Opinion

A Response to “How Saudi Arabia and US Arts Institutions Partnered on a Cultural Diplomacy Offensive”

I am writing to contest Rijin Sahakian’s characterization of the artist-led organizations I helped to build from the ground up.

Nugamshi performance during opening of Epicenter X exhibition of Saudi Contemporary Art at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Detroit, 2016 (photo courtesy Stephen Stapleton)

I am writing to address Rijin Sahakian’s article, “A Coalition of The Willing: How Saudi Arabia and US Arts Institutions Partnered on a Cultural Diplomacy Offensive.” Sahakian characterizes the artist-led organizations I helped to build from the ground up over 15 years as “part of a racket” promoting the Saudi government. Instead of acknowledging the kinetic and long-term nature of our support for Arab artists, at both a grassroots and systemic level, Sahakian disreputably folds our existence into the affairs of the moment.

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a man we knew, whose children we work with, and whose values partly inspired the founding of Edge of Arabia in 2003, has shocked us all. We share Sahakian’s anger, frustration and disillusionment which have triggered an overdue moment of reflection for all arts organizations working in the Gulf; but it is counterproductive to channel those feelings into unfounded accusations, which might lead to increased isolation for Arab artists and the closure of independent platforms which give those artists a voice.

Stephen Stapleton (l.) meeting Ahmed Mater in his Al Meftaha Arts Village studio, Abha, 2003 (photo courtesy Ahmed Mater)

Although Sahakian’s was an opinion piece, it is still a key tenet of good journalism that those being criticized be given a basic right to reply, a space to defend themselves. Sahakian did not corroborate her conclusions with me, Ahmed Mater or, I believe, most of the individuals and institutions she refers to, leading to a number of significant inaccuracies. These inaccuracies have resulted in an article that undermines Edge of Arabia’s current Arab Art & Education Initiative in New York, and misrepresents our long-term objective to mobilize and empower Arab artists across borders.

The following is a selection of specific inaccuracies and misrepresentations I am committed to contesting:

With the backing of MBS and national Saudi funds, Mater and Stapleton effectively run the entire Saudi art schema.” This is a misrepresentation and deeply disrespectful to the multi-layered and vibrant ecosystem of well-known arts organizations which have worked for decades to develop a culture of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia, including independent artist studios, established and emerging galleries, media platforms, YouTube collectives, newly opened and long-standing public institutions, and private foundations.

“Mounted for a full six months, the show, Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys … in other words was funded and organized by Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom, and Mater himself.” To say that Mater personally funded and organized the show at Brooklyn Museum is untrue; and to presume that the recognition of Arab artists like Mater by major US cultural institutions is just part of a Saudi soft power effort is offensive. It undermines the genuine achievements of these artists on the international stage. Although he is a co-founder by name of Edge of Arabia, Ahmed Mater is not, and has never been, a director of the company and has absolutely no financial or legal stake in Edge of Arabia or Culturunners.

Artists, Yazan Khalili (Palestine), Anne Senstad (Norway) and Felicia Castro (US) on the roof of the Culturunners RV in Iowa, 2015, as part of Edge of Arabia’s ongoing tour across the United States (photo courtesy of John Mireles)

The Arab Art & Education Initiative is not, “a project of the Kingdom,” but an initiative of Edge of Arabia, an independent British social enterprise. It was Edge of Arabia that proposed this project to Misk Art Institute as a continuation of its ongoing US tour for Arab artists. Although the initiative was originally announced under the umbrella of Misk Art Institute, Misk withdrew their involvement in late August 2018, except for two pre-existing agreements with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum. In mid-October, the Met and Brooklyn Museum rejected the funding received from Misk and self-funded their programs. No other Saudi government funding was received for the initiative. We are currently fundraising to support the initiative’s 2019 program.

“Though pegged as an ‘Arab’ Art Education Initiative, nearly all the artists exhibiting with the AAEI who live in the Arab World hail from the Gulf States … This orientation is underscored by two major AAEI opening week programs in New York … where every single exhibiting artist, save one, is from the Gulf.” It is misleading for Sahakian to say the initiative favors Gulf artists, and she refers only to two of our fifteen programs to support her point. To date, the AAEI’s program has included artists of differing genders, faiths, and sexual orientations from Egypt, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, US, UK, and Saudi Arabia. Upcoming programming, which is now at risk because of public attacks like Sahakian’s, includes an artists-in-schools project that will feature artists from Syria, Palestine, and North Africa; a book launch for Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih; an exhibition of Yemeni painters; and a major collaboration with Iraqi expeditionary artist, Rashad Salim.

Sahakian stated that I serve “as one of its [Saudi Arabia’s] cultural diplomacy envoys” and that I am “an employee of the man most closely associated with Khashoggi’s death.” For the record, I am not, nor have ever been, an employee of the Saudi government or any of its agents. Within my capacity as director of Edge of Arabia, I was invited by Ahmed Mater to consult in the development of Misk Art Institute’s international programs and given an unofficial title of International Programmes Director. I was never offered employment by Misk and remain an independent artist and founding director of two stand-alone British companies (Edge of Arabia and Culturunners) and executive director of a British charity, the Crossway Foundation.

We Need to Talk Edge of Arabia’s landmark public exhibition in Jeddah, 2012 (photo courtesy Stephen Stapleton)

Sahakian closed the article by claiming: “The simple reply that ‘all money is tainted,’ deflects culpability and keeps the arts — and artists — in stagnant, patron-reliant spaces reinforced by political, military, and socio-economic power structures.” The use of quotes here implies that Sahakian is quoting either myself or a representative of the mentioned organizations. Sadly, Sahakian did not reach out to anybody referenced in the article for comment. The quote does not reflect my thoughts nor the policies of the organizations with which I have been involved

In closing, I would like to invite both the author and Hyperallergic to re-engage with our Arab Art & Education Initiative (AAEI) and better understand the diverse funding model that sustains it.  As the culmination of Edge of Arabia’s four-year tour across Trump’s America, the AAEI represents a rare opportunity for Arab artists to show their work in the US; and to engage major New York arts institutions in a deeper cultural conversation with the Arab world. These kinds of opportunities for open artistic exchange are more important than ever.

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