London’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, Shubbak, returns in June this year with a burst of visual art performances comprising film, dance, music and theatre. Celebrating culture and heritage, the biennial festival will host performances by more than 100 renowned artists from around the Arab nation over a period of 17 days, ranging from free outdoor events to intimate, conceptual performances. “Notions of gender are being expanded, divisions between generations are explored, and the questions of nationalities and identity are all themes that run through our programme,” says Eckhard Thiemann, Artistic Director of the Shubbak festival. “This year’s festival explores the questioning of the norm - we are working in times in which many previous certainties have become unhinged."
The 2019 festival will provide a distinct platform for Arab art and culture outside of the MENA region. “We consider London to be a cauldron of Arab creativity—and we try and harness this energy,” says Thiemann. “We have long-established Arab communities for whom London has been home for many years as well as a new generation of newly arrived.”
Fethi Sahraoui. Belonging Sideways. Courtesy of Fethi Sahraoui
Gate Theatre will showcase works from artists never before seen in the UK, including theatre performer Enkidu Khaled. Having left Baghdad in 2007, the artist incorporates his personal experiences into his award-winning performance, Working Method. “If you have gone through a traumatic event, how can depiction of it ever be truthful, how can art ever be authentic?” questions Thiemann. “Khaled has found a very interesting form to ask and to some extent answer these questions.” During the performance, the artist draws on his past from Iraq and transforms his memories into a powerful theatrical show.
Over at the British Museum, the audience will witness an enthralling performance by Moroccan artist Youness Atabane alongside a documentary that portrays the roots of Moroccan art from the 21st century. Set in 2045, The Second Copy represents the political conflicts of the time and in particular, a period in which Europe experienced political turmoil. Through the footage, the audience is taken on an interactive journey between fiction and realism.
Casablanca-based creative director and graphic designer Aicha El Beloui will walk through the North Kensington neighbourhood contemplating the history of Moroccan immigration. The artist will then project her explorations onto a black-and-white map, showing the routes between London and Morocco. The audience can revere the artistic map in both paper and digital forms.
Ayman Baalbaki. Evolvo. Courtesy of Shubbak
The Southbank Centre will be home to Tunisian dancer Mohamed Toukabri’s intimate solo dance performance entitled The Upside Down Man (The Son of the Road). Moving between two cultures and traditions, the dancer masterfully expresses his journey of self-discovery. “It is honest, subtle and gradually comes to the conclusion that ‘in-betweeness’ is a fertile and non-threatening state of being,” says Thiemann, of the dance. The artistic representation sheds light on themes of identity, perception, society and change through an exploration of the artist's personal experiences in North Africa and Europe.
Musical performances will include dances and vocals by the Cabaret Cheikhats, as a tribute to Morocco-based female folk singers, traditionally known as Cheikhats. Directed by Ghassan El Hakim, the group comprises 11 actors and musicians. Through a compelling re-enactment of songs with the overarching themes of love and independence, the performance will represent the traditional politics of gender ambiguity. A range of other musical performances will be hosted including Beirut-based multidisciplinary artist Mo Khansa’s explorations of identity and emotions, expressed through traditional Middle Eastern belly-dancing and other visual entertainment.
Mehdi Annassi. Mural. Courtesy of Shubbak
At the British Library, a group of artists will explore a range of artistic themes depicted through the art of storytelling. The programme, Bold Voices, will take the audience on a journey of artistic expression by Lebanese poet and actress Dima Mikhayel, British-Iraqi writer and filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi, and Lebanese-born comic artist Joseph Kai.
The Literature Programme will also feature a diverse discussion and performance called The Endless Wave: Feminist Writing Now by Franco-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani, novelist and web comic artist Deena Mohamed, and Saudi journalist Al Beshr. A wide range of alfresco musical displays, performances, installations and workshops will be hosted at the National Theatre, a stone’s throw from South Bank besides the River Thames over three days. Open to the public, the buzzing site will combine cultural elements from London and the Arab region to bring together evocative entertainment by Paris-based Lebanese music producer Hadi Zeidan and London-based musical artist Amira Kheir.
The leading festival in London providing a window to contemporary Arab culture and art, Shubbak will unearth the compelling roots of Arabian heritage, providing a platform to celebrate and appreciate the authenticity of creative expression. “I believe that the strength of the festival is its breadth and diversity,” says Thiemann. “I hope our audiences will be moved, excited, surprised and feel engaged in equal measure.”
Shubbak runs 28 June-14 July 2019 in partnership with the British Museum, Gate Theatre and more
Watch Arab designers take over the red carpet below