Exploring how the Arab world ‘is the origin of so much we take for granted in the West’

The Arab Art and Education Initiative includes an exhibition of Syrian artefacts telling the stories of refugees; tours of New York’s old Arab neighbourhood; and conversations with artists

Live performance of A State of Play by Balqis Al Rashed. Photograph by Nidal Morra
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A year-long programme of Arab and Islamic art exhibitions launched this week in New York, where organisers say they are promoting Middle Eastern culture to new audiences and opening dialogue at a time of artistic innovation as well as upheaval.

The Arab Art and Education Initiative includes an exhibition of Syrian artefacts telling the stories of refugees; tours of New York’s old Arab neighbourhood; and conversations with artists.

Some of New York’s most prestigious galleries will host the events, such as the Museum of Modern Art which held “an evening with [Kuwaiti filmmaker] Monira Al Qadiri” on Monday and Columbia University, where Saudi artist Ahmed Mater will present his Representations of Makkah on Monday. But there are also events in smaller locations and a programme that will place Arab artists in public schools throughout the five boroughs of New York.

Stephen Stapleton, an artist who runs Edge of Arabia, one of the groups organising the events, says the programme reflects the rich diversity of the Middle East and facets that may not be known to a western audience. “I think that in America in general there’s a very homogenous view of the Arab world, and of the Middle East and the Islamic world, trained by the mainstream media but also fuelled in general through all the conflict and problems,” he says.

Stephen Stapleton, Founding Director of Edge of Arabia. Photo courtesy of Stephen Stapleton

“What’s often missing from that story is the diversity, the younger generation and the cultural legacy of the Arab world as the origin of civilisation, as the origin of so much that we take for granted in western civilisation.”

He adds that many New Yorkers may be surprised to learn about the role of Arab immigrants in the city in the 19th century. Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, wrote The Prophet in New York, where he lived for most of life, for example.

The city hosted the Pen League – an Arab-American literary society – and was headquarters to dozens of Arab newspapers that were circulated internationally, says Stapleton. “Other communities kept their story alive but not many New Yorkers know about the Arab connections to New York,” he says. “In many ways it has always been a big part of NY but perhaps what we’re doing is to provide a platform to bring those stories into the general conversation.”

Much of the activity was centred in Lower Manhattan, in an area once known as Little Syria, which is featured in walking tours. “I love that Little Syria story because it’s an antidote to this narrative that we don’t want more immigrants in America, we don’t want more Muslims in America,” says Stapleton. “America has always been founded on a constellation of communities and backgrounds.”

As well as revealing that history, the programme is designed to reflect the rapid social changes under way in the Middle East by focusing on young artists. This is demonstrated in a show curated by Kuwaiti artist Razan Al Sarraf. It covers everything from painting and graphic design to video and music, as well as subjects that tackle questions of identity. 

Balqis Al Rashed, who was born in Riyadh and raised in Beirut, is among the young artists to be showcased. She is known for performing A State of Play dressed in a niqab while spinning a hula hoop, riffing on ideas of whirling dervishes, spinning planets and Tawaf in Makkah.

Stapleton says artists were free to tackle any subjects they wanted, including the “hyper-capitalism” of Gulf states. The result, he says, reflects the rapid changes coursing through the Arab world since the turn of the millennium.

“They are combining traditional and Islamic aesthetics with this kind of new technology and new connectivity, coming out of places like Saudi where it was difficult to be an artist, difficult to take a photo, when these artists were kids because of religious laws, but they are becoming voices for their generation,” he says. “That is a historically significant art history story.”

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