Art message, visions of Islam in Britain [Archives:2003/635/Culture]

May 12 2003
Stephen in Aseer dances
Stephen in Aseer dances
portrait (Times in Yemen)
portrait (Times in Yemen)
Fahmia Al-Fotih
Since September 2002 a team of young British artists have been spending a year immersed in the Islamic world, creating a visual account of Islamic cultures in the 21st Century. Throughout the journey they have been collaborating with contemporary Islamic artists, taking part in local workshops and staging exhibitions. Visions of Islam will then present Britain with an original and accessible portrait of the modern Islamic world from Brixton to Esfahan, Damascus to Marseilles.
The team is Al Braithwaite, Henry Hemming, Stephen Stapleton, Georgie Weedon and Mouse Cazalet. Stephen Stapleton, who is one of these artists, has recently been to Yemen.Fahmia al-Fotih, Yemen Times reporter, has seized this opportunity to meet him and conducted the following interview.

Q: What is the purpose of the your project?
A: The main purpose of the project is devoted to make a booklet of these countries looking specifically into Islamic culture for audience in Britain. So we have a big exhibition organized in London February 2004. We hope to give British audience a way into Islam other different from Television, from obviously what everyone is talking now, which is the war and fundamentalism. So it is important art is very good way to people to look into Islam in different way. The second point of the project is to collaborate with Islamic artist and talk to people where we go. So that's why we would like to speak to the press and get out story as there are many people in western world and Britain are very interested in other aspect of Yemen or Oman Islamic culture. So we are doing lectures in schools, workshops, seminars mostly we did in Iran and Muscat. We have spent much time because of the war and we have a car and we cannot drive it here as it is English car and driving across the border from Oman to Yemen becomes difficult, as it is not so safe. The other four I left them in UAE week ago and they drove quickly at night over to Jordan to prepare for exhibition there. We have website www and we are planning to make a book and it will be only visual as we are artists not writers.So we have some people to do this in England. We would like also to make national-wide schools lectures to England and we are going around schools and make presentation about our journey working with British Council to make a link between schools in the countries we travel with British schools. More than more one million Muslims in England, however, most of Britons do not know anything about Islam and Qura'n and they do not understand the different ways that Islam is interpreted which is very different we found in different countries.

Q: How does the idea come to make such a mission?
A: The reasons are that five of us are interested in being artists abroad- artists traveling. Secondly, Islam in the Middle East the biggest philosophical and actual conflict.. It is the issue of the news. Moreover I have been brought up surrounded by mosques in London but regretfully I have no idea about this religion and culture . So there is drive want to understand Islam and use this project to other people to understand it. Moreover, we want to visit the places we see on TV and find different reality and feedback.

Q: How your pictures and portraits can convey your Islam visions?
A: Ok. For example, the common image about Iran in America and Britain is that Iranian people hate America and burning American flag and so on. However, when we go to Iran as artists, our job to tell the pure truth, and what we saw is nothing like that. Really we did make beautiful pictures about Iranian architecture and building that I get amazed by and interested in its geometry. Another example is about Yemen. British people do not know that Nassem Hamid the boxer is from Yemen. He has Yemeni spirit and he is tough in boxing but he is really good guy. It is important to know that the artist may be among thousands people who see TV. but artist goes deeper thousands times. That's why art and poetry is writing for not to be as a big TV picture. So art conveys the truth that goes further and stay longer. Q: What are the obstacles that you have faced during the journey?A: Not as many as you think. But because of the possible war, it becomes difficult to get visa in some logistic areas. Language is also a difficulty for me. In fact, I would like to speak Arabic but now I feel as child hungry and pathetic.

Q: How was your impression before coming to Yemen?
A: Obviously, I read a lot of books about Yemen; its architecture, landscapes, Shebam and Bab al-Yemen as well as the history starting with the Yemen famous raisin roads until now. Actually I have had a jumble of beautiful pictures mixed with slightly worries about the news about Yemeni fundamentalists. I was scared a little bit as I was advised where to go and drive.I have been in Yemen for five days and I cannot say much. However, it seems that Yemenis have strong culture. Yemenis are not as we hear that they are fierce and wild people with guns and knives. On contrary they are friendly and kind-hearted people. Where I stay I have seen how young take care about the elderly ones and how they live altogether that thing is not common in my culture and really I feel jealous.
Q: Whom would you like to thank?
A: I would like to thank mainly British Council who has been excellent in every country we go. They help us with connection to the press meeting Arab artists.In terms of money we depend on selling art on the way and having some individuals and people help who hear about the project.
Q: Your next steps?
A: I hopefully want to visit Aden, Hadramout then to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and finally going home. I have to go to Bangkok, as I have to teach art there in next summer.