A window on the world of Arab culture

The challenges this year have been many: whether the venues and partners we work with would be open; when would international travel restart; what quarantine conditions might be in place; the ability of artists to create and rehearse; and whether our funders would be able to support us in a year when money had to be redirected to Covid relief. 

What seemed insurmountable became an invitation to respond creatively and I think we have arrived at a festival which not only builds on its 10-year legacy of introducing London to a rich offering of the latest creations by Arab artists, but also arrives at a festival model that feels responsive and urgent in the current times. 

Shubbak was originally initiated by the Mayor of London. It built on the successful India Now and China Now festivals which celebrated London’s cultural connections and brought a fresh look at the cultural energy of these economically fast-emerging nations. 

Response to the Arab Spring 

Shubbak was unique in covering more than a single country. It was conceived in 2010 and the first festival took place in July 2011. In the midst of planning, the multiple revolutions and uprisings of the Arab Spring erupted and Shubbak became quite a different festival from its original conception. It had to speak to the current moment. 

One of the concerts at Barbican, for instance, was Sounds from Tahrir Square and brought voices from that revolutionary location to the heart of London. It was this historic moment that led the steering group advising the Mayor to propose Shubbak become a regular and sustainable festival. 

The origin of Shubbak has always informed our work. When you engage with contemporary Arab culture you are never far from politics, contested histories and dominant media discourses. Artists have a unique way to engage us emotionally, intellectually and sensorily while cutting through simplistic preconceptions. 

And Arab artists, both in the region and in the diaspora, have been very savvy and authentic responding with imagination, creativity and empathy to very complex situations. These include conflicts and migration, and also economic development, the environment and human communication. We deliberately never made a distinction between where artists are based and where they operate and so we have worked with many Arab artists based in the UK and elsewhere. 

Arab diaspora in London 

We also create opportunities to reflect on London and its communities. In 2019 for instance, Moroccan artist Mehdi Annassi researched the history and experiences of Moroccan immigration in London and the gentrification of some of these neighbourhoods. He created an immense mural under the Westway, which is still in situ and now a permanent work. 

This year we will be presenting large billboards across West London, designed by Farah Fayyad that will place lyrical quotes by Palestinian authors into the urban landscape, hopefully inviting a moment of reflection, a moment of surprise and an invitation to find out more of these authors’ works. 

Iraqi visual artist Rand Abdul Jabbar has worked intensively with women from Iraqi communities to create a live performance, a series of sculptures and a website. Her beautiful installation Every Act Of Recognition Alters What Survives will be installed in London's most historic and iconic garden: Chelsea Physic Garden. 

The blended programme 

This year our live programme is smaller than in previous years. But we took a gamble and decided to include international artists at a time when most festivals decided to show only UK artists. The Palestinian company Khashabi Theatre will finally make their UK debut with their acclaimed show HASH, while Hip-Hop and Rap artists Felukah and The Synaptic will collaborate for the first time in a live concert at Jazz Café, as well as creating a new video in London. 

Other works, originally planned to be shown live, have been re-imagined as live-streams or films. Collective Ma’louba, a group of eminent Syrian theatre artists now based in Germany, explore one of the masterworks of the European canon, Danton's Death, as a meditation on what it means to create theatre in exile and how revolutions have shaped histories in Europe and elsewhere. 

We have also actively sought out new collaborators to work with us digitally and co-curate the programme. These range from Doha-based new initiative Fadaa, who are the masterminds behind a series of live-streamed events from Gaza, Marrakech, Doha and Beirut, to poetry readings from UNESCO city of literature in Slemani, live streams from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and a collaboration with Glasgow-based collective Dardishi on a series of talks and workshops. 

Partially driven by the conditions of the pandemic, Shubbak 2021 has become much more decentralised and multi-sited, offering a new festival model which may be repeated. Our audiences can for the first time be global. 

Multicultural audiences 

Shubbak has always had a strong Arab following in London – from long established multi-generational communities, to students, tourists, business people and recent refugees. But while more than 20% of the audience at the last festival identified as Arab, we were pleased that nearly 80% were non-Arab people experiencing the work of these important artists. 

You may ask how a German resident in the UK is directing a festival of contemporary Arab culture. Years ago, I travelled extensively throughout the region and was fascinated by its contemporary energy and the little-known creativity of a new generation of artists. 

In 2005 I started creating events, initially in literature and dance, that brought these artists to UK’s attention. Initially, there was little interest from our cultural institutions. But the seminal events of 9/11 (back in 2001) and the Arab Spring a decade later led to a belated but increased interest. The current discourse of representation and decolonisation only increases the demand further – something to be welcomed. 

Shubbak 2021 will be my last festival and I will pass on the baton to new leadership in the autumn. Every festival needs new ideas, concepts and partnerships. I hope that our 2021 festival offer speaks truly of the moment and I look forward seeing where else it can go in future. 

Eckhard Thiemann is Artistic Director and CEO of Shubbak

Post a Comment