The Culturunners crew hits Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Top Gun Shooting Range, Houston, Texas 17 January 2017
I don’t know how I ended up on a shooting range with four guys. I was definitely the only one who was deeply scared. Guns are not at all my thing, but I trusted the team and on some level I understood that if I wanted to learn about Texas, I had to push myself, even in ways that made me uncomfortable.
I was shaking like hell, not out of excitement, just fear. But the firearms instructor was very friendly and passionate about guns, and the RV team (which had grown to include Stephen and Matteo) was very excited. So at least I felt secure. I felt like I was in a movie again, but this time it was an action scene.
When in Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
I was, of course, the first to try and shoot a gun. Constantly shaking, I went through all the steps correctly, then I shot the target which was only three meters away. (I know how ridiculous this situation will seem to a Texan.) I was literally thrown back by the sheer force of the trigger. Even the noise of it scared me; every time someone took a shot, I jumped. But I got through my five bullets and was happy to be done. In the end, I found myself crying, it was all too much: the adrenaline, the fear, the connection to violence, the force, the significance of the object itself.
My conversation with the instructor was very interesting. To me, guns were all about fear, but to him, it represented his cultural heritage. I was once again running into this idea of identity. I began to understand the Lone Star of Texas. The star became a unique symbol of Texan pride, a precious symbol that needed to be preserved and respected.
This journey was becoming a lesson in open-mindedness, and unexpectedly, I was beginning to change my point of view. Many of the stereotypes I have about the US are being challenged. I’m not saying that I fully accepted or agree with what I am seeing and experiencing, but I am now more sympathetic.
Fort Stockton, Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Fort Stockton to Fort Davis, Texas, 19 January 2017
We continued westwards through Texas: small roads, dry landscapes, spiky desert plants… the Wild Wild West actually meant something to us now.
We stopped at Fort Stockton, not really knowing where we where. It was a tiny town with only one main street. We happened upon the local sheriff who was willing to talk to us. He was physically very striking, he looked like an old wise man. I was a bit stressed at first, but once we began to talk, I realised that he was such a kind person. He was a tough guy who had worked as a US Border Patrol officer and the sheriff of his small town. The only thing he cared about was the well being of his citizens.
At that precise moment, I realised that most of the people I had met were good people who were stuck in difficult realities. As foreigners, we think about the US as a strong country where freedom is the motto. But if you have the chance to travel deeper into the country, you see the different social layers and you understand that it’s just like everywhere else. All societies in this new capitalistic world have people who are “forgotten and left behind”. And the sheriff I met in Fort Stockton was trying his best to help those people from his community.
Authority at its best (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
When he talked about the symbolism of the star—which is of course also the symbol of the sheriff’s office in US—all he had in mind was the pride he felt in protecting his people. He reflected authority at its best, an honourable man in charge, one that you are not afraid of but instead know will defend your interests.
He said something about the results of the presidential elections that I will never forget: “We are used to being the people left behind. I couldn’t believe we won, for the first time, we won!” I understood him; for once in his life, he felt as though the voices of his community meant something.
He said he wasn’t against diversity, he had travel a lot and been to Morocco and Spain. He was very aware of international geo-political realities, like the refugee crisis, the different wars taking place in the Middle East. But first he had to solve the issues in his hometown. “Before global interests, local needs come first.”
We spent that night at the McDonald Observatory, literally under the Milky Way, talking to scientists and engineers throughout the night. We learned how much of history was made by people from all corners of the world, and how each brought their own major discoveries. For scientists, a star is simply a time machine that helps humanity understand where we come from. And for me, Out Among The Stars is an ongoing project that looks to examine and unpack the ways in which our societies function.
The stars at night are big and bright (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Trump inauguration, El Paso, Texas, 20 January 2017
I woke up sick that day. We drove to El Paso and on the way we quickly stopped at a gas station restaurant to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration. There were not many people at the restaurant, just the bar tender, a couple and a lone man at a table.
