Saturday, October 05, 2013

all aboard for the Nour Festival of Middle East and North African culture

The Nour Tour Bus

On Saturday 9 November one of London's iconic Routemaster double-decker buses will travel the streets of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to the accompaniment of Middle Eastern music, courtesy of an onboard DJ.

The bus will stop at four of the borough's key venues related to Arab art: the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ismaili Centre, Leighton House Museum and the Mosaic Rooms. The bus will also stop at  Al Saqi - the capital's leading Arab literature bookshop. The £25 tour ticket covers private visits to the five venues. At midday passengers will be served with a complimentary drink and a mezze platter.

The bus - dubbed the Nour Tour Bus - is just one of the events on the programme of the two-month Nour Festival of Arts: Contemporary art, film, literature, music and performance from the Middle East and North Africa. The festival organised by RBKC in association with some 36 partners runs from 1 October to 30 November. It encompasses more than 20 venues across the borough. RBKC is home to a diversity of communities from the Middle East and North Africa, and its second language is Arabic.

from the Ferozkoh exhibition

This is the fourth year of the Nour Festival. One of the highlights of this year's Festival is the partnership with the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, which brings to Leighton House Museum the remarkable exhibition  Ferozkoh: Tradition and Continuity in Afghan Art. Ferozkoh pairs priceless historical objects from MIA's collection with modern-day interpretations by craftspeople from Afghanistan. The exhibition is MIA's first-ever touring show, and is part of Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture. Ferozkoh runs from 15 November to 23 February 2014.

Councillor Timothy Coleridge

The Festival was launched on Tuesday evening at a reception held in the splendid surroundings of Chelsea Old Town Hall on the King's Road, with live music performed by Parvaz Ensemble. In his speech Councillor Timothy Coleridge, RBKC Cabinet Member for Planning Policy, Transport and Arts, enumerated the events on offer during the Festival: six art exhibitions, 16 film screenings, 15 talks and debates, 14 performances across dance and drama music and poetry, four evenings of special events, three cookery classes, eight workshops, a Pop-up Souk, and the Nour Tour Bus.

Councillor Coleridge said: "The Royal Borough believes very strongly that arts and culture are an important part of our  borough's life. We want all our residents to have an opportunity to experience and enjoy the arts in their own communities. We believe that the arts can bring out the best in people and they can  help build together better neighbourhoods, encourage economic benefit and most important of all bring enjoyment to people's lives."

earrings from the Ferozkoh exhibition

The RBKC Council enables the Festival to happen by acting as an organiser and a catalyst. "But it is without doubt the partnership of all the organisations - you who are here tonight - and the artists represented that make it such a success."

Coleridge was sure those attending the opening would like to join him in extending thanks to Alan Kirwan, the Council's former Arts Officer.  Kirwan created the Nour Festival in its first three years. "We wish him well in his new role at the European Parliament's House of European History in Brussels," Coleridge said, adding jokingly "I expect he'll have to rewrite most of it."

Since its inception, Nour has grown and is rapidly becoming one of Europe's most significant annual showcases of contemporary arts and culture from across the Middle East and North Africa. Councillor Coleridge said:  "We always have an eye on the future, and our ambition is to make Nour year on year better and more successful. So I'm very pleased tonight that guests include representatives of prominent organisations which have not been part of Nour before but with whom we are beginning to discuss collaborations and partnerships. 

 Dr Shahidha Bari

Dr Shahidha Bari, lecturer in Romanticism at the Department of English at Queen Mary's University of London has research interests including the Romantic Poets, and Islam and Arab Culture. She said in her speech how excited she was to be at the Nour Festival  which is so obviously going to be "lively, challenging and engaging."

She had been invited to address the opening by John Hampson, the Strategy Officer behind the Arts and Culture programme at RBKC. She thought it worth noting "how hard he himself has worked on developing this very important festival, now in its fourth year, growing bigger and bolder."

Dr Bari said the festival is important for several reasons, not least because it brings something enriching and rewarding to the area: for two months it alters the complexion and nature of this particularly highly cultured part of London.

"But it's important too because it is representative of the way culture is in itself inestimably valuable. It is, of course, increasingly important that we continue to support and sanction ventures like this, providing platforms and audiences for practitioners, especially through moments of economic downturn and political tumult - even more so, in those circumstances. And the Nour Festival is an intellectual and political venture as well as a celebratory cultural one."

The Festival is freighted with the political and intellectual weight of what has happened and is happening in the Arab and North African world, Dr Bari observed. "But it's important to note that it is not simply the case that culture and the arts represent or respond to the complex social world we live in", they also "produce the world as well as reflect it. The arts not only represent but produce our world in powerful ways."

London Algerian Ballet

Dr Bari thought it important to remember that "this lovely festival, which promises to be full of inquiry and intelligence, is also a small but significant part of a serious engagement with ourselves in the present. It is an opportunity to articulate our global, collective selves, where the people of Kensington & Chelsea borough are not separable from the worlds that will be presented to them throughout the duration of his festival."

This year's Nour programme showcases the varied work of diaspora communities. The London Algerian Ballet promises to marry vintage, traditional and contemporary dance. "I don't know if we have any representatives, but in the programme you've also promised to feed us - 'A traditional Algerian meal will be served during the evening.' -  I'm there! It's at the Tabernacle on 8th Nov. It sounds amazing!

"I'm there because the ways that diaspora communities sustain, develop and transform their cultures in different places, is sacred and important and valuable work. And the programme is full of these great projects." Dr Bari also noted that the Council has made particular efforts to make the Festival genuinely participatory, as evidenced by the impressive number of open workshops, art, dance and calligraphy classes. "I think these are marvellous efforts at making our cultural engagement engaged."

The third speaker was Rose Issa of the Rose Issa Gallery, which has been a Nour partner from the start. This year the Gallery is sponsoring two events in the Nour programme. The first is the London debut of the Paris-based Tunisian artist Mourad Salem with his exhibition 'Sultans Are No Sultans' at the Leighton House Museum from 3 to 31 October.

 Beware of the Orchids by Mourad Salem, from the exhibition Sultans Are No Sultans

The second event sponsored by the Rose Issa gallery is Sajaya:Oud concert by the Egyptian composer and player Georges Kazazian at Leighton House Museum on 29 October. The recital will be Kazazian's first performance in London. 

 Rose Issa

Issa thanked the senior curator of Leighton House Museum Daniel Robbins, as well as John Hampson of RBKC. They had been extremely supportive generally, and in particular over the participation of Mourad Salem and Georges Kazazian in their events at Leighton House Museum. She said many of the artists who were promoted at Leighton House 10 or 20 years ago are now big names, thanks to this first  small-scale breakthrough in Europe.

Issa recalled how when the idea of  a Middle Eastern festival for the borough was first being mooted a few years back, Alan Kirwan - who was at that time working at  Leighton House - approached her to find a name for it. Issa is half Lebanese, half Iranian, and has been promoting for the last 30 years mainly contemporary artists and filmmakers from the Arab world, Iran and Turkey.  Nour means light, and enlightenment, and is a word that "links Arab culture with Iranian culture with Turkish culture with Kurdish culture, with many Afghans and central Asians: that was the word that linked us together." Nour opens the door for many to understand the region's cultures.

Isssa said she has always thought that "artists are our best speakers, whether it be visual arts, film or music. Giving  a platform to talented artists means opening new doors for the general public in Britain to our culture." The public is bombarded with media distortions  and this image needs to be balanced. "With  sNour and this enlightenment we can fight distorted perspectives. Nour is part of that struggle to open doors to understanding."
 by Susannah Tarbush

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