Jumana Al-Yasiri in conversation with Shubbak's Artistic Director, Eckhard Thiemann
Eckhard, what brought a German-born, UK-based, dance expert, to lead London’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture?
My initial interest and knowledge came from my extensive travelling through Arab countries. The professional engagement started in 1999, when I was working for a local authority in West London, which is home to long-established Arab communities. At that time, these communities had very little visibility in London’s cultural life; neither as creatives, nor as audiences. I facilitated the first Arabic book collection for the local library, created bilingual events, and secured the first Arts Council grant for an Arab writer in residence, to work with local communities and respond creatively to the neighborhood. Soon after, as Director of Woking Dance Festival, I noticed the emergence of an exciting generation of Arab choreographers, whose work was not represented in the UK. I was inspired to share the work with UK audiences. The rest is history.
Shubbak’s first edition took place in the summer 2011, only 6 months after the Arab uprisings, and did not have an artistic director. It was an invitation by the Mayor of London for cultural institutions to present Arab artists and celebrate London’s connectedness with Arab culture. The uprisings spurred the advisory group to continue with the festival and, with support from A M Qattan Foundation, to establish it as a regular point of reference. I was lucky to be appointed as Shubbak’s first Artistic Director in 2012, and since then I have made it my mission to firmly anchor it in London’s cultural landscape.
I have now also decided that the 2021 festival will be my last festival. Shubbak is in a strong position with an established track record. After this year’s 10th anniversary edition, it is the right moment to invite new ideas and impetus.
Shubbak addresses the need to highlight the richness and contemporaneity of Arab culture in a city like London, where a very large Arab and Muslim diaspora have set home for generations now. How do you make sure that Shubbak is not considered as a ‘ghetto festival’, and reaches audiences who are not necessarily familiar with Arab and non-Western cultures?
London is extremely privileged and lucky to have a very rich, international cultural life. The city is home to long-established Arab communities as well as hosting many newly arrived; it is a temporary abode to many Arab students and business people, and it serves as a tourist destination. I always felt that Shubbak needed to reflect this reality and speak with many voices to different audiences. In our last festival, 20% of our audiences identified as Arab. This is a significantly higher number compared to average attendances in London. We are really proud of this. But equally, we are really pleased that 80% of our audiences come from different backgrounds and engage with Arab contemporary culture.
I guess one way to combat the perception that we are a ‘niche’ festival is to boldly take works into the pubic realm. We have presented music in Trafalgar Square, performances and installations in the British Museum’s Great Court… both of which allowed us to reach large and accidental audiences. Equally, we present in small neighbourhood venues and can attract majority Arab audiences, because of the power of representation that such events can give.
I also always feel that we should never try to define contemporary Arab culture. This would lead to the ‘ghetto-isation’ you refer to. We should widen, disrupt, nuance, and complicate perceptions. We intentionally create a density and variety within each programme, always resisting single viewpoint works and narratives. I believe that a festival like Shubbak – and we work of course with many London and UK based artists – can help in showing our audiences the diversity existing ‘at home’ as well as through visiting artists.
Shubbak’s 10th anniversary coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Arab uprisings. What major socio-political and aesthetic transformations have you observed in the Arab artistic and cultural landscape during the past decade? And, how are these observations reflected in this year’s programme?
Over the past 10 years, from the outright destruction in Syria, to the recent explosion and financial crisis in Lebanon, and the enforced cultural repression in Egypt, the cultural fabric in some Arab countries has been severely damaged. Many artists have had to flee their countries of origin, and the diasporic experience continues to influence a new generation of artists. At the same time, I have observed a burgeoning of cultural opportunities in the Gulf, with the massive growth of an increasingly independent cultural sector with new ways of expression against still controlling state structures.
During the past decade, we have also witnessed an increasing interest in Arab artists as UK and European institutions engage in new policies to globalise their collections and programmes, responding to a renewed and urgent discourse about decolonisation and questioning a Euro-centric worldview.
Shubbak follows the artists and their creative practice. Every two years, we try to reflect on some of the major themes that artists are working on. In 2017 for instance, much of the programme explored notions of home, migration, exile and belonging, as a response to the major displacements we had seen in the previous years, particularly by Syrian artists. The 2019 festival included many works that explored sexuality, gender, and a desire for greater diversity in personal expressions. I believe that the emergence of these new voices, is a result of the uprisings that started 10 years ago. While we have not seen the political and structural changes that many people were hoping for, there is a new individual and collectively-driven audacity to stretch artistic freedom and claim space for disruptive creativity.
I am always impressed by how Arab artists navigate their practice in this complicated terrain and despite the ongoing turmoils. They so often create work that is authentic and imbued with personal sensibilities. Through subtlety, and sometimes deliberate opacity, they resist the trap of the obvious and the message-driven.
