London’s Arab Summer of Culture
Susannah Tarbush Saudi Gazette 29 May 2011
On 22 July music from the Egyptian revolution will be brought to the stage of leading London music venue the Barbican Hall in a concert entitled “A Night on Tahrir Square”. The concert features the legendary music collective El Tanbura [pictured below]; singer and political activist Azza Balba; singer, composer and oud virtuoso Mustafa Said; and singer-songwriter Ramy Essam.
The concert is part of ‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’, the first-ever London-wide festival of Arab culture. Shubbak, which runs from 4 to 24 July, is organized by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and sponsored by HSBC.
The full program, unveiled at the official launch last Thursday, encompasses more than 70 events in over 30 cultural venues across the city. The program embraces the visual arts, architecture, music, dance, theatre, literature, poetry, debates and discussions. The majority of the events have been specially created for the festival, and more than half of them are free.
In a statement issued at the launch, the Mayor said: “London is a global city in which Arab culture has played a significant part over the centuries – the word ‘Trafalgar’ even originates from the Arabic language.” The festival is “a unique chance for Londoners to glimpse the breadth and excellence of contemporary Arab culture and its influence on London’s cultural scene today.”
Referring to the Arab Spring, Johnson said: “At a time of remarkable political and social change, Shubbak marks an exciting moment between artists in the capital and across the Arab world. I have no doubt that it will stimulate, delight and surprise audiences.”
Although the planning of Shubbak started two years ago, much of the program is relevant to recent developments in the region. Many aspects of the Arab Spring will undoubtedly be explored during the three-week festival.
The literature, poetry, debate and discussion section of the program is extensive. It includes the first-ever shared reading by Saudi novelist Raja Alem and Moroccan author Mohammed Achaari, joint winners of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The reading is at the Southbank Centre on 9 July.
The Mayor’s Advisor for Arts and Culture Munira Mirza [pictured] said at the launch that there are half a million Arabs in London and that in addition considerable numbers of Arabs visit London in the summer. Arab artists and organizations find London valuable for making cultural connections.
The launch included the screening of a short film on the Moroccan-born London-based artist Hassan Hajjaj who came to London as a teenager and whose work draws on the various cultural influences he has encountered.
Hajjaj is taking part in two Shubbak events. At Leighton House Museum on 21 July, he will present the renowned Tunisian singer-songwriter and actress Amina Annabi [pictured], who will be supported by the Moroccan Gnawa musician Simo Lagnawi.
On 23 July Hajjaj will participate in a celebration of the Jameel Prize 2011 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Prize is an international award for contemporary art inspired by Islamic tradition. It is an initiative of Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, the Jeddah businessman who also funded the V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.
The Jameel Prize is awarded every two years. Hajjaj was himself shortlisted for the prize in 2009. At the celebration Hajjaj will discuss a photographic work in progress by the Gnawa Master Musicians. This will be followed by a performance by Simo Lagnawi.
In another 23 July event to celebrate the Jameel Prize 2011, storyteller Xanthe Graham will perform at the V&A a new piece inspired by dialogue with the 10 shortlisted artists and designers (the winner of the prize is announced on 12 September).
The speakers at the Shubbak launch included the directors of two key London organizations involved in the festival – Aaron Ceza of the Delfina Foundation, and Julia Peyton-Jones of the Serpentine Gallery.
Ceza stressed that Shubbak “will not be a flash-in-the-pan festival; many of the events are the result of relationships that have been cultivated over many years.” He gave as an example the Tate Modern gallery’s screening on 21 and 22 July of films by the Moroccan director and poet Ahmed Bouanani who died in February. This follows Tate Modern’s collaboration with the Tangier cinema culture center Cinematheque Tanger.
The Delfina Foundation will be exhibiting two videos by the acclaimed Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, which comprise his work “Larvae Channel” [pictured]. Ceza said: “These videos explore the very local issues of concern that have had global repercussions”. One video portrays Egyptians before the fall of Mubarak, the other Palestinian refugees in Jordan.
Wael Shawky is from Alexandria, and alongside his show Delfina will mount a focus on Alexandria’s artists as part of its ongoing series “The Knowledge”.
Delfina is also involved in the “Shopopolis” project, in which artists investigate shopping malls in London and Dubai as social spaces. The project involves an exchange of artists between the UK and UAE. Two Emirati artists will come to London to explore the Westfield London Shopping Centre.
The Serpentine Gallery, based in Kensington Gardens, has a research project on the art of the Middle East, called the Centre for Possible Studies and located in Edgware Road. As part of the Edgware Road project, the Bidoun Project, which supports contemporary artists in and around the Middle East, is setting up The Bidoun Library at the Serpentine. The Bidoun Project will travel to the Serpentine to launch a special issue of Bidoun magazine produced during the Egyptian revolution.
There will be two Bidoun Library Saturday Seminars at the Serpentine – featuring Libyan writer Hisham Matar on 16 July, and Egyptian author and activist Nawal el Saadawi on 23 July.
Beirut-born Rania Stephan is a former artist in residence at the Serpentine. As part of the Edgware Road project, her film “The Three Disappearances of Suad Husni” will be screened at the Gate cinema on 18 July. Suad Husni was the famous Egyptian actress who died in a mysterious fall from a block of flats in Edgware Road in 2001.
Shubbak’s music events include a Concert for the Children of Egypt on 22 July at the Cadogan Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra and Egyptian pianist Amira Fouad. In contrast to this cclasscial oncert, on 4 July there will be a free event entitled “Musical 360 Degree Revolution into the Arab World” at ‘The Scoop at More London’ outdoor sunken amphitheatre next to City Hall. This gig will feature Palestinian Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Egyptian Mariam Saleh and “the Godfather of Lebanese trip hop” Zeid Hamdan.
In the visual arts, Shubbak will witness a new collaboration between two major institutions: Qatar’s newly-opened Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf), and the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). The joint project, “Interference”, takes place on the first weekend of the festival as “a three day exploration of art, agency and agitation in the Arab world and beyond.” It has talks, workshops, a screening and a party. It starts with a screening of Egyptian director Ahmed Abdalla’s film “Microphone”.
On a more intimate scale, the visual arts program includes the first-ever UK exhibition of Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar, with her sequence “A Girl and Her Room” [pictured] on display at the Mosaic Rooms in West London.
The theatre events present a varied picture. The Young Vic will present the ShiberHur theatre company from Palestine, performing an adaptation of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”.
The innovative project Gulf Stage, a collaboration of the British Council, the Qatar Foundation, Qatar Ministry of Culture and the Digital Theatre, will show on 15 July the UK premiere of a performance of “Screening of You...Me...The Human”, joint winner of the 2010 GCC Youth Theatre Festival.
Despite the emphasis on the new in Shubbak, there is an appreciation of the work of the great award-winning pioneering Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who died in 2008 aged 82. His filmmaker niece Marianne Khoury will introduce three of his films at the Free Word Centre on 15 and 16 July.