AWAN Returns: Niche Festival Strengthening Arab Female Creatives in London, in Style and Now!

Awarded pioneers in ‘stirring the arts, breaking down borders and telling unheard stories’ in connection with the Arab world in London, Arts Canteen is also hosts the annual ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ (AWAN) festival. Organised and directed in collaboration with partners, it is now in its fourth edition and will run throughout March, to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Bringing forward the diverse talent, achievements and industrious work of Arab female creatives, AWAN offers not only the chance to attend and enjoy the artistic programme, but it also enables direct networking opportunities – through workshops and the ‘Connect’ programme – whereby established and emerging arts professionals can engage with each other and help guide new hopefuls who may wish to break into the field.

Proving highly popular for its intimate niche outside of the mainstream IWD women events in the UK and abroad – for example, the ‘WOW’ festival at the Southbank Centre – last year’s AWAN attracted an audience reach of 26,000 in London and beyond, both in reality and virtually online.

In terms of what AWAN aims to provide for its visitors, founder of Arts Canteen, Aser El Saqqa, said to Nahla Ink: “AWAN will raise awareness, attract attendance from and create conversations among large numbers of different types of people. In effect, we enable and market positive new ideas about Arab identity at the grassroots, across a broad social spectrum.

“In addition, AWAN community cherishes its ability to strengthen cultural pride and positive self-identity among Arab diasporas in Europe as well as spread a message of Arab talent, harmony and creativity to non-Arab audiences.”

This year the schedule runs from 1-25 March and will host over twenty separate events under the categories of music, comedy, film, visual arts, performance and the informative and practical workshops. Each of these will take place in one of these venues: Rich Mix (Shoreditch), the Royal Albert Hall, Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, Chatham House, the Arab British Centre or the Book Club.

For the fantastic line up and plan your AWAN visit: https://www.awan.org.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2015: Let’s Celebrate British-Arab Women Style!

I know this much is true, that to be an Arab woman in today’s world has its challenges no matter what you do, where you live, country of birth, how young or old, married or single. But there is no need to list our grievances 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.

With its positive spirit and energy, International Women’s Day always brings women together in different groups or formations to celebrate being a woman and engage with the issues dear to our gender. On the global level, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meets annually at the UN Headquarters in New York and brings activists to address relevant issues. Whilst in the United Kingdom, there are at least 312 separate events registered online to take place.

For the very first time in London, it is surprisingly one man who has been working hard to organise an event that caters uniquely to the British-Arab woman. Aser El Saqqa, who clearly supports the female cause!, is the mastermind  behind the ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ (AWAN) Festival that will be an extravaganza day to highlight the achievements of Arab women in the UK, with a focus on those working in the arts and creative field. It is scheduled to take place on 7 March, 2015 at the Rich Mi venue in Shoreditch.

AWAN will be showcasing 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 be a rare opportunity for attendees to mix and mingle, share and appreciate the range of British-Arab female talent that exists already but has not been tapped into until now.

AWAN’s Mastermind: Aser El Saqqa of Arts Canteen

Behind AWAN is the Palestinian Aser El Saqqa, who is Director of Arts Canteen. Arts Canteen is a company that curates arts and music projects with the aim of stirring the arts scene; and, to bring the work of emerging artists from the MENA region and the Arab diaspora to a London audience, El Saqqa has been instrumental in managing and representing many artists who might otherwise have no support whatsoever and no opportunity to do what they do best.

Since the birth of Arts Canteen four years ago, the endeavour has brought to life many Arab musical acts, art exhibitions, involvement with other London arts festivals, and even holding an Arab-inspired comedy evening. I asked him what has 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.”

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.

AWAN Exhibition + A Musical Journey

The AWAN festival also includes 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 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.

Last but not least, the festival day ends with a musical journey with a line-up of prominent Arab women musicians including: Reem Kelani, Reham and Christelle Madani.

For more information on AWAN: https://www.awan.org.uk/

For more information on Arts Canteen: https://artscanteen.com/

Note; This article was first published circa March 2015

Mohammed Joha: Palestinian-Gazan Artist On ‘Joha – The Journey’ Exhibition

I first met with the 37-year-old Palestinian artist Mohammed Joha a couple of days in advance of the launch of his latest solo show at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch. He was with Aser El Saqqa, the curator of the exhibition, as they were taking care of the last touches to the artworks before the final presentation to a London audience.

