Chapter 1: 2003 - 2007
Edge of Arabia was born from a chance encounter during an artists’ expedition across the Middle East in 2003. Founded by British artist and entrepreneur, Stephen Stapleton, and a group of Saudi artists from the Al Meftaha Art Village in Abha, including Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, Edge of Arabia was established to encourage grassroots cultural dialogue in Saudi Arabia and between Saudi Arabia and the Western world.
After launching its first exhibition in London in 2008, Edge of Arabia embarked on a tour across Europe and the Gulf. Over the course of the next 5 years, EOA introduced a new generation of Saudi contemporary artists in 14 countries. From 2011, EOA expanded its model to include artists from across the Arab world with landmark exhibitions in Venice (The Future of a Promise) and London (#cometogether).
In 2014, Edge of Arabia launched a multi-year cultural diplomacy project criss-crossing between the Arab World and the United States. Travelling over 35,000 miles, the tour supported over 300 artists and reached over 1,500,000 people through landmark exhibitions and events in museums and institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, MoMA, The Met, MIT, Rothko Chapel and the Smithsonian Institute.
What began as an unlikely friendship and artistic collaboration is now an internationally recognised platform for dialogue and exchange between the Arab and western world. As a non-profit social enterprise, Edge of Arabia is committed to reaching new audiences and improving understanding through free exhibitions, publications and public programming.
To date, Edge of Arabia has welcomed over 3,000,000 visitors to its exhibitions and events, distributed over 60,000 books and catalogues worldwide and reached a wider audience of over 10,000,000 through a dedicated communications campaign.
"It is significant, in both history and the history of art, that a dynamic contemporary art movement has emerged from the center of the Islamic World at this time. At the beginning of the 21st Century it was clear and indeed urgent that new modes of communication and understanding be opened up between communities and across borders; both on a local and international level, there was a need for independent voices to engage with the complex forces of transformation which existed within Saudi Arabia and between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. That a new generation of artists, working at that time on the very edge of their society and outside of the international cultural conversation, have risen to this challenge is an inspiring and important development.
Until recently, there was very little local infrastructure or encouragement to support the development of artistic practice within the Kingdom. In 2003, when I visited a small artists village in the South West corner of Saudi Arabia, there was a feeling of frustration but also possibility amongst the artists who would go on to pioneer the new movement. “How can we paint butterflies and scenes of the past when our region is in turmoil and change is upon us?” Seismic development and conflict in the region, the arrival of the Internet and a lack of an existing cultural infrastructure had ignited in these artists a desire to create new platforms and experiment with new perspectives on their own terms. They understood the increasing power of images in the digital age, and set out to re-imagine the existing artistic language of that time. For them, the time was right for a break, and for a new beginning, which allowed for timely political and cultural conversations … translating their views into an art of ideas and innovation, rather than mere imitation and expression.
Over the last ten years, the role and status of the artist in Saudi Arabia has been redefined. The artists featured in this book are realizing their creative visions as part of the wider conversation within their society. At the same time they are challenging international perspectives about the cultural, physical and spiritual landscapes from which they emerged. Independent of corporate or governmental influence, they have become cultural signifiers, influential critics, spokespeople, teachers and ambassadors; the community that surrounds them understands that change has to come gradually through the steady heightening of the status of the artist in society. Once status for the artist is gained, the opinions and discussions that art ignites can receive the serious considerations they deserve, and an “ecosystem” for cultural influence on society can be realised.
Edge of Arabia presents a fragile but brave community of artists, as a mirror, to an increasingly excited audience, so as they might see themselves from another perspective, from another angle. They are at the vanguard of a new openness, both internally and externally, which has the potential to unlock the gates of positive change. Theirs is a world far from the harsh, single viewpoint images and the recurrent stories of the media. Theirs is an unofficial history, which is beginning to shine like a beacon of truth in what has been a dark corner of ignorance and confusion."
Edge of Arabia
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London WC1A 2DA
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