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An Introduction to Arab Contemporary Culture from Shubbak Festival's Artistic Director Eckhard Thiemann

‘There have been two key events that – rightly or wrongly – have really increased interest in working with Arab artists in the UK,’ declares Eckhard Thiemann. ‘One was 9/11. The other was the Arab Spring. There’s an extent to which both events can dominate the discourse. Though more importantly, they’ve created a context in which people are more likely to seek out this kind of work than they were twenty years ago when I started.’

As the artistic director of the fifth Shubbak – the UK’s largest festival of Arab contemporary culture – Thiemann is in a prime position to appreciate quite how much more diverse the themes are that artists are currently tackling from the Middle East and North Africa. This year there will be Moroccan drag artists, complete with lipstick and beards (Kabareh Cheikhats), a movie about an Algerian who wants to turn his sheep into a fighting champion (Of Sheep and Men), and Palestinian techno (Kahareb). There will be dance exploring Lebanese mourning rituals (May He Rise And Smell The Fragrance), spectacular acrobatics from Moroccan beaches (Halka), and a spotlight on new Kurdish fiction. More than 150 artists will take part from the Arab region, Europe and the UK at venues that include the Southbank Centre, the Barbican, Rich Mix and the Battersea Arts Centre. A new partnership with The Gate Theatre (Shubbak@Gate) will see plays in both Arabic and English make their UK debut, and will include a dynamic programme for schools and young people.

‘Different audiences will be confronted with different new realities,’ asserts Thiemann. ‘I think some of the work we do with queer artists this year will surprise people – some will not be aware, for instance, that drag can come out of Morocco. But equally there will be unexpected elements in works like X-Adra, the theatre performance directed by Ramzi Shoukair about six Syrian women who have all experienced being in prison from the 1980s [when Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father was in power] till now. What’s surprising there is it’s not necessarily a work about their political activism and the injustice of why they’re in prison. The way it creates its impact is by focusing more on the personal stories of life within prison and the coping mechanisms that are developed – how human relations are negotiated in this very pressured and cruel environment.’

A lot of the works for this particular Shubbak come from Beirut, ranging from an extraordinary piece about what it means to be a mother in the Middle East – fusing references to Medea, meditations on the body, and jogging (Jogging) – to avant-garde electronica from Mo Khansa. ‘Beirut has always had a very, very lively arts scene,’ says Thiemann, ‘and is quite unique in the Arab world in the breadth of work it displays in music, visual arts, film and performance. Though I think the other reason it features so strongly this year because we are looking at expanded notions of gender, and artists are interrogating that in an open way which would be more difficult in other cities.’ He points out that, ‘We also have a really strong focus on Morocco this year which I think is experiencing a really active live young scene. We never consciously programme by country, but it’s always fascinating to observe why certain works might be coming from a certain place.’

Ever since railways in the nineteenth century spawned a cross-fertilisation of ideas that led to a flourishing of new philosophies and arts movements, it’s been clear that when art travels, the benefits are mutual between visiting performer and host. For European artists, one of the many invigorating aspects of experiencing Arab art today is how strongly it’s dominated by youth culture. ‘I’ve read just recently that two thirds of the population of Algeria is under 30,’ asserts Thiemann. ‘For me one of the most exciting aspects of programming Shubbak is that this region has the world’s highest youth population. That means that this is where the future talent will come from, where future communities will come from who we will trade with, where people will come from who will study here, engage with us, visit us. What’s particularly interesting now is that there’s a whole scene that stretches from Beirut to Casablanca and from Jeddah to Algiers of electronica artists, rap artists, and experimental music artists working very internationally. The countries they come from can tend towards being nationalistic, so I think it’s notable that the young crowd is breaking away from that.’

It’s part of a broader trend that he has noticed while programming this 2019 festival, that ‘artists are really questioning hierarchies and questioning the system. If you compare it with the 2017 festival, back then a lot of work was looking at migration, ideas about shelter, and home. The Syrian refugee crisis was at its height. Now it’s all about investigating norms and barriers across the generations, whether it’s gender or nationality. Is this surprising? One could say yes, but these are also big themes in Europe right now. The whole rise of populism, the fact that the political system’s broken, along with the discourse about #MeToo, gender and queer movements. It’s not really that surprising that Arab artists are going into the same terrain – what’s more interesting is that there’s less of an expectation that these artists would do that kind of work.’

When the Arab Spring was at its height, there was a strong wave of protest art coming from the Arab world in the form of hip hop and graffiti. A few years later there was a surge of excellent, revelatory films made by Arab women that shone a new light onto their changing societies. Has Thiemann noticed any particular art form dominating this year’s programme?

‘I think it’s become very pluralistic,’ he replies. ‘Though you can see certain geographical patterns. For instance, the Gulf has a strong emerging visual arts scene right now, but a much smaller fledgling performing arts scene. In countries like Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco the performing arts scene has a strong overlap with dance, visual theatre and physical theatre. Egypt has more of a text-based theatre tradition. These are of course generalisations, but we do notice the differences.’

Thiemann, whose specialism is dance, and who has programmed extensively for Manchester’s The Lowry among other venues, remembers wryly how he first became involved with Arab art when he was performing arts officer for Hammersmith and Fulham twenty years ago. Back then, UK interest felt negligible. ‘I could see there was a very strong community presence of Arab, Afghan, and Iranian communities in West London which at that time had no visibility or agency in the culture sector,’ he says. ‘For instance, Shepherd’s Bush library didn’t have one Arab book on their shelves. ‘So, we introduced a scheme which placed books there and started up a literature festival.’ For Thiemann it has proved the seed for a whole lifetime of exploration: following that dance introduced him to the wide range of Arab choreographers ‘with a different physicality, and with a choreographic language that came from a very different place.’

Now he is presiding over Shubbak’s largest incarnation to date, with more brand-new commissions and artists than ever before. ‘London has a long history of engagement with the Arab world, and we are sitting on very fertile territory for presenting Arab artists,’ he declares. ‘We want to carry on doing new commissions, bringing in new debates and exploring urgent themes. Through doing this we hope we will trigger ideas that will provide some of the material for the next festival.’

Written by Rachel Halliburton.

The UK’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, bringing new and unexpected voices alongside established artists to audiences across London 28 June–14 July 2019.
| @shubbakfestival

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