Arab artists hit the US campaign trail

Culture bus heads to Washington in bid to change attitudes to the Middle East


A “culture bus” that takes Middle Eastern artists and curators into remote American communities and is currently travelling across the US will stop off next spring in the heart of the nation’s political establishment in Washington, DC. The aim, says the initiative’s co-organiser Stephen Stapleton, is to prompt “frank discussions between Middle Eastern artists and the political and media community of the US Capitol” just as presidential contenders are on the campaign trail. The bus, which houses an artist’s studio and broadcast facilities, will make a stop at the US-Mexican border, where the US government has built border fences to stop economic migrants coming from the south.

The road trip, called Culturunners, is part of a three-year tour organised by Edge of Arabia, a London-based non-profit organisation that connects artists across the Middle East, Europe and the US. The Culturunners bus, a 34ft recreational vehicle (RV), has covered more than 12,800 miles and 24 states since the tour began at the Rothko Chapel in Houston in September 2014.

“In March, the Culturunners RV will arrive in Washington, DC, where we hope to park in front of the Capitol building,” Stapleton says. The team will host events to coincide with the first solo exhibition in the US of the Saudi artist and Edge of Arabia co-founder Ahmed Mater, at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

In another controversial move, the organisers have invited the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar to join the expedition when it passes by the US-Mexican border next year. “Khaled is an artist not afraid to tell powerful stories direct from the frontline of contested communities. In Tijuana, he will be exploring the highly charged border-control debate, including the proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the US,” Stapleton says.

These projects could prove especially potent in the year of the US presidential election, when foreign policy and immigration will be key issues. “The presidential candidates will be travelling across the US in their RVs and we’ll be hot on their heels,” Stapleton says.

Jarrar and Mater’s projects are part of “ten artist journeys” planned for next year by Edge of Arabia (for instance, the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili is due to visit Texas on another itinerary). Stapleton plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in January to finance these journeys. Funding for the entire initiative has mainly come from Art Jameel, the cultural arm of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, a Saudi Arabia-based conglomerate.

In the past year, more than 50 artists and curators from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey have taken part in Culturunners talks, workshops and exhibitions in a bid to find “interconnected histories and common concerns”. These included a week-long community programme in Detroit in July, encompassing an exhibition of works by the French-Moroccan artist Sara Ouhaddou. “We have the opportunity to share our vision with a country that is considered a polar opposite. It was surprising; people were very open-minded there,” Ouhaddou says. 

In August, the Bahrain-based Saudi Arabian artist Faisal Samra collaborated with artists and activists from the Oglala Lakota Nation, a Native American tribe based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. 

“During a week of workshops, we developed the idea of infiltrating major cultural venues and institutions like a Trojan horse, interrupting the increasingly controlled environments of the contemporary art world with a more spontaneous energy,” Stapleton says. These interventions included six projects launched by Culturunners at the Armory Show in New York in March, culminating in a series of “flying carpet” performances by the Iranian-US artist Darvish Fakhr.