MY STORY The arts of SWANA, the new Middle East, return with Shubbak

Ten years ago Shubbak, London’s biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, returns with a programme ranging between visual arts, film, music, theatre, dance, literature and debate, running from June 20 to July 17. Its artistic director is Eckhard Thiemann

What does Shubbak mean, and what prompted you to start a festival of contemporary Arab art and performance?

Shubbak means window and our strapline is a "Window on Contemporary Arab Culture". For me a window works both ways and Shubbak has always tried to bring works from different places to London, while equally reflecting on our own local conditions and locations through the engagement with contemporary Arab culture.

I did not start the festival. Shubbak was planned in 2010 as a one-off season by the Mayor of London to celebrate London’s connections with the Arab world. It eventually took place in the summer of 2011, just six months after the so-called Arab Spring. This historic moment galvanised the steering group, under the leadership of Omar Qattan, secretary of the A M Qattan Foundation, to plan for an ongoing engagement with Arab culture through a festival model. I was appointed as artistic director in autumn of 2012.

What is your own background and how did you become interested in Middle Eastern culture?

I have worked in culture for over 30 years, primarily in dance. I travelled through many Arab countries in a personal capacity, and started utilising this knowledge professionally when I was performing arts officer for London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham from 1999. West London has had a high density of Arab communities for many years, and at that time members of the community had little or no visibility in London’s cultural offer; neither as creatives, nor as audiences or participants.

I initiated the first collection of Arabic language books for local libraries and organised bilingual literary events. The rest is history.  I presented the first focus season for Arab choreographers at Birmingham International Dance Festival in 2010, and then went on to curate Liverpool Arab Arts Festival in 2011.

Where does the festival take place, and why is London the best place for it?

The festival spreads itself across multiple locations in London. In previous editions we worked with such diverse venues as The Royal Opera House, British Museum, Sadler’s Wells, unusual locations like Shepherds Bush Market, Dalston Market, and a huge wall under the Westway. This year our physical programme will be smaller and we are working with venues like the Barbican and Artsadmin, and have sought out new outdoor locations such as Chelsea Physic Garden. New to us will be the extensive online offer, which connects us through digital commissions with many partners across the Arab world from Casablanca, Cairo, Algiers to Dubai and Slemani and we will be live-streaming from Beirut, Gaza, Khartoum, Marrakech and Doha.

London is probably the best-connected city to the Arab world. Long historic links are complemented by current trade and tourist ties as well as significant student populations from Arab countries. In addition, London is the home of many Arab communities and new generations from hybrid backgrounds. Our shared histories can be complicated and contested, but this offers a rich background for engagement.

How is it funded?

We have four principal funders. We have become an NPO of Arts Council England in 2018 and have an operational alliance with British Council. In addition, we have a three-year grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to support our community and participation programme. The A M Qattan Foundation further supports the festival’s programme. In addition, we fundraise from a variety of sources for individual projects.

Is the audience largely of Middle Eastern backgrounds?

Our audience figure of 2019 show that 20% of our audiences self-defined as Arab. This is a much higher proportion than the percentage of the Arab population in London, so we are attracting a good Arab presence. But we are equally pleased with the 80% of our audience who experience this work and are not from Arab backgrounds. The attraction of the festival is its broad appeal. Many of our works are free and in the public realm and can be seen by a wide range of audiences.

Where do the artists come from?

We work with Arab artists wherever they are. Experiences of life in Arab countries and in the diaspora are both part of contemporary culture and the dialogue often leads to rich conversations. We also embrace diverse cultures within Arab societies and have shown artists of Amazigh, Kurdish, Armenian and other backgrounds based in Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries.

Is “Middle East” the best modern term for the region?

Terminology is always slippery and complex and subject to change. Our focus is on artists and their work and we try and avoid limiting their identities to simplistic definitions. Having said this, the term SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa) is increasingly used and promoted by artists and young activists and we have adopted this as our preferred term.

The arts in Britain have absorbed elements of many other cultures – black, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani, European, even Chinese, to name a few. Is that happening with the Arab arts?

Of course, one of the strengths of UK culture is its ability to have a dialogue with diverse cultural influences. It is not about Arab arts as such, but individual artists. From major writers like the Eygptian novelist Ahdad Soueiff and the British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar to visual artists like the Palestinian-born Britain-based artist Larissa Sansour and new collectives such as the feminist queer Pride of Arabia – the UK’s culture is enriched and developed through the interchange with Arab artists and their experiences.

Has Shubbak changed in its five iterations in ten years?

Shubbak has developed significantly. We moved from a “presentation” festival to a commissioning festival by being instrumental in creating new works through commissions with national and international partners. In 2017 and 2019 we increased our commitment to touring and parts of our programmes were presented at The Lowry, Dance East, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Bradford Literature Festival, Lighthouse Poole and many other places.

Sadly, touring has had to be completely curtailed this year., but this year’s online programme takes us into a much more multi-centred presence, where the festival locations include international cities through live streams. Last but not least, the presence of our Young Shubbak group of young curators and artists bring a whole new generation to our curatorial offer.

You have decided to stand down after this festival. Why, and how would you like to see the festival develop?

I believe that every festival needs fresh ideas, approaches and connections. My work has been very much about “mainstreaming” a sector which did not have sufficient visibility and agency. I can proudly say we achieved this in a significant way. I believe Shubbak needs now to connect in a fresh way with new and different discourses; of identity and representation, of decolonisation and agency, and with the amazing talent of younger generations in the Arab world. It is time to pass on the baton – and I hope to see the festival develop in a way that it keeps its risk-taking and progressive energy, but leads to the kind of presentations and formats of which I could never have dreamed.

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