July Note: Shubbak Is In Full Swing | Rima Djahnine Is Nahla Ink Artist of the Month

Dear Readers

The Shubbak Festival kicked off last Friday 28th June with the launch of the ‘Belonging, Sideways’ exhibition at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, followed by a spectacular ‘Kahareb’ party that went on until the early hours. It brought together electronic and underground artists from MENA who are experimenting with techno, folktronic, global bass, house, trance and more.

Every day since Shubbak has taken over London venues as the comprehensive programme unfolds with more exhibitions, music, talks, performances, theatre, installation, films, workshops and commissioned projects that are all scheduled for up until the 14th July, when the festival ends.

All I can do is direct you to the website where you can see the great variety and depth of what has been so carefully organised by the Shubbak creative-executive team and the amazing artistic collaborations that have been forged to make this festival a success and best edition yet.

For more on Shubbak: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Nahla Ink Artist of the Month: Rima Djahnine

Referring back to the ‘Belonging, Sideways’ exhibition – curated by Toufik Douib and that I highly recommend you visit – it is where I met Rima Djahnine. Her artwork is on display alongside that of four other Algerian contemporary artists as they explore identity and location.

Looking at cultural diversity, migration and the challenges of coexistence, the show offers work from different corners of Algeria and deals with complex histories, geographies and biographies. Having connected with her, she kindly agreed to be Nahla Ink Artist of the Month.

A visual artist born in 1979 in Bejaia, Algeria, it was the 1990s that profoundly impacted on Djahnine and determined her artistic course. In 1995, one of her sisters was the victim of an assassination and three years later, both of her parents died suddenly. Following these losses and in the midst of the Algerian civil war, Djahnine went to Paris where she began university studies and devoted herself entirely to the arts.

She graduated in 2009 with a Degree in Graphic Arts at the Paris School of Visual Art, and gradually turned to new artistic practices such as photography and video. Her work explores the different facets of exile and the painful issues of being torn away and losing loved ones.

Significantly in 2013 Djahnine received a grant from the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) that allowed her to produce her first major artistic project – that same year she returned to live and work in Algeria. In 2016, she took part in a research residency at the MUCEM in Marseilles, wherein a project  would tackle the Algerian post-war and 1990s traumas in collaboration with Giulia Fabiano (anthropologist).

In the resulting ‘Return to Intimate Territories, What Remains’ series, the image of returning is conceived as a territory that has been constantly rocked by earthquakes as well as migration. Homecoming then charts the act of retracing memories and physical routes, where the reminiscing
of a place merges with sensorial memories.

One part of the series is also a cartography installation and film in which the captures, photos, notes and GPS tracks were collected from groups of people in search for various homes; emigrants who left before, during and after 1962 for economic reasons and the political exiles of the 1990s.

The ‘Belonging/Sideways’ exhibition is on until 14 July at Rich Mix.

For more on the exhibition: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/belonging-sideways/

For more on Djahnine: http://www.afterthefuture.care/home-lend-rima-djahnine-hazy-line.html

For more on Djahnine: http://www.imagomundiart.com/artworks/rima-djahnine-inclusive-skylight

Arab About London: MENA-Inspired Arts + Culture Events In London

As always, there is more to view, attend and join in. For the full ‘Arab About London’ listing that is regularly updated with MENA-inspired arts and culture events in our lovely capital, you can find it on Nahla Ink: https://nahlaink.com/

If you wish to be in the super know, you can also follow me on Twitter @NahlaInk or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NahlaInk/

Best wishes to all!

Nahla Al-Ageli
Freelance Journalist + Blogger
London, July 2019

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

Set in a world in which we have become a bit like zombies, not knowing how to respond to the news we hear or read about everyday. Bombarded with fake and true information, many are no longer sure of how to act in the face of others’ suffering or indeed towards the awareness that we all now live under subtle surveillance and manipulation. Instead we choose to be deaf and blind by turning to other stories that can assuage our conscience and help us deny responsibility.

It is this indifference on the global scale that ‘Curfew’ confronts the audience with. An original dance performance, it draws upon a mix of contemporary-modern moves and the traditional Palestinian Dabke. Creatively directed by Sharaf Darzaid, who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, it refers one to the local struggle against oppression and how dance has become a form of resistance and an empowering means of self-expression.

Nine dancers in total, who all contributed with their personal stories and ideas to the final routine, four of them came all the way from Ramallah in the West Bank to represent El-Funoun: Mohammed Altayeh, Khaled Abueram, Sharaf Darzaid and Lure Sadeq. The other five dancers, belonging to the London-based Hawiyya Dance Company, were: Jamila Boughelaf, Sylvia Ferreira, Sali Kharobi, Miriam Ozanne and Serena Spadoni.