The two men, both from Gaza, have been in collaboration for quite some time, as El Saqqa has also organised two previous shows for Joha in the United Kingdom. The last one, held in Durham in 2014, was under the theme of ‘Traces and Revelation’s, where Joha’s work was alongside that of another Gazan artist and friend Hazem Harb. So I spent an hour with the two men, as Joha talked me through the paintings and El Saqqa expressed his hopes for the exhibition.

Partly retrospective and partly current, ‘Joha – the Journey’ includes the paintings from three very important series created by the artist. From the recent and on-going ‘Lost Tracks’ Series to the ‘IN x OUT’ and the ‘Sound Barrier’ Series, some pieces are seven years old whilst others have never been seen before.

One can easily decipher the significant developments in the themes and research undertaken by Joha through the past few years. From depicting the local situation in Gaza – that will always be his bedrock inspiration – he is now also dealing with the wider issue of what is happening to the Middle East and North Africa region on the dire political, social and economic fronts.

Since the failure of the so-called Arab Spring – and he has a lot to say about this! – it has now become the Arab predicament in general that is reflected in his art and swaying his imagination. Sadly, today, we have all become collectively witness to the greater horrors that impact not just Palestine, but Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria.

Joha: “Today I can only deal with the greater theme of freedom. As an artist I just want to be able to move and fly anywhere and show my work wherever I need to without difficulties. I don’t like the bureaucracy of borders and this is the freedom I seek, to be able to fly like a dove and cross borders without being stopped or blocked.”

With his trademark surrealist expression, Joha with acrylic on canvas is forever bold, colourful and powerful with his interesting choice of symbols. Our hearts are immediately taken with the souls and the objects in his paintings as well as the hidden tales behind them. Even if viewed without knowledge of the historical background, the works hold a universal appeal and offer a narrative significance that urges one to ask questions.

For example, one would want to know in the ‘IN x Out’ pieces why there are people running off with furniture and carrying cabinets over their heads? Why also in the ‘Sound Barrier’ works, do we see upside down flowers, odd umbrellas and what does the bird mean? How come there is a shark flying in the air rather than swimming in the sea as one would expect it to? And, finally, when we view the boats with people drowning, we want answers as to how, whom and why.

Below Joha offers some insight into his personal story and creative intellect as well as hinting towards his ultimate desire and mission – to be an effective artistic ambassador for his people, the Gazans and the Palestinians. Joha’s goal is for the art to evoke strong enough feelings to encourage discussion on the international level and help translate into positive action.

I would urge everyone to visit the exhibition because more than just holding and depicting the Palestinians’ suffering, it serves as a reminder of the human strength, resilience and willpower to continue to fight for one’s rights no matter how long one has been oppressed. Joha himself is the expression of the indomitable Gazan spirit that will keep in its efforts to achieve freedom and obtain justice; and, I would trust him to be my diplomatic representative.

The ‘Sound Barrier’ Series – The Sharks, Flowers + Imaginary Umbrellas

The ‘Sound Barrier’ series explores the experience of the sieges on Gaza. Joha, who was born, brought up and lived there until 2006, has more than first-hand experience of the matter, telling me also of his memories of being active in the various intifadas as well as having been put in an Israeli prison for nine months. Another awful recent development in 2014 saw his home quarters of Shuja’iyya being demolished and obliterated from Google Earth. These pieces are part of nine paintings and made circa 2009-2010.

Joha: “This series is about the Palestinian story. When the Israelis started to bomb us by the nightmare of the F16 and tanks, it was genocide. Every five minutes, there would be a bomb. During 2005-2006, everyday they were killing people and destroying our houses. I called this project the ‘Sound Barrier’ because I remember how the Israelis would deliberately drop bombs that failed to explode but that created a noise and a dull impact, just to make us scared.

“In these works, I imagine and depict the F16 as a surreal shark shape in the sky and not as a fish that you would normally expect to see it in the waters of a clear blue sea. Under siege, it felt like our lives were being in a zoo that was far away from other lives and other worlds and other nations. I imagine this life and how, as you see, the flowers are upside-down.

