21 Sep 2014 -
Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon St, Houston, TX 77006, United States


To coincide with the UN’s International Day of Peace, the Rothko Chapel in partnership with Art Jameel launched CULTURUNNERS on Sunday September 21st, 2014, an independent artists’ expedition and a core component of Edge of Arabia’s us tour. Watch full program below.

In the spirit of the Chapel’s humanist mission to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, and to provide a forum for global concerns, the event brought together pioneering artists, scholars and community groups to cultivate new perspectives on cultural collaboration.

CULTURUNNERS is the core component of Edge of Arabia’s multi-year journey between the Middle East and the United States. It aims to assess the potential of artists’ journeys to connect people through creativity and beyond identities defined by culture, religion, nation, citizenship, economic status, profession, gender or age.

The CULTURUNNERS launch event was supported by Edge of Arabia's local partners, the Rothko Chapel, FotoFest International and the Arab American Cultural & Community Center (ACC).

The event began with a welcome note from the partners and organizers and continued with a profound speech by Dr. Ussama Makdisi, Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. His speech addressed the history of and intentions behind the act of cultural travelling from the 19th century through to the new millennium. Makdisi’s speech became a touchstone for the first journey of the CULTURUNNERS between Houston and Boston, and helped the artists and programmers to collectively think and share ideas for this fluid, delicate and multidimensional project that includes carefully curated exhibitions and educational programs as well as unpredictable happenings and encounters.

The event continued with a panel discussion between Sarah Abu Abdullah, whose highly-acclaimed video work debuted last year at the 55th Venice Biennale; Taysir Batniji, the Abraaj Capital Art Prize winner of 2012; and award-winning artists, cultural activists and producers Fred Baldwin, Wendy Watriss and Stephen Stapleton. The panel discussion explored the impact of artists’ mobility on cultural misrepresentation through unofficial and personal narratives shared by the panelists. The panel was moderated by Dina Al-Sowayel, Associate Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Houston.

The launch featured a special film screening on the Chapel façade by pioneering Mecca-based artist and Edge of Arabia co-founder Ahmed Mater that was accompanied with the live performance of Syrian oudist Essam Rafea. Liston to a sample of Essam's performance below:

Watch Ahmed Mater's film in full below:
Free and open to the public, the events on 21st September opened the Rothko Chapel’s season of events on Art, Spirituality and Nonviolence.

Over the next three years, CULTURUNNERS will travel across the US, communicating and archiving new forms of creative collaboration between communities based in the US and the Middle East. CULTURUNNERS is co-authored by Azra Aksamija, Class of 1922 Career Development Professor, Department of Architecture, and an Assistant Professor in the Art, Culture and Technology Program and Edge of Arabia co-founder Stephen Stapleton. And is co-curated by Ava Ansari and Stephen Stapleton.


  • This event was the first ever program on Middle Eastern contemporary art at the iconic Rothko Chapel and on the occasion of the United Nation’s International Day of Peace – September 21, 2014.
  • A successful marketing campaign helped attract over 175 people including the French cultural attaché, director of the De Menil Foundation, President of the Middle East Institute and a large contingent of the local Muslim and Arab communities.
  • Many people commented on the high quality of speakers, panelists and artists who contributed to the inter-generational, cross cultural discussion and art film screening. Feedback from audience members was overwhelmingly positive, and in particular regarding the presentation of travelling artists as bridges between culture and politics.
  • Partnerships were established with 6 leading Houston area arts organizations and educational institutions, including the Rothko Chapel, FotoFest International, The Arab American Cultural and Community Center, Rice University, University of Houston and Saint Thomas University.
  • Many people commented on the strength of the video projection of Ahmed Mater’s footage from Mecca on the Rothko Chapel façade, and the accompanying oud music by Syrian musician Essam Rafea.
  • A very strong media campaign established the project as a pioneering initiative within arts communities across the US.



Ashley Clemmer Hoffman is the Community Engagement Director at The Rothko Chapel


Rudeina A. Baasiri is a lawyer and Chair of the board of Trustees of The Arab American Cultural and Community Center of Houston.


Professor Ussama Makdisi is the Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab- American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. In April 2009, the Carnegie Corporation named Makdisi a 2009 Carnegie Scholar as part of its effort to promote original scholarship regarding Muslim societies both in the United States and abroad. He has published widely on Ottoman and Arab history as well as on U.S.-Arab relations and U.S. missionary work in the Middle East. Among his published works, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008), was the winner of the 2008 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association, the 2009 John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, and a co-winner of the 2009 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize given by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Professor Makdisi has also published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and in the Middle East Report.


