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'Bold and Subtle' Shubbak 2017: Artistic Director Eckhard Thiemann on Arab Art

Shubbak (meaning ‘window’ in Arabic) was founded in 2011 by the Mayor of London. It's London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, emcompassing art, literature, music and performance. Artistic Director Eckhard Thiemann writes for us.


Less than one week to go before kick-off of Shubbak 2017 –  artists are arriving, our team is growing, the last preparations are made in theatres galleries and concert venues, articles in press and radio interviews are appearing. It is all systems go. It’s an exhilarating time, and a nerve-wrecking time, filled with excitement and expectation. Shubbak started in 2011 as part of an initiative by the mayor of London to dedicate a summer of culture to a particular country. Following seasons dedicated to India, China and Brazil, Shubbak was already different in that it focussed on a whole region. Planned in 2010 and taking place in summer of 2011, it also suddenly had to change course and reflect the rupture of the ‘Arab Spring’ which exploded in winter and spring of 2011.  Suddenly Shubbak could not just be a festival of celebration and showcasing art from the Arab region anymore. Shubbak had to also speak to current affairs and express the urgent thoughts and questions that artists and societies were asking about their future destinations.

Now as an independent organisation and with myself as artistic director we are committed to follow artists and give them the widest platform to speak about what matters to them. And at Shubbak we champion the new, the risk-taking and innovative work that makes us look at our world in a different light.

There is a new generation of female artists in Saudi Arabia, for instance, who create deeply personal work. Jeddah-based Zahrah Al Ghamdi will for the first time create one of her large floor installations in front of an audience in the Great Court of the British Museum. Constructed from sand, building material and bits of discarded textiles, Inanimate Village speaks as eloquently of the lost heritage of Saudi domestic village life as is refers to examples of 60ies land art by artists like Richard Long or Robert Smithson. Syrian artist Sulafa Hijazi’s Animated Images uses the latest technology of lenticular print-making to layer images drawn from war scenes alongside personal snapshots. Poignantly she ask us of our ethics of consuming images in our societies where algorithms can place the gruesome right next to the banal without any value distinction.

I think artists are uniquely positioned to expose such contradictions. I have just come back from seeing Mitkhal Alzghair’s performance Transaction in Paris, which we will show at Hackney Showroom. This Syrian artist, now based in France, also investigates images of conflict zones. But now translated as a live performance with ‘real’ performers, he brings out the human again as we try and decipher these all too familiar poses. Suspended in harnesses from the ceiling, and counterbalancing each other, the four performers in gradual shifts and slow constellations create emotional tableaux of delicate existences – a precarious situation where the slightest of shifts can cause huge consequences. There is snow falling on the ground, water dripping from a suspended bucket and performers constantly change between active and passive modes. Their ground is unstable, the atmosphere febrile.

This fragility also comes through in our commissioned interventions in local neighbourhoods. This year we for the first time invite festivals from the Arab region, to come to London and work with us to create new works, which are inspired by an outside perspective on London. Sofiane & Selma Ouissi, the artistic directors of the Tunis-based festival Dream City, curate new works for us in Dalston. Reflecting on the fast development and the threat to older communities in this diverse neighbourhood, they selected Egyptian director Laila Soliman and her collaborator Ruud Gielens  and Tunisian artist Malek Gnaoui to respond to local contexts. Laila is currently interviewing people older than 50, who played an active role in resistence movements in the 60s, 70s and 80s. She was fascinated by the synergies but also tensions between socialist, anti-racist and LGBT movements in East London, and will from these interviews create an installation performance in the Bootstrap Bunker. Visual artist Malek Gnaoui explores the long history of boxing in the East End and will interview former and current boxers. He is fascinated by a common history of boxing and its link to religion and spirituality in Tunisia. The resulting installation Sur-Round will be placed in St Barnabas’ Church Hall.

Another innovation is our first panel of out queer writers in our literature programme at the British Library. Gay characters and narratives have of course featured in Arab literature through generations, but it is only recently that writers self-identify as queer and boldy and daringly tell their stories – not necessarily autobiographically, but in fiction. London based Saleem Haddad, whose first novel Guapa last year created a real stir in the UK literature scene as well as internationally, is joined by Lebanese writer Alexandra Chreiteh and Jordanian writer Amahl Khoury.

I think much of the work in this year’s Shubbak has a delicate and fragile quality.  Compared to the first festival in 2011, this is not the shouting, declamatory art of protest and revolution at the start of the Arab Spring. But we see now an equally risk-taking attitude in the subtle, the meditative, the careful and the doubtful – and I believe this reflects powerfully the mood on our current time, which feels more fragile, less safe and sceptical of the future.



Shubbak 2017 is from 1 – 16 July across London.

Full programme at: