Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

This year's Liverpool Arab Arts Festival showcases artworks that promote peace

This festival, arguably their most ambitious yet, combines a multitude of events, from music to dance, visual art to a food-led celebration

Wafaa Bilal's 168:01. Courtesy Driscoll Babock Galleries and the Art
Wafaa Bilal's 168:01. Courtesy Driscoll Babock Galleries and the Art

Almost 60 years after forming in the city, The Beatles are still closely associated with Liverpool. This summer’s Liverpool Arab Arts Festival takes on the theme “the space between us” – inspired by the opening line of a track released on the album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The 16th LAAF is part of the city’s four-month celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love, the year Sgt Pepper’s was released.

Taher Qassim, chairman of the LAAF, explains the theme of the festival: “A line from Within You Without You, a track on the album, is what really inspired us – ‘We were talking about the space between us all. And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion’. It was written by George Harrison and tells of overcoming the forces that prevent us from recognising what unites us. This year’s artistic programme is mindful of the need to explore those constructs, boundaries and ‘spaces between us’.”

The UK has endured a number of tragedies this year. Terror struck at a concert filled with young people in Manchester, not far from Liverpool. Attacks also hit the British parliament in Westminster and the vibrant social hub of London Bridge. A mosque was targeted in north London, while the number of recorded race-hate crimes has been increasing. And the dozens who died in the fire in Grenfell Tower brought a spotlight on Britain’s rich-poor divide.

“We think this year’s LAAF is one of the most vital editions to date,” says Qassim, adding, “Liverpool is a great city, full of warmth and a respect for other cultures. There are big issues in this world that we can all overcome if we work together, and I can’t think of a better place in which to start than Liverpool.”

This festival, arguably the most ambitious yet, combines a multitude of events, from music to dance, visual art to a food-led celebration.

One of the stand out pieces is the restaging of Wafaa Bilal’s 168:01. The Iraqi American artist, an associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, is best known for his work Domestic Tension, a performance piece in which he lived in a gallery for a month and was shot with paintballs remotely by internet users watching from a webcam.

His work on display in Liverpool is an installation comprised of white shelves filled with blank books, a “library” that doubles as a system of exchange, inviting audiences to donate and replace some of the 70,000 texts that were destroyed by looters at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad in 2003.

The donated educational texts will replace the blank books and will be shipped to the Baghdad institution. Select donors will receive the blank tomes in return for their contribution.

Curator of The New Observatory, Hannah Redler Hawes, explains why she, in partnership with the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) and the Open Data Institute, opted to restage the work: “We were always keen that The New Observatory would include works that involved some form of active engagement from visitors. The idea of being able to repopulate a library lost as the result of the atrocities of war ... was really appealing. Bilal is a hugely poetic artist as well as an activist. The work is beautiful conceptually and physically.”

The work has been well received, with a number of texts purchased already.

“Clearly people are moved to contribute, which suggests it has had a huge impact on them,” Hawes says, adding, “I think many of us feel at a loss on how to help repair the trauma of the world right now and 168:01 provides us with a simple and beautiful vehicle to contribute something meaningful and tangible.”

Other stand out pieces include the interactive Recruitment Gone Wrong by Thomson & Craighead. Visitors must put on ventriloquist half-masks before having an exasperating conversation with America’s National Security Agency team on an NSA recruitment drive.

“It raises lots of questions about the surveyed state we’re in and our collusion in that. It is simultaneously serious and hilarious,” says Hawes.

Tania El Khoury’s As Far As My Fingertips is a one-to-one conversation through a gallery wall between an audience member and a refugee, staged in Liverpool’s historic Central Library.

The LAAF offers more than art, with the Unison Family Day serving as the finale of the festival (Sefton Park Palm House, Sunday, July 16). The line-up this year includes Alsarah and the Nubatones, led by a Sudanese-born, Brooklyn-based singer, who has been dubbed “the new star of Nubian pop” by critics. The London Syrian Ensemble will be debuting the Unison Family Day. The ensemble are a collective of some of Syria’s finest musicians based in the UK, both newly arrived and long-term residents.

Qassim has been involved in the LAAF since its inception in 1998. It was spawned from an idea between a small group of people from the Arab community in Liverpool, who were interested in sharing music and dance. Meanwhile, Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts and LAAF’s associate partner, wanted to develop links with the community to support the work that they were doing with contemporary Arab artists, particularly visual artists.

They organised an “Arab weekender” and looked to see how to grow the concept. This developed over the years into the LAAF, which is now the biggest annual festival of its kind in the UK, with an international reach.

Even as it develops its nationwide and international presence, the LAAF remains rooted in its local community.

“[The festival] delivers arts and community programmes that bring diverse cultures together, increasing appreciation and awareness of Arab culture and arts at the local, national and international levels.

“The more visible the positive aspects of a culture are, the more people can relate to it and to one another,” Qassim says.

The festival runs until Sunday, go to arabartsfestival.com/liverpool-arab-arts-festival-2017

Updated: July 10, 2017 10:07 AM