“The edge of Arabia, the region at the far west of the Arabian peninsula, from Sanaa in Yemen, towards the Saudi town of Abha, and the sprawling cities of Jeddah, Makkah, Medina and Tabuk, was once the cultural centre of the Arab world. Now, this region has become a footnote. Because of oil, the desert became the edge. We want to re-invent the old edge again. We want to bring back culture, to create a new centre of and for contemporary Arabian culture.”
– Ahmed Mater
In 2003, in the mountainous Asir region of Saudi Arabia, a chance encounter bred an unlikely friendship forged in artistic collaboration. In the studios of the Al-Meftaha Arts Village, Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem met British artist Stephen Stapleton, and a shared desire “to create a real artistic movement inside Saudi Arabia, that also connected with the outside world” coalesced into the Edge of Arabia collective – which would go on to play a leading role in contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, opening up new pathways of cultural exchange between the Western and Arab worlds.
“A recent edition of National Geographic had a feature on the Kingdom. On its cover was a sword-wielding Saudi prince, inside were photos of veiled women in malls, camel markets and urban youth in fast cars. The article was called “Kingdom on Edge.” I asked Stephen what the word “edge” meant in this context. We began to talk about ways of turning it around and using it in a positive rather than a pejorative sense. Being in Abha, we were on the edge of the country. Contemporary art was at the periphery, or edge, of what you would expect to read about from Saudi Arabia, and so Edge of Arabia seemed to encapsulate what we wanted to do by raising the profile of Saudi contemporary art. Stephen and I committed there and then to build a project under that title."
– Ahmed Mater
The dream was to challenge the collusion of artists, market forces, elite groups and governments intent on maintaining a stale international status quo – whether of social regression or an exclusive blue chip cultural malaise. The global socio-political backdrop was conflict; the local context was marred by the extremism that had precipitated the crisis. As US tanks rolled into Iraq, an indirect consequence of actions taken by twelve young men from the same southern mountainous Saudi region that Mater called home, the conversations in Al-Meftaha studios sought alternatives. As if foreseeing the division and prejudice that would characterize the coming decades, the group – like the patron of Al-Meftaha HRH Prince Faisal – were dedicated to art as an alternative.
Our concern at this time was to give artists a voice in the socio-political and economic context of this time of conflict and transformation. We aspired to influence our societies. To have a part in transforming it
– Ahmed Mater
By 2008, the group had drawn together other advocates and patrons for Saudi contemporary art, including the Jameel family and Mohammed Hafiz and Hamza Serafi, as well as strident young artists ambitious to present their work on an international stage. The first ‘Edge of Arabia’ exhibition was held at the Brunei Gallery, in London’s School of African and Oriental Studies.
In the years that followed, international exhibitions and art world acclaim saw many of the artists catapulted onto a global stage. Ahmed was at the heart of this interest, with acquisitions by leading institutions including LACMA and the British Museum. For a global art world, there was great appetite for this alternative perspective on Saudi Arabia – as the cultural heart of the Islamic world, as a means to counter the fervent Islamophobia bred by the conflict and fear stoked by Western governments. Major exhibitions in the cultural capitals of Europe were a means to inform, engage and change minds. In 2009, eight Saudi artists exhibited at the 53rd Venice Biennale, with a touring exhibition to follow, from Berlin and Istanbul to Dubai. At the 54th Venice Biennale, Edge of Arabia and its supporters staged ‘The Future of a Promise’, the first pan-Arab exhibition at La Biennale. By 2012, there was a fertile landscape emerging in Jeddah, and, along with curator Mohammed Hafiz of Athr Gallery, they presented the provocative exhibition ‘We Need to Talk’ – returning to the objectives of conversation and exchange, this time within the Kingdom.
By 2013, Ahmed was calling for a return to the spirit that had first moved the collective – a departure from what he perceived had already become too codified by the international art-system, losing its energetic potential to function as a tool for self-authored, local change. Under the title Young Soul Rebel, a new manifesto appeared in Art Asia Pacific, in it, Ahmed wrote hopefully that ‘the year has seen new underground groups emerge, share ideas and experiment without any expectation of pleasing the market, the government, the media or the brands dominating the contemporary art world’. This was also the period that Ahmed moved to Jeddah and focused efforts on his new venture, pharan.studio.
Today, Edge of Arabia plays a significant role informing and promoting art from the Arab world, ensuring artists and their advocates direct the narrative, have spaces to present challenging works engaged stridently with the most pressing socio-political issues of the day. It remains a major vehicle for art, change and exchange; to date, it has welcomed over 1,500,000 visitors to its exhibitions, distributed over 50,000 books and catalogues worldwide and has reached a wider audience of over 10,000,000 through its online presence and communications.
Ahmed and Stephen continue to collaborate on new ideas and new approaches. Though the context has shifted drastically, they remain committed to the aims that coalesced in that out of the way studio in a friendship and creative meeting forged through chance and serendipity.