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

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

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Political art: Imagined Futures

With contemporary art so deeply involved with the self, drunk on the vanity of the image, and so intertwined with the world of money, glitz and glamour, it is refreshing to come across an exhibition that is not afraid to be political.

Hrair Sarkissian is involved with big explosive narratives. The Syrian born artist’s work is social theatre; at once part of a rich panorama of contemporary Arab art that, not surprisingly, has politics at its core.

Born in Damascus in 1973 of Armenian heritage, Sarkissian uses photography to re-evaluate larger historical, religious and socio-political narratives that address his mixed background.

For instance in Homesick (2014) Sarkissian destroys a scaled replica of his family home in Damascus – on one screen an 11-minute time-lapsed silent video presents the demolition of the model. We are not informed of the cause. All the viewer is shown is the slow, theatrical collapse of the building.

Simultaneously, an eight-minute video shows the artist wielding a sledgehammer – the lens focusing on his face and torso. Once more the target of his blows is not presented. It is immaterial.

The building represents the space where the artist belongs, a container for his memories and his family’s collective identities. Sarkissian contemplates the consequences of what it means to expect the worst. He examines what it could mean to fast-forward the present, acknowledge loss and begin reshaping a collapsed history, before the event.

In Front Line (2007) Sarkissian draws on his Armenian identity to contemplate the predicament of a people and place with an unknown political destiny through a series of previously unseen photographs.

We see the war-torn enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout the centuries the claims over this territory have shifted, the borders have been remapped, yet the repression of the region’s indigenous Armenians has persisted. Over a million of its Azeri and Armenian inhabitants remain displaced even today.

The photographs depict 12 deserted landscapes and 17 portraits of those who fought during the 1988-1994 war. The images are haunting and raise questions about the reality of war and the contradictions inherent within struggles for national independence.

Hrair Sarkissian – Imagined Futures is at The Mosaic Rooms in London until 25 April 2015.

 Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©