Dr. Dina Al-Sowayel (moderator) is Associate Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Houston in Texas. She received her Bachelor's Degree from Wellesley College, her law degree from the University of Houston (1990), and her PhD from Rice University (1999). She has been a post doctoral fellow in religious studies at the University of Houston where she currently is a clinical adjunct lecturing on the religion, history, and other aspects of the Middle East. She has taught a variety of courses including the history of the Modern Middle East, State and Society in the Middle East, Women and Islam and a History of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Dr. Al-Sowayel's research and publications deal with conflict, gender, and history

Stephen Stapleton is an artist and curator. After encountering the artistic community in Abha, Saudi Arabia during a journey across the Middle East in 2003, he founded the Offscreen Education Programme and Edge of Arabia as platforms for cultural dialogue between the Middle East and western world. He later founded the Crossway Foundation, a London-based charitable organization seeking to promote creative collaboration between the UK and the Middle East and EOA.Projects, an art gallery showing contemporary art from the Middle East based in Battersea, London. Stapleton has a degree in fine art and philosophy from the University of Brighton, a PGCE in art education from the University of London and has exhibited his own artwork in Tehran, Amman, London, Oslo and New York. He has published several books related to the Middle East including Offscreen: Four Young Artists in the Middle East, Edge of Arabia, Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia and won several awards for his work in the field of intercultural education.

Wendy Watriss, co-founder of FotoFest International in 1983, worked as a freelance photographer, writer, curator, newspaper reporter, and producer of television documentaries from 1965 to 1993. Since 1991, she has been Artistic Director and Senior Curator for FotoFest, curating and organizing more than sixty international exhibitions on photography and photo-related art from the Arab world, China (1934-2008), Latin American photography (1865-1992), Russia (1950s-2012), US Latino photography, Central European photography, the global environment, new media, water, artists responding to violence, and Guantánamo, among other themes. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the World Press Photo Feature of the Year (1982), the Leica Oskar Barnack Prize (1982), the Mid-Atlantic Arts Alliance / National Endowment for the Arts Award (1984), a Humanities Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and a Research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. With Frederick Baldwin, she is the recipient of the Vision Award (2011) and has served on juries for the National Endowment for the Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts, the Haas Foundation, and the Houston Arts Alliance. She was born in San Francisco.

Sarah Abu Abdallah works primarily with video and film as a medium. She grew up in Qatif, Saudi Arabia and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Her recent exhibitions Arab Contemporary in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, Migrating Forms in NYC, the Serpentine Galleries 89plus Marathon in London, the 11th Sharjah Biennial in 2013, and Rhizoma in the 55th Venice biennale 2013. She contributed to Arts and Culture in the Transformative Times festival by ArteEast, NYC, and the Moving Image panel on Video + Film in Palazzo Grassi, Venice.

Taysir Batniji is an interdisciplinary visual artist who divides his time between France and Palestine. His practice incorporates drawing, painting, installation and performance, often closely related to his heritage–however since 2001 the artist has focused primarily on photography and video. Batniji has participated in numerous international exhibitions, including Untitled, 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011); Future of a Promise, a collateral event of the 54th Venice Biennale (2011); Seeing is Believing, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2011); and RAY 2012 Fotografieprojekte Frankfurt/Rhein-Main (2012). Taysir Batniji is represented by Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg & Beirut and Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris.

Fred Baldwin is a photographer and co-founder of FOTOFEST. Swiss born Fred Baldwin co-founded FotoFest International in 1983 and served as president from 1984 to 2001, when he became Chairman of the Board of Directors. Following a BA from Columbia University in 1956, he began working as a freelance photographer. Baldwin has been commissioned by many international publications including LIFE, National Geographic and the New York Times. His award-wining work has dealt with subjects such as the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, rural poverty in the Georgia and the Carolinas, Arctic fishermen in the Lofoten Islands, polar bears and other wildlife in the Norwegian Arctic, wild horses in Mexico, and Peace Corps volunteers in India.


Essam Rafea is an Oud master originally from Damascus, Syria and has recently settled in Dekalb, Illinois. Rafea is the Chair of the Arabic Music Department at High Institute of Music in Damascus and the principal conductor of Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Essam has performed in France, Spain, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, and Syria, and won first prize in the oud category at the 2000 Cairo Improvisation Competition. Essam is the founder of the award-winning Syrian takht ensemble Twais and the international ensemble Hewar. He has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, including Jean-Christophe Frish's Musiques des Lumières XVIII-21, and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, on his project Gorillaz.


Ahmed Mater (born 1979 in Saudi Arabia) lives and works in Abha, Saudi Arabia. His interdisciplinary art, encompassing photography, calligraphy, painting, installation, performance and video, explores the narratives and aesthetics of Islamic culture in an era of rampant globalization, consumerism and transformation. Mater’s art is informed by his daily life as a medical doctor in Abha as well as by his traditional upbringing in Saudi Arabia. His recent work presents an unofficial history of Saudi sociopolitical life. It is concerned with the representation of traumatic events of collective historical dimensions, and the ways in which films, video, image, performance and text can document physical and psychological violence. Mater’s work has been widely exhibited across the world including at The Mori Museum of Art, Tokyo; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the Sharjah, Kochi and Venice Biennales; Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden Museum of Ethnology; Ashkal Alwan Home Works 6, Beirut; and Galleria Continua’s Les Moulins, Paris. His work is in the collection of the British Museum, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha; and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

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