London art festival questions Arab identity

The Shubbak festival sponsored by London’s mayor considers how Arab art should be represented, circulated, and governed.


The unfolding of the Arab Spring has kindled not only the political and social consciousness of the Arab world, but also had serious ramifications in the global circulation of Arab art.  

Revolutions have reawakened international interest in Arab culture and its representation. In the past, Western curators have tended to put forth a well-intended, yet somewhat paternalistic image of the Arab art world.

From July 4 to July 24 in London, a series of events and exhibits tried to change all that.

The festival: “Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture”, brought together more than 100 Arab artists, authors, journalist and academics to showcase their visions of “Arab culture” at more than 30 venues throughout the city.

Planning for the festival began two years ago, but quickly expanded in recent months to reflect the uprisings and turmoil in much of the Arab world.

The force behind the showings was Boris Johnson, London’s mayor. Financed by HSBC bank, and organised together with the Tate, British National Library, and scores of Arab cultural organisations and other London galleries, Shubbak has explored what it means to represent Arab identity in 21st century Britain.

As Peter Aspden wrote in the Financial Times, the festival “speak[s] of restless societies that are questioning themselves. They speak too, of young people thinking creatively and freely, plugged into global trends, and communicating speedily with social networks”.

One of the opening events, “Interference”, was a series of workshops co-sponsored by Mathaf: The Modern Arab Museum of Art in Doha and the Institute of Contemporary Art in the United Kingdom. The workshops “explored the relationship between art, agency and agitation in the Arab world and beyond”, said Deena Chalabi, Mathaf’s head of strategy.

Workshop participants debated artists’ intellectual processes rather than concentrating solely on art objects that run the risk of objectifying the art and by extension the artist.

In a panel on the “Artist as Instigator” Egyptian artist Wael Shawky described why he turned his old studio in Alexandria into an education space for young artists.

“We need an alternative education system in Egypt, that can replace the official academy institutions in Egypt,” said Shawky.

Another popular event at Shubbak included “A Night in Tahrir Square” at the Barbican, which featured many of the artists who performed for protesters in Cairo’s iconic square.

An exhibition called “Bidoun Library” at the Serpentine Gallery displayed a collection of books, periodical and ephemera that documented the revolution in Egypt.

According to the Bidoun Library programme: “The term ‘Middle East’, by most accounts, was coined in an English newspaper at the turn of the century. Since then it has continued to exist more concretely as an object of discourse than a geographic region.”

Representing Arab art

The Shubbak festival opened up a set of questions: How should Arab art be represented, circulated and governed? Is there one fixed idea or set of ambitions and artistic orientations that unify contemporary Arab art collections?

Time and again, critics, curators, and scholars working from Western institutions have judged the art and artists discussed … according to a teleological notion of artistic progress that maps onto a ‘West before and above the rest’ cultural hierarchy,” writes Jessica Winegar, professor of anthropology in her book Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Arts and Culture in Modern Egypt.

Still from animated documentary ‘The Kingdon of Women: Ein el-Hilweh’ by Dhna Abu Rahmeh, screened during Shubbak in a Short Season of New Arab Films.

Munira Mirza, Johnson’s youth and culture advisor, who took a lead role in organising the festival agreed with Winegar. Yet when describing Middle Eastern art she still emphasised the shock of the new and a break with tradition.

“From my own personal experience, when I was working at the Tate, I was meeting people that were speaking increasingly about the Middle East and exciting artworks developed,” said Mirza.

“I was genuinely surprised at the scope and how contemporary it all felt and how interesting it was.”

In the festival’s official press launch, Johnson went further: “At a time of remarkable political and social change, Shubbak marks an exciting moment between artists in the capital and across the Arab world. I have no doubt that it will stimulate, delight and surprise audiences.”

Here is a seemingly more culturally literate Johnson, not the one who was famously quoted in 2006 as saying: I’m down with the ethnics. You can’t out-ethnic me.”


Mirza said Shubbak is “interrogating the concept” of what it means to be Arab.

“I think maybe in Britain we have tended to think of that part of the world in terms of religious terms and a lot of these artists are secular and wouldn’t necessarily accept the identity that has been placed on them.”

The artwork at Shubbak went beyond dichotomising debates over secular versus religious. An event at the Victoria and Albert Museum featured works by artists shortlisted for the Jameel prize, an international award that explores the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work

Hassan Hajjaj’s installation “Le Salon”, a Moroccan inspired cafe, was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize. “Le Salon” is a commentary on the strength of Islamic tradition in the face of globalisation.

While many artists at Shubbak do not identify themselves as Arab artists, much of the artwork focused on reckoning with nationalism and expressing a shared linguistic and cultural identity.

Chalabi compared Shubbak favourably to the Venice Biennial, an art event in June that featured art from the Arab world on “strictly nationalist” categories. Shubbak was more “integrationalist” in its approach to Arab art, Chalabi said.

“It’s a real step forward to have a major London festival foreground some of the central concerns and political contribution of some really ground-breaking Arab art, films and literature,” said Aimee Shaalan, the head of communications and development at the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

Cultural solidarity and relations are political affairs. Shubbak was both a reflection of Arab identity and how Arab artwork can drive change.

“Hopefully, it won’t be a one-off event,” said Shaalan.

Follow Roxanne Horesh on Twitter: @RoxanneHoresh

Source: Al Jazeera