Structured by scenes that are set in Palestine and in the universal realm, we see how brief moments of happiness and normality are interrupted or sabotaged by the loud voiceover of political news that leaves the dancers deflated, at a loss and feeling helpless. In other acts the performers also appear to be at the mercy of work production lines and hypnotised by the sound of a ringing alarm clock which forces them back into a state of submission, meekness and withdrawal.

    

Significant props include mobile phones that indicate both the lack of real human interaction in today’s busy world – as they distract, separate and isolate – and the fact that these little devices are an important tool to finding non-biased truth through social media channels. Whilst black masks come to convey that there are yet dark forces lurking in the shadows of our existence, keeping a computer-generated eye on our moves as well as secretly profiling each and every single one of us.

Amidst the confusion, the evident psychological abuse of minds and exerted physical control over bodies, the routine dramatically develops into the final scenes when the dancers consciously wake up to their predicament. It all then ends in spectacular fashion that engages directly with the audience by giving two dares that can be accepted or rejected at will.

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

Curfew came about when three members of Hawiyya were on a visit to Palestine last year and experienced first hand the demoralising ways of the occupying force – like, for example, the unnecessary interrogations at border check points. So when they met Darzaid there, who was coordinating the annual Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, they decided on a collaborative project to bring the story back to a London audience.

Boughelaf, executive producer for Curfew, explained: “When I came back from Palestine I found many people who wanted to hear my stories. But I also found many others who refused to acknowledge the facts and others asking me why I cared so much as there is injustice everywhere and you can’t do anything to change it. My response is why don’t you care?

“This is really what drove me to make this project happen and after discussing with Sharaf, as well as all the dancers from Hawiyya, we realised we were all asking ourselves the same question: are we doing enough? We may not be able to change the world’s politics, but if we manage to change even one person’s understanding of reality I feel that we have done something!”

Wanting to learn more from Darzaid, who has been an active member of El-Funoun for over seventeen years as a dancer, trainer and choreographer, I asked him firstly to expand on the choice of title ‘Curfew’ and tell me about the role of Dabke in the production.

Darzaid: “It is called Curfew for two reasons. Physically especially in Palestine, we have a certain time of curfew, when no one can move out from the houses in the West Bank. Even if we secretly want to go to the dance studio, we have to close the door after we enter, put down the blinds and keep the lights down, so that they can’t see that we are in and the music volume is low.

“We spent months under curfew and couldn’t move… the Israelis would give us a couple of hours a week to go out and bring food and go back home; and, even before or after this curfew, we are still not freely able to move from one city to another, because of the checkpoints between the cities.

“For example, I can’t go to my capital Jerusalem, I need permission to go there. Or Gaza. If I want to travel to places like here in the UK, I need to bring a lot of papers in order to prove that I am a ‘good human’, and therefore travelling between the cities and between countries, this is the physical meaning of curfew.

“Sometimes you want to take a position to resist the oppression but many times, you can’t even do this because you are forbidden. So even in your thoughts you are not free and there is a curfew. To quote Desmond Tutu, ‘if you are neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’; and, Paulo Freire said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral…’.

“We are coming from a place where we are under occupation and this is one of the stories about what we do. We don’t’ give answers, we give a question. What do you do? Do you take action or do you maintain? Even being silent is a political position. Saying no I don’t’ care what happens, I just want to wake up and work and have money and by the end of the day I have my drink and eat and sleep, you can take this position. I say nothing. I say in this case you are maintaining.”

“(In terms of the dance) I am inspired by folklore and trying to speak in this choreography by using Dabke as an identity and not as a movement. We are doing a contemporary production and one of the pieces is about the Palestinian wedding where there is really Dabke. But the rest draws upon the energy, power and the meaning of Dabke as resistance. You can feel it throughout the production.”

I left in awe of the dancers’ energy, fluidity and expert movements led by the highly skilled choreography. I also went away with great respect for Dabke not just as a dance; but, also, as a source of cultural endurance that is being passed down Palestinian generations and being widely shared by others who wish to stand in solidarity. The big question is who will be joining in and taking their first dance step into resistance for a free Palestine.

For more on Hawiyya: https://www.facebook.com/HawiyyaDabke/

For more on El Funoun: http://www.el-funoun.org/

Photos credit: Jose Farinha: https://www.josefarinha.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Textural Threads: A Collective Show Redefining The Female Space And Emerging Art From MENA

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition forms an integral part of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2016. The AWAN is an annual event in March that celebrates Arab female artists in London, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and exposing their talent to newer audiences. The AWAN is organised by Arts Canteen.

