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Sunday at Rothko: Culturunners / Edge of Arabia

Sunday at Rothko: Culturunners / Edge of Arabia
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By Nick Cooper

This Sunday, the UN’s International Day of Peace, Houston will host the kick off of a three year tour, focusing on art and dialogue between the US and Middle East. The Rotkho Chapel will host a free evening program of artists in discussion & film screening — and the launch of a core component to Edge of Arabia’s US tour, which is called Culturunners. Saudi artist, Sarah Abu Abdullah, and Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji, will be joined by Rice U. historian Ussama Makdisi, and U of H’s Associate Director of Women’s Studies, Dina Al-Sowayel in a panel discussion about how artists’ mobility and action can challenge cultural misrepresentation and propose alternative histories and narratives. A film by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater will be projected on the Chapel façade with a musical accompaniment by Syrian oud master Essam Rafea.

Stephen Stapleton, co-founder of Edge of Arabia, talked abut the presentation in a phone interview.

Why Saudi Arabia and Palestine?

The project as a whole is looking at connecting the United States with the diverse region of the Middle East, which is many different cultures and not a homogenous place. Palestine and Saudi Arabia are centers of extraordinary history and energy. Especially when seen from the United States, they are connected to powerful narratives.

What is it that brings the project together?

Our whole project is about the potential of traveling artists as storytellers — storytellers of an alternative history, across the borders that divide us.

Can you talk about the mobile aspect of Culturunners?

We bought a 1998 RV and we are starting the roadtrip in Houston. We’re going to drive it across the country to MIT. At MIT, the RV is going to be transformed to something between a mobile broadcast studio (like a news truck that can pull up and broadcast), and an artist studio. It will also act as a kind of space in between both places - a world between the US and the Middle East. People will come into the vehicle and be connected directly to our network of artists in the region, in Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia … We see the vehicle as a place between the two worlds. Also, the format of the RV trek is a very American thing.

What Can Folks Expect in the Panel Discussion?

We’re really gonna focus on stories from traveling artists. We have Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss who are local to Houston, and Fotofest, talking about the 1960s and 70s and traveling around the US recording the civil rights movement. We want to focus on the potential for the traveling artist to be part of social change and social activism. It fits with this particular place to be a place of conversation, the Rothko location where art meets public space meets political discussion.

The Rothko Chapel, in partnership with Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel, presents an International Day of Peace: Discussion and Celebration Sunday, September 21, at 7pm. Free.