Black is the Color of Crossing Borders

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX


Stepping inside the Rothko Chapel for the first time, it felt as if something had been stolen from me. I hadn't been expecting "bells and whistles" to paraphrase a New York artspert but the Chapel did seem excruciatingly empty. Fourteen black panels by Mark Rothko lined the walls. They reeked of large-scale indifference, with visitors cut off and denied by the backs of fourteen silent giants.

I stuck around out of sheer bafflement more than anything else, adapting to the Chapel's velvet-like silence and considering the dark, dark paintings as so many others had. They gave nothing away.

And yet with each passing minute, the paintings started to break apart like a cloud, revealing thousands, millions of different marks. There was no black in those paintings as I had first thought, only hints of every colour, and light.

In a speech given in July 1973, Dominique de Menil describes how the Chapel and Mark Rothko's paintings embodied her late husband's vision:

"If I try to sum up John's ideal, I keep coming back to such words as honesty and truthfulness and brotherhood. A brotherhood that leaves no one out, particular those who are always excluded. He himself started at the bottom of the ladder. He vowed that if he ever got to a position of authority, he would not forget those who sees things from below, those who are never given a voice."

Directly outside the building is a shallow basin reflecting Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk (1965), an artwork that the de Menils publicly and controversially dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. It was beside this sculpture that Dominique de Menil inaugurated the Rothko Chapel in 1971.

43 years later, the same ground marked the start of a new journey.

As the sky was swallowed by twilight on 21st September 2014, a crowd gathered to break a poetic bottle on the bow of CultuRunners, a road trip beginning in the RV parked outside the Rothko Chapel, that, like the Chapel itself, offered another embodiment of John de Menil's ideal.

The inauguration of the journey featured a projection on the Chapel's façade of Mecca's current industrial transformation, captured by Saudi artist and Edge of Arabia co-founder, Ahmed Mater.

As the camera followed the artist biking through the Mecca night - with the visuals transposed onto a red brick "canvas" in Houston - Syrian musician Essam Rafea played Woody Guthrie's This Land is Our Land on the oud to a chorus of cicadas.

The event continued with a panel discussion between Sarah Abu Abdullah, whose acclaimed video work debuted at the 55th Venice Biennale; Taysir Batniji, the Gaza-born artist who had just arrived in the USA for the first time, and cultural activists and producers Fred Baldwin, Wendy Watriss and Stephen Stapleton.

Guided by Dina Al-Sowayel, Associate Director of Women's Studies at the University of Houston, the panelists explored the impact of artists' mobility on cultural misrepresentation through unofficial and personal narratives.

Another speaker that evening was Professor Ussama Makdisi of Rice University, a prolific writer of US-Middle Eastern relations, who bravely contextualised CultuRunners in light of a strained political situation:

"I wonder how this really important and fascinating project intersects with a reality that we see around us today. How do we have dialogue when we have no equals? How? The whole point of art is to subvert the history of power relations, but what extent does art actually affect and influence relate to this imbalance of power? My hope in the end is that artists can engage in a process that makes us more cosmopolitan, in the sense of understanding others but also understanding some of the strangeness in ourselves."

The nocturnal rendezvous of voices from around the world; the visual intermingling of Mecca and Houston; the American folk song expressed through an instrument of Arabic origin - these disparate strands were woven together to create a new fabric, a "brotherhood" of sorts, made possible by technology, art and a collective of wills.

The mood was set for the road journey in which the Middle East and its stories would be traced, written, ridden and driven across the roads and cities of the United States, bringing two distant regions into a digitally-powered synchronicity.

A visitor crosses the threshold of the Rothko Chapel and is literally stripped of his or her preconceptions, face-to-face with a challenge in the form of a black wall. As researcher Pia Gottschaller remarks of Mark Rothko's fourteen paintings:

"The viewer can experience the feeling of being at once enveloped by, and denied entrance to, the virtual space of his creation."

Not everything is as it seems. Apparent nothingness turns out to be a covert challenge to explore something "other" on the other side of a border. CultuRunners begins its journey from the Rothko Chapel in the same spirit, embracing this challenge and giving the experience a voice.

If there is something to be learned from the Chapel, Rothko's paintings, CultuRunners or indeed John de Menil's ideal, it might just be that by crossing borders, we end up confronting ourselves.

And that this is just one step on a very long path to understanding one another.

ARTISTS: Sarah Abu Abdullah, Taysir Batniji, Ahmed Mater, Essam Rafea

DATE: 21 September 2014


Poster designed by Kuba Rudzinski

Opening Remarks and Introduction:

Rudeina A. Baasiri - Lawyer and Chair of the board of Trustees, The Arab American Cultural and Community Center of Houston
Professor Ussama Makdisi - Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies, Rice University

Dr. Dina Al-Sowayel - Associate Director of Women's Studies, University of Houston

Taysir Batniji - Artist
Sarah Abu Abdullah - Artist
Fred Baldwin & Wendy Watriss - FotoFest co-founders
Stephen Stapleton - Artist and Edge Of Arabia co-founder

Film Screening:
Ahmed Mater - Artist
Essam Rafea - Musician

Recommended Readings:

"The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine" by Dominique de Menil

"Art and Activism - Projects of John and Dominique de Menil" by Laureen Shipsi

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