Shubbak and creativity in the Arab world

Can the arts be harnessed to forge new identities for nations and at the same time open up dialogue on race, identity and religion? This, the power of creativity, was at the heart of Dubai Next, an interesting debate held at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London.

Hosted by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority and to coincide with Shubbak, the biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture in London, the initiative is reviewing the role of the arts in forming nationhood. The focus of the discussion here was on ‘creativity and city culture’, looking at the country’s ambition to be a creative global hub through building a cultural infrastructure.

Given Dubai’s unique geographical location in the Middle East, it will be interesting to see how a dialogue with neighbouring countries will impact on the region as a whole.

The synergies between art and politics are fascinating and increasingly relevant. In a recent interview, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama expressed his mission to utilise creativity to exercise an influence on politics. Rama, a fascinating man and himself an artist, has been working with an international group of contemporary artists to do just that in another unlikely setting.

Rama noted that if dictators have historically controlled art, then there must be something in it that is threatening so why not unleash it and see what happens.

Nothing can change the world quite like art. And it makes complete sense to employ the experimental and exploratory language of contemporary art so as to make some sense of the contemporary world.

It is true that artists can think in a different way, perhaps in a less linear way than politicians and so the real world will benefit enormously from being exposed to it.

I like to compare it to being upside-down – your vision is completely altered in an inversion. Turn on your head outdoors and witness a familiar landscape transform into something utterly new, unique and magical. It changes your perception, your outlook on life.

Ultimately what Dubai Next is rightfully initiating is the importance of investing in spaces where culture, politics and art can happen naturally – feed off each other and learn from one another.

Shubbak Festival highlights

Politics was very much at the heart of Shubbak’s main visual arts programme In-Situ. Here Another Day Lost, by UK-based artist Issam Kourbaj, saw installations appear across five sites to reflect the geographic pattern of Syrian refugees. Made of waste materials, medicine packaging and discarded books, the camps were encircled with a fence of some 1,500 used matches, each match representing a day lost since the beginning of the country’s uprising.

Elsewhere, London’s urban landscape became the backdrop for mural by celebrated French-Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed – his large-scale murals blend Arab calligraphy with graffiti techniques, fusing poetry and language with dramatic design to create large-scale work.

Dubai-based Khalid Shafar showed Nomad, an architectural re-interpretation of the traditional Gulf house Arish, inviting visitors to sit, meet, converse, study and relax.

Kuwaiti-Puerto Rican artist Alia Farid presented an installation created for London’s largely Arab inhabited Edgware Road. Designed for public use, the ‘urban furniture’ presented a series of performances including the Stage for Any Revolution, commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries, British Council and Shubbak.

The venue also saw the launch of a new publication Continuous City: Mapping Arab London, a collaboration between Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Edgware Road Project at the Serpentine Galleries to map London through its historical and contemporary Arab communities.

Finally, based on improvised carts used by street merchants in Morocco, Younes Baba-Ali’s Carroussa Sonore vehicle offered a selection of sound works from Arab and international artists, and travelled from the V&A to Portobello Road and the World End Estate.

Nargess Banks

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