sketchbook, 2003. Courtesy to Stephen

Photos of Stapleton with Ahmed Mater, Abha, Stapleton’s Sketchbook, 2003. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

“I was inspired by those encounters in Abha, as well as all the friendships I had made on the road, to start something new from the edge, from the periphery both of the Arab world but also the global conversation. I began to change; from pursuing an artist career, I started wanting to build organisations that empowered artists to open new conversations beyond the mainstream narrative.

“Away from the images and soundbites and broadcasts on our televisions and also away from the hectic glamour and elitism of the international art world. This is where the concept for Edge of Arabia was born. I later formalized the organization in London as a social enterprise driven by social aims.  While a pure business looks for gaps in the market, a social enterprise looks for a gap in the system.”

Foyer Shot Brunei Gallery

Edge of Arabia, London 2008. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

The first Edge of Arabia exhibition was held in London in 2008. In 2009, Edge of Arabia participated in its first Venice Biennale and in2010, launched a world tour in Riyadh; going on to present in Berlin, Istanbul, and Dubai.  In 2011, Edge of Arabia produced the first pan-Arab exhibition at the Venice Biennale with some of the Saudi artists including Manal Al-Dowayan, Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem and Ayman Yossri, alongside others from across the region including Mona Hatoum, Ayman Baalbaki, Khader Attia, Driss Ouadahi, Mounir Fatmi, Lara Baladi, Nadia Kaabi Linke, and Jananne Al-Ani amongst others.

“I am really proud of what Edge of Arabia has achieved to date. With the help of an amazing team and support from organisations like Art Jameel, we developed it from nothing into one of the most effective and recognised independent art platforms in Middle East; and we shone a light on a previously little known community of important artists from the center of the Islamic world.”

Prince Charles and British Museum curator, Venetia Porter, looking at Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism at the opening of Hajj exhibition, 2012. Courtesy to Stephen

Prince Charles and British Museum curator, Venetia Porter, looking at Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism at the opening of Hajj exhibition, 2012. Courtesy to Stephen Stapleton.

Finally, Stapleton is very thankful to Art Jameel for supporting him and the above initiatives. In his opinion, Art Jameel is the most authentic patron of the arts in the region because they view art as a means to improve the quality of life of ordinary people and provide job opportunities.  They should be recognized for driving a much-needed creative economy in the Arab world and cultural understanding beyond.

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