London's Shubbak festival, which celebrates Arab creativity, gets under way this weekend. Jessica Holland has the highlights
From the Emirati fashion designer Rabia Z to the group of Palestinian rappers who will MC under a motorway flyover, this year's Shubbak festival of Arab creativity - which gets under way in London on Saturday - can certainly boast a diversity of artists.
"It will take people by surprise," says the festival director Sue Davies. "In the western world - even in London - we have a limited concept of what Arab culture is. It's much more dynamic and cutting-edge than a lot of people realise."
The biennial celebration was launched by the mayor's office in 2011 "as a thank you to the Arab community in London and the Arab world in general", Davies says. The inaugural event ended with a memorable night of music from two dozen of Tahrir Square's most outspoken protest singers.
This year, the veteran curator Eckhard Thiemann is the artistic director and he has focused on creating links between hungry young innovators and pioneering members of earlier generations.
The Tate Modern is hosting a major survey of the work of the 82-year-old Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El Salahi, while the influential Iraqi artist Mahmoud Sabri will be featured in the first retrospective following his death last year. Special events dedicated to emerging Kuwaiti playwrights and Bahraini artists are among those that showcase up-and-coming talent from the Gulf.
Regardless of fame and experience, Thiemann says, "we were looking for artists with a very individual voice, who say something fresh and new and reflect on their own practice and on the way we're living".
"It is important in a time when our engagement with the Arab world is often seen only through the lens of current affairs or business transactions to also see the wealth of creativity that these artists have."
A two-day conference on Middle Eastern art is unabashedly highbrow, but there is plenty for just about anybody. The genre-pulverising Algerian singer Rachid Taha, who will play at the Barbican with The Clash's Mick Jones on guitar, is a wildly popular, charismatic rock star, just as comfortable on stage with Patti Smith as with Fela Kuti. "This is not necessarily all complicated, experimental work," Thiemann says.
Recognition of Arab culture is on the rise in London, according to Davies, who cites new acquisitions by the Tate, high-profile auctions of Middle Eastern art and the success of new specialist galleries. "It's starting to reach a much higher plateau," she says. "We're tapping into a really wide interest."
Here's a look at what to expect.
"A year ago I became obsessed with a few things: high-waisted pantaloons, mint chocolate chip ice cream, Downton Abbey and giraffes." Thus begins a blog post by the artist, graffiti writer and T-shirt designer Asia Fuse (aka Aysha Almoayyed), one of the up-and-coming artists whose work makes up In the Open, the first major London show of art from Bahrain. Giraffes' heads fused with human bodies, delicately shaded in pencil, make up a good chunk of Almoayyed's oeuvre.
The exhibition, which features sound, collage, photography and paintings of traditionally dressed Arab couples in sweet, playful poses, highlights the wealth of talent in Bahrain. Despite being a tiny country, Thiemann says: "Bahrain is a diverse and culturally complicated society, and that means that the art is also complex."
In the Open is just one show in a strong visual art strand that includes El Salahi's and Sabri's retrospectives as well as group exhibitions including a show dedicated to Syrian graffiti since the uprising, and one focusing on young Palestinian artists.
In the video for her 2011 single Al Kufiyyeh 3arabeyyeh, the Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour, who was born in London, raps fast and precisely in Arabic. She wears hoop earrings and a defiant sneer, and her hair is scraped back into two ponytails. Towards the end of the track, the guest star M-1, from New York's Dead Prez, rhymes in English about the kaffiyeh as a symbol of resistance.
Mansour will perform at Shubbak's closing night festival Borderless Beats, which will feature Palestinian hip-hop artists from both sides of the Jordan River as well as the US and the UK. "There's a growing Arab hip-hop scene that's fantastic and little known about outside of the Middle East," says the event organiser Dannii Evans. "People need an outlet for their voices at the moment."
In a packed music schedule that involves everything from oud-led jazz fusion to traditional Arab Christian chanting, Borderless Beats might not even be the rowdiest gig in the line-up. Rachid Taha, the rebellious 54-year-old singer who combines punk rock with the Algerian folk-protest style known as raï, will play a set of his incendiary anthems with Mick Jones of The Clash - one of Taha's most important influences.
"There are a lot of women out there who want to be fashionable and they also want to be modest. It's actually a huge market," the Emirati fashion designer Rabia Z told reporters at Milan Fashion Week, where her haute couture creations were modelled.
The line featured asymmetrical capes, voluminous silky jumpsuits in emerald and aquamarine and Gaga-style shoulder padding. The innovative brand of "conservative chic" has also been showcased on catwalks in New York and Miami and documented in Vogue and The Huffington Post.
Rabia Z will be part of a discussion at the London College of Fashion on the challenges and rewards of constructing fashion-forward attire that's in line with Muslim values and on the global Islamic clothing market, which has been estimated at US$100 billion (Dh3.67bn).
"The element of debate and discussion is really important," Davies says. "That was one of the most successful elements from the first festival: the audiences appreciated the opportunity to talk directly to the artists."
Among the many talks at this year's Shubbak are a conversation with Dr Tarek Ali Hassan, the first director of the new Opera House and Cultural Centre in Cairo; a debate by two of the authors shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and a panel on Bahraini architecture.
Madame Plaza, the dance and music performance created by the Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen after meeting three aïta vocalists in a nightclub in Marrakech, will have its UK premiere at Shubbak. The aïta are women who sing songs of mourning and love funerals and weddings, and they are the object of fantasy as well as contempt in Moroccan society.
Madame Plaza received acclaim at other major festivals around the world. Other theatrical events at Shubbak are devoted to less experienced voices, including a night of new writing from Kuwait, which encompasses staged readings, short films and poetry.
There's breathless romance and gorgeous scenery in Round Trip, the Syrian film about the taxi driver Walid and his girlfriend Suhair, who can only find privacy inside Walid's cab until they decide to travel from Damascus to Tehran by train.
After hitting festivals last year, it's getting its UK premiere at Shubbak in association with the Dubai International Film Festival and the Arab British Centre. A question-and-answer session with its director and star will follow the screening.
Also part of the film programme are the London premieres of Lust, Egypt's entry for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, and Papa Hedi, a portrait of the Tunisian musician Hedi Jouini, sometimes described as the Arab Frank Sinatra, as seen through the eyes of his British granddaughter. They are juxtaposed with a documentary made in 1971 in Morocco: A Thousand and One Hands, which tells the story of the men, women and children involved in the local carpet-weaving industry, and which was banned in its home country on its release.
Shubbak begins on Saturday and continues until July 6 across various venues in London. Visit www.shubbak.co.uk
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