Edge of Arabia is a hugely successful initiative to promote contemporary Saudi Arabian art. The initiative was born from a chance encounter in 2003 between British artist Stephen Stapleton and Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem at the Al Meftaha Arts Village in Abha, Saudi Arabia. Edge of Arabia was formally established as a platform for artistic exchange between Saudi Arabia and the West in 2008.
Many Saudis involved in the art scene helped Edge of Arabia develop, such as Abdullah Al Turki, a Riyadh based collector and patron who became EoA’s creative director, Athr Gallery’s staff and several Saudi magazines. But the staunchest and most important support has been provided since the beginning by Fady Jameel from the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (Abdul Latif Jameel is mostly known in Saudi Arabia as the importer of Toyota).
The first exhibition of Edge of Arabia took place in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, in 2008. The surprising combination of the terms ‘contemporary art’ and ‘Saudi Arabia’, bolstered by an advertising campaign in the London Underground and substantiated by the quality of many of the works shown, turned this event into a success. The involvement of Venetia Porter of the British Museum, who had shown two of the artists previously in her ‘Word into Art’ exhibition, certainly also helped.
Since then Edge of Arabia has organized ever more high-profile exhibitions, starting in Venice (as a side event to the Biennale 2009) then going on to Riyadh (2010), Berlin (2010), Istanbul (2010), Dubai (2011), the Venice Biennial (2011) and Jeddah (2012). The next exhibition will be in London, in October 2012, with plans of touring the USA from 2013.
Edge of Arabia has embarked on several side activities, such as education – in Saudi Arabia and for Saudi artists abroad; think of workshops, seminars, residencies – and publications. The founding artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem each have a monograph dedicated to their work, and beside the exhibition catalogues, most of which can be downloaded on their website, a major book on Edge of Arabia and Saudi contemporary art was published in 2012.
With the aim of being more sustainable in the future, Edge of Arabia co-founded the commercial entity EOA.Projects in October last year. Registered independently in London, this gallery arm represents flagship artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem as well as some of Saudi Arabia’s promising young artists. Both Edge of Arabia and EOA.Projects will be housed under one permanent roof in London by the end of 2012.
With ‘The Future of a Promise’ exhibition in the Venice Biennial of 2011, Edge of Arabia expanded its geographic scope to include some of the most famous artists from other Arab countries (see the list here). Through continued expansion and partnerships with art initiatives like Dar Al-Ma’mûn in Marrocco, Edge of Arabia is aiming to replicate its successful model of mentoring, developing and promoting artists in other parts of the Arab world.
For purposes of artistic collaboration and exchange the most likely partner is Edge of Arabia Education. An exciting possibility, especially for Arabic-speaking artists, is to join the yearly Offscreen expedition of artists throughout Saudi Arabia. For young Saudi artists there is the ‘Create and Inspire’ competition.