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With all the turmoil in the Middle East, an art exhibition celebrating the work of Arab Artists seems frivolous, but deep in the heart of Nathan Barley Country, The Old Truman Brewery invites us to #Cometogether.
The Edge of Arabia is a group of Arab artists from The Middle East who are collaborating with English ones, curated by Stephen Stapleton, an artist who connected with two Saudi artists to "use the power of art to connect two similar communities, but people think they're very different."
Indeed, the area around Tower Hamlets is connected to the Islamic world by the vibrant Bengali population and the curry houses. Stapleton calls his exhibition "a celebration of collaboration", which is very succinct as the art world is truly global.
These collaborations are about tackling the issues in the Islamic World that have come to a head in recent years: "these 32 artists," Stapleton points out, "are agents of change. They're part of the change, not just looking at the change..These are people in a moment of change. That's something very exciting to be involved with. So what we'd like to do is start a conversation, that's your job, to be honest."
Another theme, which I had a gut feeling about was stories: "You can feel someone living in Yemen with a situation that is tough." The fact many of these artists hold down day jobs, including a doctor and an officer in the Saudi Arabian Army. It was the way these stories were told that made it all the more intriguing.
The centrepiece exhibit was the Dome of the Capitol in Washington DC and the interior was lavishly decorated like a mosque, propped up on the Goddess of Democracy. This uneasy juxtaposition of Neo-classical and Islamic architectures evokes the questions of what's happening in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Morocco and whether Liberal Democracy can translate to the Arab World. Mind you, the installation shows both the Islamic world and The West are profoundly indebted to classical antiquity, but they diverged.
Dialogue between the Islamic Arab world and Liberal Democracy is capturing minds everywhere. Will this lead to a Guantanamo of the imagination?
Last night, there were twenty five people trying to lift the top of that dome to finish it." This installation not only tells a story, but it's a story in itself, as Stapleton testifies like an exhausted brickie in court against overwork by a successful architect."That dome was conceived by a Lt. Col in the Saudi Arabian Army, Adbul Massa." The polite applause came forth like a gentlemanly surge of undercover dandy US Marines amongst chavs on a sink estate. "It was then a collaboration with craftspeople in Morocco, and then a team of engineers and craftspeople in the UK." Then Stapleton's sales pitch distilled it all down like Prohibited Whiskey in a Saudi ex-pat compound: "People gather, people connect, people fight sometimes, but they work towards a solution. The struggle behind that artwork there was incredible." He's right there, this work is incredible.
One of the most wondrous exhibits for me was a spinning globe which evoked the whirling Sufi dances, where you can get into a trance by looking at it. As it blurs, you can see the geographical features blurs into nothing and it symbolising the Ummah and challenges your assumptions about the world. I could have stared at it all day, which could make me hallucinate if I wasn't careful. I even wonder whether it shows how there are things that transcend even the Ummah (and this is coming from an agnostic).
The World-ing Dervish: This globe, I think, symbolises the Ummah quite accurately. Either that, or an acid trip.
What this exhibition is full of is questions, but also a few surprises that could challenge your assumptions about The Arab World as well as The West. Either that, or you'll see something you'll never see in Mecca.