We are soon to launch the 2021 festival’s programme, also reflecting on the experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. We will see far fewer physical works in London, but a greater connectedness through digital exchanges with major international centres. Shubbak will become more de-centred. We will offer new ways of ‘being in touch’ while not being able to gather physically. Most experiences will feel intimate, allowing audience members to reflect on their own position and fragility. Expect less ‘spectacle’, and more deeply-felt personal stories and international connectedness.
Shubbak is a curated festival. You also commission new works, especially in visual arts, that sometimes live outside the festival. How does the commissioning activity fall into the festival’s life and goals?
We have always tried not to be an ‘import’ festival, and I have also always wanted London to be a source of inspiration and new creativity for Arab artists. Our invitations to artists have opened up opportunities to understand our city better, explore complex histories and allow our audiences to experience London through new eyes. Casablanca-based artist Aicha El Beloui’s neighborhood walks and research in the British Library’s oral history files, uncovered a whole new perspective of Moroccan immigration for this artist. Tunisian festival Dream City’s visits to the neighbourhood of Dalston, led to new commissions which beautifully brought to life local histories as diverse as boxing, anti-racist activism in the 80’s, and engagement with market traders. These research-led activities allow us to connect deeper with our local communities. They give space and time for new creations to organically grow, rather than always work under the urgency of the ‘festival moment’.
In an interview in Theatre Full Stop, where you were reflecting on the 5th anniversary of the festival, you say: "We also present many artists who will be coming to London for the very first time. We hope that the connections they make to our venues and audiences will lead to future engagements outside our festivals context." How does Shubbak act as a catalyst for collaborations between Arab artists and the UK arts scene, and maybe even globally, beyond the festival’s momentum?
During our festivals, we try to create many points of contact between artists and London’s arts sector. It always starts with deep and meaningful conversations. One of our programming criteria is to ask if we can be a stepping stone for the artist. A good example is 47Soul, who gave their first concert under their then old name Borderless Beats in 2013. We offered a little amount of funding for the artists to rehearse and give their first concert. Since then, they have developed into a highly successful internationally touring band. It is of course their talent, hard work and brilliance that has driven this success – but we are very proud to have offered a key intervention early on that contributed to their formation and subsequent journey.
Shubbak’s team sets an exemple of diversity and inclusion in leadership and execution. In addition to the main team, you have also implemented Young Shubbak, a collective of 18-25 years old artists and creatives who programme events that are relevant to young people’s cultural experience. How do you see the current place and future of BIPOC curators and arts managers as leaders of international festivals and organisations?
Festivals are very fluid organisatons. We grow and shrink according to demand and can fluctuate from a tiny team of two part-timers to a festival operation with over a dozen curators and producers, and a small army of volunteers. This has allowed us to collaborate with amazing local and international talents. We have aimed to keep our workforce as diverse as our programmes, and have worked with UK-based professionals as well as interns from Egypt, Lebanon, France, Italy, Holland, and Australia. I think we thrive through these collaborations that bring fresh ideas to the team. We also benefit from their global connections. Equally, Shubbak allows them to develop new networks which feed into their longer professional career plans. Our Young Shubbak group has spoken very eloquently about how they see Shubbak as a ‘home’ that uniquely combines their diasporic experiences with cultural representation.
If you have to pick one festival’s moment that brings tremendous joy to your heart every time you think about it, what would it be?
That is just such a difficult question to answer and there have been many moments. But one of the my most joyful moments was in 2019, when we presented Groupe acrobatique de Tanger at the South Bank Centre on one night, and on the following night, Kabareh Cheikhats & Mo Khansa at Rich Mix. The first event had a large traditional Moroccan family audience, while the second attracted a young hipster cosmopolitan queer audience, and at each event the reaction was electric. The audience literally stormed backstage to meet the cast of Groupe acrobatique de Tanger and greeted them with singing and ululations. The next night, a young queer crowd lost themselves in the pulsating sounds of Kabareh Cheikhats. I remember sitting on the bus going back home and thinking: 'This happened all within 24 hours. What a wonderful city to be in, what amazing artists who create such work, what amazing diverse and engaged audiences who enjoyed seeing themselves reflected in our programme.'
From the hopes and defeats of the Arab revolutions, to global political and ecological turmoils, and the ongoing pandemic and its consequences on cultural production and international collaborations, how do you see the future of a festival like Shubbak? And, what are your wildest dreams for the years to come?
The beauty and power of festivals is that they can re-invent themselves drastically. Shubbak follows the artists – at least they have always been my guiding lights. We don’t have a fixed venue, so the festival can easily shape-shift. Our audiences can change, too.
The 2021 festival will be my last festival and I look forward to passing on the baton. I believe a festival needs to stay young, adventurous, and risk-taking. The future of Shubbak should always be open to new ideas and fresh imaginations. This is my biggest hope for the festival. Over the past 10 years, Shubbak has largely contributed to ‘mainstreaming’ contemporary Arab culture into London’s cultural fabric. My wish is that future editions will extend the opportunities for Arab artists to speak to urgent global issues, and to explore our inter-connectedness in addressing the need to create a new, fairer, decolonised, sustainable, and infinitely freer world.