Watching Trump's inauguration at a gas station cafe in El Paso (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Ironically, I was sincerely sick and had to go vomit. But I was able to listen to the new president’s speech. It sounded surreal to me but on the other hand, I could see how it was efficient; he uses plain language to simplify complex political issues. Most of what he said echoed what I had heard during my journey: the need for construction, more roads and bridges, making America great again… everything became clear to me.
Some stars (and stripes) found outside a pizzeria in Mississippi (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
I came to America for a project, Out Among The Stars… from New York to Los Angeles, with the photographer Marwen Farhat and the Culturunners crew.
For the past year, I have been looking at the subject of the five-point star, a symbol of strong spiritual and ideological significance in both the Moroccan and American flags and culture. While on the road, I documented the stars I found and interviewed local people associated with them. I wanted to understand what the star meant to them, and act as a bridge between cultures.
Driving from NYC to Pennsylvania, 12 January 2017
When leaving the studio in New York, we faced our first challenge: how to put all our luggage into one cab? We were three people and 12 pieces of gear. We knew that half of it would not be used, but humans have a way of burdening themselves with more things than they could ever need, and we are no exception.
Think of it as a giant game of Tetris (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Once we arrived in New Jersey and saw the RV, it was like reuniting with an old friend. We were eager to start this new journey: we didn’t know what would happen, who we would meet, we couldn’t even imagine how it would go, but we were very excited. John drove, Marwen and I acted as co-pilots—and down poured the rain. We drove for four hours, finally stopping in the middle of the night at this first motel we saw—just like in all those road trip movies.
Exploring Memphis, TN, January 14 2017
The next day we kept driving until we reached Memphis. We parked near Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. It was full of crazy RVs with names like Patriot Thunder.
It’s not easy to interview people from a completely different culture in a foreign country. But that's what we set out to do from our first day. Marwen followed me with the camera and I would ask the questions. I felt the city’s intense history and heritage during our tour of Memphis, which included the Martin Luther King Church, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and finally the National Civil Rights Museum.
I began asking people about the star and what it meant to them and the responses were incredible. People in Memphis related it to the Civil Rights Movement; to them, the star is the symbol of their ancestors’ fight for their rights, it’s the symbol of belonging to the US just like anyone else.
The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed in 1968, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
One of the people we met was the grandson of the photojournalist Ernest Withers, who inherited his archive of more than one million photos from the Civil Rights era. Looking at those images was like jumping into another time.
It was all very emotional. We were in the shadows of people who had changed history. This place is deeply connected to the fight for human rights on a global scale. In today’s world, who still engages is these kinds of battles?
Along the Mississippi River, Arkansas/Mississippi, 16 January 2017
We drove through a town called Helena, Mississippi, and we continued to meet amazing people and talk about the symbolism of the star, nationalism and the future. I began to understand the deeper purpose of my project, which is to create a window reflecting the current-day state of our complex and diverse societies worldwide.
I have to admit that the landscapes in Mississippi and Louisiana are so familiar to me—it’s the same typology as the Arab countryside. The people are farmers, living a very simple, modest and traditional life; the neighbourhoods are very poor. I was surprised to see so much poverty in the US.
The conversations I had with people in the South were about the basic concerns in their lives: could their children have a good future, would they be able to feed their kids and provide them with a proper education, could they find a reasonably paying job and be proud of their accomplishments? Their views were very familiar. In the work I’ve done in Morocco, I collaborate with people who face similar challenges in their daily lives, and we use art and culture as a conduit for development. I never imagined that I would meet the same kinds of people with the same issues in the US—but I did, and on both sides of the world, the people have the same concerns, hopes and dreams.
Speaking to two locals in Helena, Mississippi (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
We then drove through a cotton field in Mississippi. The only time I had seen this kind of landscape was in my school history books or American movies like Selma (2015), 12 Years of Slave (2013) or The Color Purple (1985). It was a weird feeling. As a foreigner, I was only aware of these scenes in an intangible way; now they were real.
We stopped by a gas station that was surrounded on all sides by cotton fields. There was a big star on the door and no one around, except those working the land. We were able to speak with the owner of the cotton farm and it turned out to be a very interesting and layered conversation. I understood very quickly that I was faced with someone who was, culturally, very different from me. He had inherited the land from ancestors who had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. So this land and the loaded history that comes with it, is part of his history and his identity. Can I judge him for that? Of course not. We don’t choose where and when we are born.
We shared some values, though, and it was ultimately good for each of us to meet someone so different from ourselves. I would have never imagined meeting the landowner of a cotton field and understanding his modern-day perspective. The same goes for him, how many Arabs or Muslims does he meet on a regular basis?
Nugamshi (left) at his opening at the Bates College Museum of Art, with anthropology professor Loring Danforth
Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine, 23 January 2017
I had been in Lewiston for my residency (part of the exhibition Phantom Punch, supported by the Bates College Museum of Art and the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture) for five days, setting up the studio in the city centre on Lisbon Street. At 8am, the museum’s director, Dan Mills, arrived to accompany me to the college cafeteria and after a light meal I went to the studio to finish the preparations for the performance that evening.
Sometime in the afternoon I stepped out of the studio and onto the street and a man who looked poor and was wearing shabby clothes asked me a question.
“Do you know Jesus?”
I answered “No” and continued, “Who is Jesus?”
He said, “Jesus will help you.”
“Do I look as though I need help? I think you’re the one who needs help,” I said, and handed him a cigarette from my pocket.
He took the cigarette, lit it and said, “Everyone needs Jesus’s help, and you need it too but you just don’t know it.”
He finished his cigarette and said, “God bless you” and walked off.
I went back to the studio to finish the preparations.
Nugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom Punch
By 6pm, people gradually started to arrive and the place soon filled up. I started the show by performing the first two works, Ethics and Justice, live in front of the audience. Afterwards, the audience showered me with questions, which I was not used to in my performances, and the people responded to me in a new way.
Nugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom PunchNugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom Punch
The concept behind the exhibition was to show a performance live in the artist’s own environment. It was a nice idea that reflected an atmosphere and experience worthy of debate, around the creation and execution of works.
The day ended with a light dinner with some of the audience members and the atmosphere was lovely, full of conversation and laughter.
Nugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom PunchNugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom Punch
In my research as an artist, I always try to express my work as a Saudi, an Arab, and a citizen of the world. My thinking begins with the issues that I see in my own country and ends with a message in the Arabic tongue, addressed to the whole world: الأخلاق، العدل، العلم، الجمال. [morality, justice, science, beauty].
Nugamshi teaching a class at the Bates College Museum of Art
JFK Airport, New York to King Khalid Airport, Riyadh, 2 February 2017
I was on my way back to Saudi Arabia. I had not previously considered the issue of belonging to a particular place or time as something that interests me. I think that every place that I belong to is part of who I am as a person.
A few days ago I felt sad and disappointed by the decision to deny some of my brothers from other Arab countries entry into America.
America is a country that brings together the world in all its diversity, and that diversity is rich and beautiful like a garden that brings together all kinds of flowers.
At the same time I loved the reaction of the American people challenging Trump’s decision, which is something that bodes well for peace.
This world needs nothing but peace for a dignified life, preserving the right to morality and justice.
Me with Khalid Albaih in front of the Freedom Bus at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, May 2016
As I entered the US in January, about to embark on the third year of Culturunners’ US Tour, one American road story in particular came to mind—a book called America Day by Day by Simone De Beauvoir. In January 1947, Simone de Beauvoir landed at La Guardia airport for the first time and began a four-month journey that took her from one coast of the US to the other, and back again. Her intimate diary presented a post-war America, full of optimism and opportunity, but also of racial-tension and self-delusion. Writing home to her friend (and sometime lover), Jean Paul Sartre, De Beauvoir’s observations were often critical of the “superficial Americans” she encountered, but also full of surprise, admiration even, for Americans’ capacity for renewal and reinvention. The enormous gap between her previous idea of the country and the reality she encountered on her travels made her want to share her discoveries.
