Shubbak Festival: A window on contemporary Arab culture

Vision meets the director and artistic director of London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture spanning over two weeks, and finds out what not to miss

The Shubbak Festival, held in London every two years, is now in its fifth year. It has become a key event on the UK's arts calendar and is important to the Arab world, bringing together established and new artists from the region and diaspora to England's capital. The 2015 edition begins July 11 and continues until July 26. Here, we catch up with Daniel Gorman, Festival Director, and Eckhard Thiemann, Artistic Director, to find out more about the event.

Vision: Shubbak means window in Arabic. This year, there is likely to be increased focus on the Festival as more people try to understand the region. However, those from and familiar with the Middle East see the Festival as a way to reconnect with art from their homelands and neighbouring countries. For some it’s a window into the unseen. For others it’s a window into the evolving nature of contemporary art and culture. Which do you see the event as?

Eckhard Thiemann, Artistic Director: The great thing about a window is that it works in both directions: you can look out as well as in. Shubbak presents an opportunity for artists to reach new audiences and locations as well as for our audiences to experience new artistic voices.

Daniel Gorman, Festival Director: Shubbak is a perfect way to find out about the dynamic and diverse arts scene across the Arab world, both for those familiar with the region and those looking to learn more, unexpected and unique work from the region, with artists, musicians and writers coming from a wide variety of disciplines and locations. 

V: When you were deciding how the event would look this year, what considerations did you have? What questions were you asking yourselves?

ET: We asked ourselves what the role of a festival can be in a city which offers year-round regular cultural events featuring Arab artists. In this year we developed new strands which offer a real festival experience - a dense concentration of works, which allows room to compare, contrast and dialogue. We shine the light on London’s emerging Arab theatre sector with five London-produced shows.

We deliberately moved most of our visual arts programme into the public realm: the eight ‘in-situ’ projects make London’s urban spaces the stage to experience the works by Arab artists. We commissioned Michel Khleifi to personally select our film programme, and we bring together over 30 writers over two days in the British Library, which will become a hub for debate, listening and sharing - almost a festival in its own rights.

V: Do you feel there has been a greater interest in art, contemporary and traditional, since the Festival launched in 2011 – and how much is that because of events such as Shubbak?

DG: I feel there has been increased interest in the Arab world and in hearing voices from the region since the events of 2011 and onwards. In London there have been some excellent organisations and events highlighting some of the art coming from the region, such as Arts Canteen, Noor Festival, Mosaic Rooms, Arab British Centre, and of course outside of London there is the great Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.

ET: There has been a definite growth in the visibility of Arab artists in London’s cultural offer. In the last few years we have seen major exhibitions at Tate Modern, new film seasons and more Arab theatre productions visiting London’s stages...We are very pleased that many of the artists presented in Shubbak 2011 have since been programmed independently by other providers in London.

V: Imagine meeting a visitor with no knowledge or experience of Shubbak, or even Arab art. Where should she start?

DG: I would start with some of our broad, multi-disciplinary events. Furthermore the majority of the festival programme is free - so the best way to start is to explore many of our free events.

Hafla at the Square on 11 July will be a great, fun and family friendly event with artists, musicians and performers from across the Arab world perofmring. And then the same evening, Burda with Karima Skalli and the Asil Ensemble is an opportunity to hear some of the finest musicians of the Arab world perform in the wonderful Barbican concert hall.

On Sunday 12 July Visions of Palestine at the ICA will showcase films from and about Palestine, with a panel discussion with internationally acclaimed filmmaker Michel Khleifi and guests. Badke, on 14 July will be a unique opportiunity to sample the ever-growing dance scene of the Arab world, in a collaboration between Ballet C de la B, KVS and dancers based in Ramallah, supported by the A. M. Qattan Foundation.

Throughout the festival there are a number of exhibtions. At the Mosaic Rooms from 11 July onwards I Spy With My Little Eye… showcases work from a large number of emerging Lebanese artists with very strong voices. And finally, on 25 July it’s got to be The Mix at the Rich Mix, showcasing music, spoken word, performance art and more throughout the building, one not to be missed!

V: And what advice would you give to someone who is a seasoned enthusiast?

DG: For those who want to get in-depth on certain subjects, Shubbak has a wealth of opportunities.

On Sunday 12 July at the British Museum Disappearing Cities of the Arab World will host world-renowned speakers discuss architecture, post-colonialism, globalisation and psycho-geography in the region. On 18 and 19 July at the Rich Mix, D–Sisyphe is a remarkable performace by Meher Awachri reflecting on construction sites across the Arab world.

Nacera Belaza will present a number of new works at Sadler’s Wells in Into the Night on 23 and 24 July, not to be missed. Issam Kourbaj’s Another Day Lost provides a poignant reminder of the ongoing crisis in Syria, by mapping the sites of Syrian refugee camps onto the urban canvas of London, throughout the festival at various locations across London.

The Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library on 25 and 26 July offers the chance to engage with some of the finest literary minds currently creating work in the Arab world. From established figures such as Elias Khoury and Mourid Barghouti, to emerging Syrian and Omani writers, there will be a huge amount on offer over the weekend.


Shubbak Festival takes place from 11-26 July. For the complete itinerary, visit