“But then there is the umbrella shape that symbolises for me the only means of protection we had, physically and psychologically. And then the pigeon, which I painted just as a bird, that is about the possible freedom. I was working on this painting late at night on 31 December, 2008 and completed it early on 1 January, 2009 when I was in Norway seeking asylum.”

The ‘Lost Tracks’ Series – The Migrants Situation Work In Progress

   

Never seen before this exhibition and forming the start of Joh’a current ‘Lost Tracks’ project, these reflect on the present day migrants’ situation and the suicidal attempts to reach Europe. We see people drowning and boats sinking but with a strong shade of orange colour as the background. Joha is aiming to complete this series by the end of 2016 with eleven oil paintings altogether and each will be sized 180x130cm.

Joha: “This is a series in progress and engaged with the concept of the so-called Arab Spring – which to me is more like the Arab Autumn – as it has only given rise to disasters. So many young Arab men are just trying to escape from a hard situation by coming to Europe via boats.

“From Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunis and Palestine, they are all fleeing from wars and think they will find a better life, but many of them drown in the Aegean Sea or the Mediterranean. Their dreams, their lives and their hopes are over and ending. I have used the boat shape in different sizes and colours because the boats to me are as human beings that come from many locations and backgrounds.

“The bright choice of the orange however does give a visual hope. In all of my work, even when I talk about the occupation and other dramatic stories, I give a bright colour for optimism and it is also a good way of opening up a dialogue.

“As Arabs who live in Europe, we also have to be more open about the culture surrounding us and learn from this environment. I think it is important to be free in our minds first so that we can see with wide-open eyes and exchange opinions with others. My role as an artist is to be open and create the exchange of ideas and dialogue, because we are dealing with global issues, especially at this time of conflict.

“When I originally approached the subject of the ‘Jasmine and Bread Revolution’ in 2012, and showed it at the Courtyard Gallery in Dubai, when the Arab Spring had just erupted in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and later Syria, as an artist and as a human being, I thought maybe these revolutions could free the Arabs from dictatorships. But what we have now seen is total mass destruction and we have as Arabs lost a lot. There are no flowers blooming, just lots of bleeding.”

The ‘IN x OUT’ Series – The Invasion of Home Privacy

Made circa 2013-2014, these paintings explore another Palestinian theme and consider the physical and psychological impact of the Israeli invasions on home privacy. It is about the reality that five minutes before bombing, the Palestinian would receive a phone call to tell him to leave his house, because his home will be targeted. But, then, in such a situation, what can you really take with you and where do you go.

Joha: “For the Palestinians, the house is like our identity and we feel the house like a human being – it is not just a building made of stones. But then imagine that you live somewhere all of your childhood and within a minute you cannot find it. So here I depict the houses in a particular way with the scattered furniture items with beds and cabinets flying everywhere. In #3 I have also used a collage to show in a photo image the devastation of a woman’s house just over her head.

“This IN x OUT series actually started before the Gaza war, when I listened to the news of what is also happening in the West Bank, in Jerusalem and Ramallah and Bethlehem. The Israelis did the same. They would push out the Palestinians from their houses and say that they bought the buildings one hundred years ago. So what are we left with? Our privacy is no longer.”

+ Statement from Curator Aser El Saqqa, Director of Arts Canteen

El Saqqa has worked with Joha for many years, going back to when Joha was an arts student in Gaza. El Saqqa: “As a curator, I want to make Joha’s voice heard on this very important platform in East London and to highlight the stories through his personal experiences and reflecting the hope and the colours in a surreal way on his own canvases.

“What we are trying to do here is to bring some of these interesting stories to the grassroots communities. I do also feel that there is much more to be done in terms of contemporary Palestinian art and to bring some of it to art lovers and art collectors the world over. This exhibition is a rare chance to see Joha’s work whilst on display.”

For more information about Arts Canteen: https://artscanteen.com/

For more information about the artist Mohammed Joha: http://www.mohammedjoha.com/

Note: All images above are subject to copyright. Arts Canteen approval must be granted prior to reproduction. Images with kind permission: Lost Tracks #2, Lost Tracks #3, Mohammed Joha the Artist.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016

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