America Day by Day by Simone De Beauvoir
Seventy years later, as America enters another period of reinvention, De Beavoir is the inspiration for our own road diary from America. Like De Beauvoir, we are traveling far from the safety of our own cultured circles, from the hectic glamour and social whirl of art fairs, gallery openings, and biennales; inviting artists to exchange the comfort of their urban studios and art-world schedules, for the visceral realities that only a road trip into the unknown can bring. And unlike De Beauvoir’s account, the Culturunners diary will be defined by multiple artists’ voices, traveling from the Middle East to the US (many for the first time) across the perceived ideological, political and cultural divide between East and West.
La Guardia Airport, New York, 7 January 2017
A homeland security officer flicked through the Saudi visas in my passport. He shouted across the immigration hall: “Hey Joey… is Saudi Arabia on that list?”
“It’s not. I checked before I came.” I responded quickly, pointing out that I’m a ‘Cultural Diplomat’ (in my best British accent). He ushered me through, back into America.
Tribeca, New York, 14 January 2017
The artists Sara Ouhaddou, Marwen Farhat and John Mireles left to pick up the RV from the truck repair shop in New Jersey—new brakes, windscreen wipers, wing mirror, seat belts, back lights—and head West towards Memphis. The plan is that I tie things up at the New York studio and meet them at the Graceland RV Park in a few days.
Sara is an artist from Morocco, Marwen a photographer from Tunisia and John a photographer (and my RV driving wingman) from San Diego. They left the security of their homes a few days ago, and are full of trepidation (mixed with an excited sense of timing) about the upcoming journey across “Trump’s America”.
Outside the studio, the New World Trade Center casts a shadow over the icy Tribeca streets. Through a frosty window, I can see Trump’s orange glow infecting the atmosphere of an after-work bar in this affluent neighbourhood on the edge of Manhattan. You can feel a tangible pessimism.
I walk west from the studio to the water, looking out across the Hudson to New Jersey and beyond; in the clear distance stands the Statue of Liberty (a Saudi student in Maine recently told me the original design was based on an "Arab woman wearing a modest robe and a crown"), and Ellis Island, where an exhibition about Little Syria, the first Arab American community in New York, has just closed.
It’s cold and dark when I return to the studio in the basement of a grand stone building (apparently owned by a “Middle Eastern businessman”) on Duane Street in the heart of Tribeca. I spent last year working with Abdulnasser Gharem and his Riyadh-based collective, known as Gharem Studio, to transform what was a private basketball court for the owner into a workspace and a safe-haven for a stream of resident artists from Saudi Arabia.
The studio acts as our HQ for residencies and exhibitions across the US and is part of a major Saudi-American cultural-diplomacy project headed by The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a “museum of the future” about to open on the site of Saudi Arabia’s first oil field in Dhahran. Since last year, we’ve been working on behalf of the centre to produce ten Saudi art exhibitions in ten cities across the US. This year we’re planning exhibitions in Los Angeles, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, New York and hopefully Memphis. When I’m in sales mode, I call it “the largest ever cultural diplomacy project between the US and Saudi Arabia”. The timing is perfect.
An invitation for the Parallel Kingdom exhibition at the Station Museum in Houston, Texas, June 2016. Supported by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture
JFK Airport, New York, 15 January 2017
It has been 30 months since we launched Culturunners at the Rothko Chapel and set out on this journey; the first RV we bought (an elegant 1960s Diesel Pusher) lasted only 20 minutes before the drive shaft broke—after that I settled on a more practical 1999 model called Sun Vision.
The journeys so far have involved 53 artists travelling across 29 States; we’ve covered over 22,000 miles and witnessed timely news events from an artist's point of view, including Khaled Jarrar on the border wall between US and Mexico; Khalid AlBaih exploring Civil Rights along the Mississippi; a group of young Saudi artists confronting Islamophobia in Texas and most recently Ahmed Mater at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
As we set off on the first cross-country road trip of 2017, following Sara Ouhaddou’s Out Among the Stars project, I reflect on the journey so far; it was a different America when we set out back in 2014, in search of common concerns and unofficial histories to connect the two regions. Now, I wonder what "counter narratives" the artists will uncover as they embark on their American journeys at this unpredictable moment in history.
Recording an artists' interview inside the bedroom of the Culturunners RV, Harlem, New York, January 2015