United by what can only be described as the fearless feminine spirit, Textual Threads brings five strong emerging artists who will inspire, challenge and make you marvel at the different creative ways each has chosen to approach the topics impacting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, whilst offering internal transformations. With a womanly abandon in the use and choice of different textures and methods, what is pertinent to the Arab is revealed, with a great cross-section of origins coming from Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and one artist who is half-Algerian and half-Bulgarian.

From Dima Nashawi’s elegant illustrations that tell the personal tale of being a Syrian living in London, to the use of bold brush strokes of Arabic script on newsworthy photography by the young Libyan Takwa Barnosa, to the captivating digital prints on soft silk material by the Algerian Hania Zaazoua, these artists are reclaiming the imaginative terrain. They all show how art can be the cathartic measure that keeps one sane amidst the crazy dramas playing outside on the streets of a blighted region; or, as in some case, by looking psychologically within for answers.

The five artists striving to advance a peace, hope and love agenda, as well as celebrating womanhood itself and defying simple categorisations of what it means to be an artist from MENA are: Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Dima Nashawi (Syria), Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia), Hania Zaazoua (Algeria) and Takwa Barnosa (Libya).

Takwa Barnosa (Libya)

The young 18-year-old Takwa Barnosa is a Libyan artists who is still studying for her bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tripoli, but whose artwork has already caused a positive stir. Talented and inventive, she fuses Arabic calligraphy with different forms of mixed media. Utilising powerful newsworthy photographs that range in subject but concerning Libya, she writes over them with word messages to challenge the content of the story told within.

Barnosa doesn’t shy away from the difficult existential passage in which the Libyans find themselves, directly addressing the current status of political chaos, anarchy and general disorder. For example, one of her images hints at the burning petrol and the human costs entangled with its production. She also brings to the attention the unfortunate displacement of the Tawerghas in Libya as well as the drowning of migrants who are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her choice of word and vivid colours is always substantial and engaging, be it splashed on the digital image or painted on her canvas in various sizes. From the themes of death, to war and peace, dream and fear that apply universally, to the more specific issues relevant to Libya, where she comments on recent events and leaving them open to one’s own judgement. Her ‘Lost’ piece brings to attention the troublingly recent destruction of the Italian artefacts in Tripoli, with the Gazelle statue that was demolished by the attempts to deny colonial history.

Barnosa has given a statement to Nahla Ink: “Most of my works discuss the situation in the community that I live in. I have seen many acts and events happening and that are still taking place, especially in the past two years in Libya. I have tried to show the parts that I have experienced and felt through my artworks.”

Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria)

Meryem Meg is the 25-year-old Algerian-Bulgarian artist with a multi-disciplinary background and a specialty in graphic design. Keen on the themes of fertility, birth and the cycles within nature, she draws upon North African and amazigh marks and symbols in her work. Creating optical illusions and movement through the lines, colours and geometric shapes, Meg’s aim is to impact on the mind and create a mystical experience for the viewer, as well as to empower women through her visual affirmations.

In some of her work, Meg also challenges the Orientalist lens looking at the North African female and providing an alternative that is much deeper and far more complex. Utilising the local motifs that are used within textiles, tattoos and ceramics, she demonstrates the systems of knowledge and the ways in which the indigenous communities have structured themselves and told their stories over the eons.

She has provided a statement: “The works are a reflection of my Afro-European heritage where I am also making the contrast with a more contemporary visual influence including urban cultures. Exploring geometry, I use a gestural approach allowing what is typically rigid in structure to flow organically. The desired effect is to captivate and stimulate a sense of self-contemplation akin to a spiritual experience, created to interact with one another synergistically.”

Meg offers four pieces for the ‘Textural Threads’ collective show, two of which belong to a black and white series made with water-based paint on paper and the other two which have been created with acrylic, aerosol and rose water on paper. Using the ancient symbols with diamond, triangular and circular shapes, she builds a rhythmic feel with other lines as she explores fertility and life celebration with the joyful colours to uplift the spirit.

Dima Nashawi (Syria)

The Syrian Dima Nashawi is an artist who strongly believes that art goes hand in hand with social activism and is a powerful means for peace building and engaging with human rights. Although her art illustrations are very delicate, feminine, beautiful and intricate, they actually carry a very powerful message regarding Syria and the longing for return to her hometown of Damascus. Using smooth and curved lines in her illustrations, she attempts to simplify real stories and bring them closer to the audience.

