Stephen Stapleton: Mara Sartore interviews Edge of Arabia’s founder

by Mara Sartore
February 10, 2015
Mara Sartore

The Armory Show and Edge of Arabia are teaming up for this year’s sixth edition ofArmory Focus, a specially curated section devoted to a highlighted region of the world.

This collaboration with Edge of Arabia, a non-profit dedicated to education and the arts between the Middle East and elsewhere, is just one of the initiatives part of EOA’s three-year cultural tour across the U.S. with Art Jameel.

Mara Sartore spoke with Stephen A. Stapleton, directing founder of EOA, to discuss the project.


MS: Edge of Arabia is currently touring across the USA with a group of Middle Eastern artists, what made you pursue this project after travelling Europe and the Middle East with your exhibitions and how is this project linked with the origins of Edge of Arabia?

SAS: Journeying is the ethos of Edge of Arabia and the reason for its foundation in 2003. Artists’ activities should not be limited to the walls of the studios and galleries. For the past ten years we have been rigorously working in partnership with our founding sponsor, Art Jameel, to broaden the influence and recognition of MENA artists beyond the scope of the local. We have been thinking and brainstorming about a more reciprocal programming that would engage both Middle Eastern and US based artists. In 2013, we initiated an ongoing tour across the United States, and invited artists, curators, scholars and scientists both from the MENA region and the US to take part in this three-year initiative. The idea is to investigate, communicate and archive alternative stories and histories connecting the Middle East and the United States, and to cultivate direct encounters on a grassroots level across the physical and psychological borders in between and across these regions. We wanted to further test journeying as an alternative model for cultural programming.

MS: How where the artists selected? Will this project bring up collaborations between Middle Eastern and Western artists?

SAS: We have accumulated a list of people that we believe in and wanted to be apart of the journey. But if you are a true traveler you know that the most exciting thing about a journey is the unknown. We have years of amazing stories of how we met people and how sparking conversation has led to memorable partnerships. So we take that on, and understand it as the most important aspect of our programming. When we announced the tour, artists and art organizers based in the US, who were drawn in by the idea, began to contact us. Enthused by their response, we decided to honor selected individuals and organizations that have taken major steps in creating cultural programming across and within communities located in the Middle East and the United States through contributions and collaborations formed collectively in different cities we have visited along our way, such as: the FotoFest, the Rothko Chapel and the Arab American Cultural & Community Center (ACC) in Houston; The Middle East Institute in Washington DC; MIT’s program in Art, Culture and Technology in Cambridge; The Louisiana State University; Asian Contemporary Art Week, and the Armory Show in New York. The small team that launched the project last year has expanded into a strong network of people with diverse backgrounds whose passion fuels the project.

The travelers are free to express through artistic responses or collaborate if interested, but are not expected to produce artwork during the journey. So far the major collaborations have been mostly around the formation of the two platforms: CULTURUNNERS and FREEWAY, which will both be present at the Armory show inside the RV stationed at the shuttle area of the fair in between Pier 92 and 94 where audience will be able to meet the artists and experience the results.

MS: Why do you think it is important to bring these artists to the United States at this time in history?

SAS: Today, artists are more aware of their subtle power for establishing alternative narratives beyond the stories created by media; that is what we are interested in. A simple glance at the news circulated daily across the globe gives one a sense of the urgent need for an alternative form of communication and connection between the US and the Middle East. We attest that the impact of art and artists is beyond being the subject of commerce and fancy parties; it is in making spaces where alternative communication can occur.

MS: The US Tour involves many organizations and activates collaborations with important institutions as the MIT, could tell us more about the opportunities within these collaborations?

SAS: Using the technology and resources specific to our time is very significant to this project. We think of direct ways and scales that distanced communities within the US and the Middle East could interact. This is why we truly value MIT Art, Culture and Technology program’s contribution to the making of the cultural technologies of the CULTURUNNERS platform that are accessible for the travelers along their expeditions.

MS: The heart of your project is your vehicle “culturunners RV”, could you tell us the story behind the choice of the name and this mean of transport?

SAS: Our beloved 1999 2nd hand Gulfstream Sunsport is the residents and programmers’ living space and the mobile hub of the tour’s activities. It has a bedroom, a kitchen, a sitting area, a dining table, a toilet and a shower. All mentioned sites are continuously altered by the visitors and the residents. You, too, can give some love to the RV if you happened to be at one of our next happenings, perhaps the Armory.

MS:Edge of Arabia will be teaming up with The Armory Show to bring a focus on the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean, how was this collaboration initiated and which is the major challenge for you?

SAS: As we set out on this US Tour, we are constantly looking for other platforms that could give us direct access to diverse and expansive audiences, who are curious to learn more about artists and art communities across the country. We respect the history and legacy of The Armory as an art fair, presenting both progressive and unconventional artworks to the world for more than twenty years now, and its huge impact on the contemporary American art scene—a true fulfillment of the spirit of 1913’s namesake show.  The Armory Focus: MENAM will be an historical moment for the arts from the region within the United States.

As leading partners of the Armory Fair, Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel will be majorly focused on communicating stories that connect Focus: MENAM with New York based communities that share, currently and historically, an identity originating from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. This includes CULTURUNNERS, the project curated by Azra Aksamija, and the launch of FREEWAY, a broadcast program for the US Tour featuring two short film projects that walk viewers through the neighborhoods of Little Syria in the Lower East Side, Manhattan, and 125th street in Harlem, Manhattan, through the perspective of selected artists whose practice is inspired by these historical landscapes. I am co-curating FREEWAY with Ava Ansari, artist and associate curator of Edge of Arabia. The films will be directed by Husam Al Sayed, filmmaker and founding member of Telfaz 11, the renowned Saudi based pioneer internet television network, with scores composed by SALAR, Dubai based, Iranian performance artist, electronic composer and founding member of the Analog Room project.

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