What is the role of art in times of crisis? Vision speaks to Eckhard Thiemann, Artistic Director about what to expect at the biggest festival of contemporary Arab culture in London
More than a platform for contemporary art, the upcoming Shubbak Festival in London is set to be a citywide celebration of Arab culture itself. Now approaching its fourth iteration, Shubbak, meaning window in Arabic, will fittingly give locals and tourists alike a panorama of the best visual and performance arts, film and literature from the Arab region between 1-16 July 2017.
Originally intended as a singular event - one of many ‘cultural summers’ set up by the Mayor of London in the early 2000s - Shubbak has evolved into an independently organised biennial festival, drawing in over 50,000 people in 2015 to witness the work of over 130 Arab artists.
This year, Shubbak is expected to be the biggest yet, hosting hundreds of fine artists and performers at prime locations such as the British Museum and the Tate Modern, as well as presenting a distinctive film and literature programme at the Barbican Institute and British Library respectively, guest curated by Alice Guthrie and Elhum Shakerifar.
“What I’m really proud of is the diversity of the programme,” says Eckhard Thiemann, Artistic Director of Shubbak. Not only do the different voices and approaches on show at the festival provide an exciting variety for the visitor - from Cairokee and Tania Saleh’s politically charged music, to Cie Chatha’s experimental dance - they also provide a unique perspective on the diversity of the Arab world, all too often reduced to a singular narrative in the West.
“This is the real strength that a festival can have,” says Thiemann. “We can show work that is wildly different in a very short period of time, which prevents the singular readings that sometimes happen. For everything in our programme, you can find a different viewpoint on it.”
Conscious that the festival should not “reduce the presentation and perception of Arab artists to a uniform voice, aesthetic or approach,” Thiemann explains that the festival is not constructed around central themes, rather its focus is entirely on “individual artists with very strong visions and ideas.”
Of course, artists reflect on this world and its current state, and so naturally common themes emerge within Shubbak’s various works. “Our place in time and history is a theme that runs through the festival, I think, without it becoming the stated theme,” says Thiemann of the current political landscape in much of the Arab region, which has seen millions of people displaced. “What is important for us to hold on to? What do we cherish? How do we understand ourselves in relation to the past, and where we are now?”
Shubbak presents a wide variety of manifestations of these ideas. Some Syrian artists and collaborators, for example, directly reflect on situations of displacement - one of the performances is even called Displacement by title. “We let artists explore the themes - our role is just to have our finger on the pulse,” says Thiemann.
Thiemann explains that Shubbak has had continuous “relevance in the current affairs and cultural discourse” throughout its six years, evolving every two years alongside the Arab region’s political and cultural shifts. Where the inaugural 2011 edition was guided by the radical political spirit at the time, Thiemann says 2017 has a distinctly “deep and reflective attitude.”
“I think a lot of work at this festival is a very personal, careful, considered exploration about a situation of stasis, where don’t quite know where we are going yet,” he says of the current state in much of the region. “Shubbak shows the perseverance and resilience of artists, and the creative stimulus that even conflict can bring.”
“At the same time, the festival also shows work that is uplifting,” he adds. “Our work Love and Revenge by Wael Koudaih and Randa Mirza mixes resampled electronica music to old film clips from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. It will be a good night out, while also being politically poignant.”
Our place in time and history is a theme that runs through the festival. What is important for us to hold on to? What do we cherish? How do we understand ourselves in relation to the past?
Another core theme to look out for is the connection between the UK and the Arab region, which Thiemann says has “deep, complex roots”. Having worked with Arab artists from the UK for over 30 years, including involvement with current projects such as the British Council’s UK/UAE Year of Creative Collaboration, the Artistic Director has lived this connection first-hand. "London is a very important and strategic location for contemporary Arab culture,” he says, emphasising the city’s historical links to both the Middle East and North Africa. “So we reflect this in the programme - we make London itself a theme of the festival.”
This year, a number of Shubbak’s commissions directly reflect on the city and its relationship with the region. “We have invited two festivals from the region, the Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran festival in Beirut and Dream City festival in Tunis, to work in London neighbourhoods,” explains Thiemann, who has organised two ‘local takeovers’ in Dalston and Shepherd’s Bush. This innovation - a first for Shubbak - will see art installations, as well as musical and theatrical performances, interspersed among local markets and meeting points.
“The idea is that you can walk from one installation to other and discover the work, but also discover that neighbourhood at the same time.” And with a wide variety of artists, thinkers and performers on show throughout the entire city, what is certain is that the visitor will be spoilt for choice throughout both weeks.
Though Thiemann could never pick a favourite out of the stellar lineup, he invites all to “sample as much as possible,” adding simply, “welcome”.