Nashawi’s life and work journeys have so far seen her travel from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and now London, where she is studying Art and Cultural Management at King’s college. With a bachelor’s in Sociology, she has also studied Fine Arts and worked as an illustrator-animator for magazines and children’s websites as well as undertaking social work with the UNHCR to help refugees.

For this exhibition, she presents the incredible illustration fairy-tale titled ‘The Mystery of Names in Raindrops’ and other pieces. The former is an imaginary tale about a little girl Lana and her mother, as they enter a world in which a witch lives in a forest and oddly collects raindrops in a jar that are brought to her by deer in return for lashes she makes out of spider web.

Although initially the witch seems an evil character who weaves curtains from girls’ braids, Lana later discovers that she is kind as she also makes carpets and blankets from the silk of cocoon and camel’s hair. Significantly, it is in the names written on the raindrops that we find the real stories of Syrians who have been struggling against the regime or other radical elements, with some detained and others who have lost their lives due to the current war situation.

In six other illustrations, Nashawi brings her whimsical creatures: a man who asks a young girl about the meaning of the name Dima, an image of two lovers and the images titled ‘Waiting’, ‘Damascus In My Head’, ‘On My Way My Lonely Planet’ as well as the ‘Tribute to Reyhaneh Jabbari’.

Nashawi: “My work deals with the moments of complex emotions that I have felt through personal interactions with my daily surroundings. My art is a revolt against injustice and to support social and political activism and movements. I am expressing an opinion, advocating and telling different stories to break stereotypes and mainstream media’s narratives. The current power of art is in delivering messages about Syria that the world is not paying attention to.”

Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia)

The British-Saudi Arabian Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail belongs to a number of different worlds that have formed the woman she has become today. With a master’s in Photography and the use of digital processes, she looks into identity, the negotiation of personal space as well as in dealing with the interactions between the contrasting collective cultural memories and how these may pose problems for the individual.

Having been raised partly in Saudi Arabia and now living as a Muslim female in the UK, she ventures into the questioning of oneself and her potential as an artist. She weaves this ‘otherness’ into her practice and looks into the subject of self in an ever-changing global society. She is the Co-founder of Variant Space, an online art collective for Muslim female artists.

Al Lail here offers images that form her ‘Hidden Colours’ series as well as two images from the ‘Rooftop’ project. In the first series, she explained: ‘This charts my personal identity that is defined by my mix of cultural backgrounds, with a Saudi father and an Indian mother as well as growing up in Britain. It explores my attempts to accustom myself to three cultural identities, whilst imposed ideas of where I belong or how I should be cluttered my self-perception.

“The colours reveal the hidden emotional journey attached to the hybridity of the cultures I grew up with. The images were taken using a photo-booth in order to interrupt the space which is used to define identity and produces a conforming, standardised image, which I manipulated. The same image is then changed gradually in reference to the way my identity is constantly in flux. The colours act as a force or barrier to conceal and reveal the self.”

In terms of the ‘Rooftop’ project, Al Lail said: ‘Identity and space are intimately connected; space delineates the scope for identity. This is particularly the case in the context of Saudi Arabia – space necessitates the very ground for a coherent identity. I use the rooftop – open space – as a metaphor for progressive, liberated and open-ended possibility. By placing a young girl – symbolising innocence – in such a space, I am trying to describe how identity flourishes best when there are no barriers and no ceilings.”

Hania Zaazoua (Algeria)

Hania Zaazoua is the 39-year-old Algerian designer, visual artist and stylist. She is a graduate of Fine Arts and woks as the Design Director at Bergson & Jung in Algiers. She has also established her own interior design brand called ‘Brokk Art’ in 2012.

Zaazoua draws her inspiration from personal wanderings, be they real or virtual and creates work that flirts with a trivial dream world and explores an alternative version of the society that she lives in. Enjoying the use of paradoxes, she looks at the complex relationship between the cultures of the East And West.

Using digitally manipulated images that she presents on soft silk material – that is stretched onto circular embroidery frames – her work deconstructs and recomposes popular or historical cultural icons and manipulates the tales being told.

In the ‘Young Ladies of Icosium’, we see a vision of the timeless Algerian women, renowned for storytelling and wisdom. As leading characters, they all present both an interface and an interference between East and West. Set in an undetermined time and space, they allude to the themes of decolonisation and self-empowerment and also refer to Picasso’s ‘Young Ladies of Avignon’.

