'Arab Women Artists Now' (AWAN) Festival, London 2015 –Let’s Celebrate International Women’s Day, British-Arab Women Style!

+ AWAN’s Mastermind Aser El Saqqa


I know this much is true, that to be an Arab woman in today’s world has its many challenges no matter what you do, where you live, your country of birth, how old or young, married or single. But there is no need to list the grievances here or dwell on the negatives, when this month brings the opportunity of ‘International Women’s Day’; an annual occasion to create, attend or otherwise engage in the thousands of events organically taking place all around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa region.

With its positive spirit and energy, International Women’s Day always brings women together in different groups or formations to firstly celebrate being a woman and then to otherwise engage with the issues dear to our gender. On the global level, there is always the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) that is held in the UN Headquarters in New York; and, in the United Kingdom alone, there are at least 312 separate events taking place.

But for the very first time in London this year, surprisingly it is one man – who clearly supports the Arab-female cause! – who has been working hard to set up and organise an event that uniquely caters to the British-Arab woman. The ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ (AWAN) Festival will be an extravaganza day to highlight the achievements of Arab women living in the UK, with a focus on those working in the arts and creative field. It will take place on 7 March, 2015 at the Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London, E1 6LA.​

AWAN will bring a British-Arab pedigree of spoken word, storytelling, dance and visual presentations, a panel discussion as well as the launch of an art exhibition and a musical performance. It will offer a London audience the rare opportunity to attend, mix and mingle, share and appreciate the whole range of British-Arab female talent that was already existing but just had to be tapped into and unearthed by the AWAN mastermind Aser El Saqqa, of Arts Canteen.

AWAN’s Mastermind, Aser El Saqqa, of Arts Canteen

Behind AWAN is the Palestinian Aser El Saqqa, director of Arts Canteen. He has been curating art-projects from the start with the aim of stirring the scene; by bringing the works of emerging artists from the MENA world and their diaspora to a London audience. Through this, El Saqqa has been instrumental in managing and representing artists who might otherwise have no support whatsoever and no opportunity to do what they do best.

Since the birth of Arts Canteen, he has successfully brought to life in the past four years many wonderful Arab musical acts, art exhibitions, being involved with other London art festivals and even holding an Arab-inspired comedy evening. I asked him what has now inspired him to create the AWAN festival.

El Saqqa: “It is to reflect on the issues we have encountered and which face both the artists and audiences from the Arab diaspora. Some of the issues are: engagement with the UK arts infrastructure, lack of funding, cultural and religious taboos, working under censorship, responding to political conflict, challenges of integration, lack of profile amongst non-Arab audiences, lack of recognition of their contribution to the UK arts scene as Arab women and the artists’ right to a livelihood.”

Being a pilot-festival, AWAN will also have a research and development element to decide whether it can be done annually and how to improve the experience. During the festival day, there will be a consultation exercise with artists and interested partners to assess how the professional needs of the artists might be supported through future work under the AWAN umbrella.

El Saqqa said: “We are anticipating Arab and non-Arab female artists who will be attending as members of the audience. Their support and engagement at this pilot stage will help to build sustainability for the event in the coming years. My hope is to build on and consolidate Arts Canteen’s curating and programming experience with new, emerging and profile women artists from the Arab diasporas and to recognise their contributions in the UK and beyond .

The AWAN Festival Highlights

The festival highlights for the day include: two spoken word performances by poets Fajr Tamimi and Hala Ali, a storytelling segment by the actress Alia Alzougbi, a presentation by visual artist Maiada Salfiti, a presentation by theatre-maker Nesreen Nabil Hussein, a contemporary dance act by Tania Salmen and a panel discussion on the experiences and challenges of Arab women artists, curators and producers in the UK.

This latter will be chaired by Roya Arab, who is an archaeologist, musician and poet rolled into one! And will feature the editor of Kalimat Magazine Danah Abdulla, the playwright Hannah Khalil, the film curator Yasmin El Derby and the dancer and event producer Tania Diggory.

The AWAN Exhibition 'It's About Time' +  'A Musical Journey'

The AWAN festival will also include the launch of an art exhibition entitled ‘It’s About Time’ that will explore the issues of the female identity, ethnic origin and politics; aiming to provoke thought, discussion and to generate a renewed perspective on the role of contemporary art in today’s society. 

Curated by Zina Papageorgiou this collective show will bring the contemporary artworks of several women that span across a wide range of practices. Those taking part are: Dia Batal, Inas Halabi, Saadeh George, Shirine Osseiran and Malika Sqalli. Also being held at Rich Mix, it will be open for viewing until 29 March, 2015.

Last but not least, the festival day ends with 'A Musical Journey' that will feature a great line-up of prominent Arab women musicians including: Reem Kelani, Reham and Christelle Madani.

For more information on AWAN via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/705850842865897/

For more information on Arts Canteen: http://new.artscanteen.com/event/arab-women-artists-now-awan/