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Shubbak Festival gives a window into migration, desire for freedom and a fragile existence

PUBLISHED: 19:00 29 June 2017

Three Rooms at the Arcola has two of three artists performing via a live stream.

Three Rooms at the Arcola has two of three artists performing via a live stream.

Archant

Leah Donaldson talks to Eckhard Thiemann, artistic director of Shubbak Festival, a city-wide biennial celebration of Arab culture and history

“Shubbak”, the Arabic word for “window”, is a fitting name for London’s biennial festival celebrating Arabic culture.

Planned as a one off event for 2011, the first Shubbak Festival fell only six months after the emergence of the Arab Spring. Weighted with unfolding events, it acted as an important platform for Arab artists, writers and performers to visualise and discuss a future beyond the present. Falling at a pivotal time in Arab cultural history, the organisers decided the event was too important to happen just once.

This is artistic director Eckhard Thiemann’s second time curating the festival, which takes place this July in venues across London. ”I have always said that Arab artists are very globally positioned and creative individuals who comment on important things for our time,” says Thiemann. “They should have a powerful voice in London.”

However, bringing together artists from across troubled borders has its difficulties. One performance, ”Three Rooms”, being shown at the Dalston’s Arcola, is a live film that takes place in Istanbul, Paris and London simultaneously, with two of the artists performing via a live stream.

Originally planned as a play, it became increasingly difficult for the two Syrian performers to secure visas in order to rehearse together. As a result, the performance evolved beyond its physical restrictions.

”I think this is a really good example of how artists can be incredibly creative and innovative when dealing with a difficult situation,” he says. ”The artists decided themselves: ‘We’re not going to come together in London. We’re going to create a performance which is about absence, about being together, but not in the same room.’”

The festival hopes to tackle subjects such as migration, desires for freedom, and the fragility of existence in a world of constant political turmoil.

Collaborating with two influential festivals in the Arab region, many of the pieces have been chosen for specific locations in London, with the aim to develop a creative dialogue that translates across borders.

”We invited the festival from Tunis, Dream City and their artistic directors Selma and Sofiane Ouissi to think through something for Dalston. They came to London twice and really got to know the neighbourhood.”

Artist Malek Gnaoui’s film “Dead Meat Moving”, explores ideas of a socio-political system ”stripped to the bone”. Filmed in an abattoir in Tunis for Dream City, Shubbak is screening the video on Ridley Road, in close proximity to the market’s meat stalls.

“We always wanted to make sure that London itself becomes an inspiration and a theme for the festival, so it doesn’t just feel like these artists are catapulted into the city, but that the work should speak very closely to local conditions,” he says..

“Our aim is to bring out people who wouldn’t normally encounter it. The reason why we show work in markets and unusual spaces, is that we can reach people who may not buy tickets to our concert venues, for instance.”

With a varied programme of art, dance performances, and even an Egyptian film/electronic dance music mash-up, the festival offers something for everyone.

”In our last festival, 24 per cent of our audience were of Arab origin or identified with Arab origin. We were very pleased about this very high percentage, but at the same time we were immensely pleased for the 76 per cent who were not Arab.

”I think one of the strengths of the festival is that we show some quite mainstream work, and we show some very progressive, edgy work. Our audience always find the right thing for them.”

Shubbak Festival is at venues including the Arcola, Sadler’s Wells, Hackney Showroom, Rich Mix and Barbican Centre,

July 1-16.

Full programme: shubbak.co.uk

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