In ‘Wonder Lalla’, the artist creates an Algerian version of the warrior-princess super heroine. Whether contemporary or ancient, she is a multi-generational role model. The use of the title ‘Lalla’ is of Berber origin that signifies a mark of distinction for the woman. The other works presented in ‘Textural Threads’ are: ‘Discretion Zone’, ‘Mahmoud & Tassadite’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Zaazoua has provided a statement as well for Nahla Ink: “In a world where reality is fantasy… that specific prism, different and sometimes close, I propose an alternative world that is dreamlike and almost falsely naïve. I use clichés picked up from the media, literature material and films that have references to the West; but, being from the East, I create the reactive heroines, some who are real and others fictional.”

The ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition will be on display from 2-19 March, 2016 at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch, London.

For more information on Arts Canteen and the AWAN Festival: https://artscanteen.com/

For more on Najlaa El-Ageli: https://www.noonartsprojects.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016

47Soul – Help Launch The Incredible New Sound Of The #Shamstep

Support The Band Overcoming Visa + Border Restrictions!

If all goes to plan and you are online, tomorrow at noontime, you will be hit by a cyber thunderclap to support the efforts of the 47Soul band. With tweets popping up and Facebook updates, as well as Tumblr alerts, you will be invited to help launch the new sound of Bilad al-Sham and support the #Shamstep.

If you haven’t already been exposed to the young energetic 47Soul musical formation, then be prepared for marvel and surprise once you listen to them on Youtube or Soundcloud. Better yet, make sure to attend a concert as they are currently taking the London underground music scene by storm. They have amassed thousands of fans throughout the Middle East and Europe in the past two years and are still going strong.

The four artists, who are all originally Palestinian, have already had to overcome visa and border restrictions to be able to work together. The first time they performed as one was at the Blue Fig in Amman, Jordan in 2013. There they succeeded with their experimental hypnotic sound that now Glastonbury and WOMAD 2015 want a bit of them, as they guarantee to get the crowds dancing in whichever style of dance they like, although preferably the dabke.

Each one of them had been a solo musician before they all got to know one another via Youtube and word of mouth on the alternative Arabic music scene that is itself breaking boundaries. Their real and stage names are: Walaa Sbait, 28 from Palestine; Z the People (real name Ramzy Suleiman) who is also 28, born in the United States and of Palestinian origin; El Far3i (real name Tareq Abu Kwaik) who is 31 from Amman with Palestinian origin; and, El Jehaz (real name Hamza Arnaout) who is 32 and also from Amman of Palestinian origin.

Onstage the 47Soul magic mix combines the spontaneous charisma of all four as they play the electric Arabic dabke sound that is always hyped up with analogue synthesizers, hypnotic guitar lines and strong political lyrics in English and Arabic. Their message is for the celebration of life, the struggle for freedom and the desire for peace inside Bilad Al-Sham and throughout the world. One of their most popular songs is ‘Every Land Medley’.

In London they have already performed at venues like Rich Mix, The Flyover in Portobello, Passing Clouds, and The Elgin at Notting Hill Gate. They hope to next perform at Koko’s in Camden, where the space can hold up to 2,000 people, so that there will be lots of space for dancing and dabke for those who know the steps!

47Soul have also taken part in the Wilderness Festival at Oxfordshire, the Secret Garden Party, as well as concerts in Bristol, South Devon and other UK cities. Outside the UK, they have been in Jordan, Egypt and Belgium. Their fan base however extends even to South America and the Caribbean.

At the present moment they need our crowd support to utilise their time together in London by producing a debut record that encapsulates all the songs they have been performing, as well as new material they are working on. If the campaign succeeds, they will do the recording at the Soup Studio, where they can record on analogue equipment for the best real sound. At present, they are on artist visas and have a booking agent, the ‘Diplomats of Sound’.

The online campaign is being done via the Zoomaal crowd-raising platform and the deadline is 20 April, 2015. The funds gathered are to cover the costs for the recording, sound engineering, mastering, design and manufacturing CDs, vinyl and the rewards for those who donate online.

If you need any more convincing, this is what they have said: “We are not just asking you to contribute to this campaign. We want you to own this music with us! We want the Shamstep to be something that gives you pride to blast full volume out of your speakers and car stereos. Your support means more dabke for the world and less culture-erasing! It means that music is bigger than borders and that music is made to be shared . Your support is as important as the opportunities awaiting us!”

To support them: http://www.zoomaal.com/projects/47soulshamstep/3835?ref=167690414

For more information on 47Soul and their gigs: http://47soul.com/

Note: This article was first published circa April 2015

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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