The past six years have been a roller coaster in world history, with conflicts, wars and extremist currents taking hold of various nations. Nowhere is this felt more clearly than the Arab World, the site of most physical conflicts, and the seat of on-going struggles of power and ideology. The echoes of these conflicts have also extended to the shores of Europe, with the influx of refugees and migrants seeking a safe life and economic opportunities prompting Europe to reconsider the extent of its relationship with this part of the world.
Amidst this scattered reality, arts and culture can act as a vehicle of resistance and change. A tool of expression much hated by totalitarian regimes (and banned and prevented whenever possible), the arts are humanity’s method of asserting their right to expression, freedom, and individuality. More importantly, art can serve as a tool for development, capacity building, evolving different and non-reductive discourses on the Arab world, and changing stereotypes about the Arab region; opening the door for mutual understanding at a time when it is needed the most.
D-CAF and the Arab Arts Focus:
Considering this dire need for mutual understanding through artistic exchange, The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) began the biennial performance program, the Arab Arts Focus (AAF) in 2014.
Curated by playwright and director Ahmed El Attar alongside various specialised curators, the event invites producers and programmers from all over the world to experience a dense programme of the best in contemporary Arab theatre and performance.
The AAF was conceived with the objective of supporting the development of the arts sector in the Arab world by providing artists from the region the opportunity to showcase their work to an international audience of industry professionals.
By introducing artists to individuals and institutions who can act as supporters or incubators for their work, this program enacts our core belief that the arts can serve as a strong catalyst for development and change.
In the 2016 edition more than 80 programmers from five continents came to Cairo & Beirut and watched seven original theatrical performances, two music concerts with five different acts, as well as an exhibition by six young Arab visual artists.
The previous success of the program over the past two editions (in 2016 and 2014) inspired us to attempt this initiative on a larger scale, and to deliver the AAF on an international stage. So came the idea of AAF @ Edinburgh 2017.
AAF Edinburgh edition:
This Year, Edinburgh is celebrating 70 years of the world’s largest arts festival, the festival that started after WWII in answer to society’s needs for a platform for the expression and preservation of the human spirit through art. Here we find similarities with our current historical moment in the Arab World as we also wonder: How are we reacting to the changing realities around us, and what are we creating with them?
In addition to all the material benefits of presenting and being part of an international performance festival (the mutual connections built between institutions, the capacity-building activities, the technical and professional experience acquired) an intellectual aspect will also be present in the program, prompting performers, venues, and audiences to reflect on what it means to be an artist from this region at this time, and what role the arts can continue to play in the fruition of our societies.
Additionally, the British Council’s showcase will also take place during the 2017 edition, which would represent a great chance for the program to premiere before a wider and more influential audience in Euro-Mediterranean arts networks.
AAF Edinburgh edition: The program
The programme is composed of three main pillars:
- Performances (Artistic Component)
In this first, and most essential aspect of the program, we invited companies/performances who present interesting diverse perspectives and high quality work in contemporary Arab theatre and performance today.
In parallel, a pitch session will introduce 4 new selected projects to curators, festival programmers, and other interested organisations to allow for a larger number of works to get the opportunity for international exposure.
- Talks and Activities (Discursive Component)
This set of activities will address a contextual and academic perspective on performing arts in the Arab world through round tables, panels and discussions. These complementary activities are essential in framing the work in a way that avoids the continued exoticism of Arab performers and helps situate their work in terms of global artistic trends.
- Late Night Entertainment (Collaborative Component)
This third pillar will put live music, drama, poetry, and comedy in an entertainment perspective, with an emphasis on cooperation. Chill Habibi will set the stage for smaller projects and collaborations between artists from Arab countries and Scottish and UK based artists, in a spontaneous sharing of their art and their worlds. Curated by Sara Shaarawi (Egyptian playwright residing in Glasgow) and Henry Bell (Scottish based UK writer and event organiser), this late night component will also help create an informal setting, where we believe most cooperation and connection-building actually starts.
Artistic program selection committee (In alphabetical order):
- Ahmed El Attar – Artistic Director Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (Egypt)
- Eckhard Thiemann – Artistic Director Shubbak Festival (UK)
- Geoliane Arab – Independent cultural operator and Board member IETM (Lebanon)
- Henri Jules Julien – Independent Cultural operator (France)
- Marina Barham – General Manager El Harra Theatre (Palestine)
- Natasja van ‘t Westende – Managing and artistic director Dancing on the edge Festival (Holland)
- Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi – Independent Dance curator and programmer (Algeria)
- Rolf C. Hemke – Curator, dramaturge and author based in Cologne (Germany)
- Hassan El Gretely – Egyptian theater director and head of the pioneer independant theater company El Warsha (Egypt)
- Henry Bell – Scottish based UK writer and event organiser (Scotland)
- Philipe Himberg – Artistic Director Sundance Institute Theatre Program
Talks and activities Curator:
- Jumana Al Yasiri – Middle East & North Africa Manager, Theatre Program at Sundance Institute.
- Changing perceptions about the Arab world through promoting dialogue challenging cultural stereotypes
This is an excellent opportunity to showcase work by young Arab artists, essentially the change makers in their societies, and to have their work, and hence their visions for their futures, heard beyond their national borders by audiences who may not otherwise encounter these dialogues.
- Capacity building and support Arab artists
This is a learning opportunity for Arab artists, to experience the particular nature of how the Edinburgh Fringe operates and how to put on a show there. Their work will be exposed to international programmers from the world over, which will help enhance their professional experience and widen networks. It will also support these artists in pursuing (and promoting) participation in the independent arts sector as a viable career path.
- Capacity building for technical team from the Arab world
D-CAF is a large scale, well-recognised event in the Arab world that hosts international performances and delivers to an Arab audience. However, an experience within the frame of the Edinburgh fringe will help the D-CAF team build their capacities and widen their perspectives in their respective work missions.
- Develop artistic and institutional collaborations with Scotland and the UK
A strong and varied presentation of Arab works and institutions will facilitate the possibility of future exchanges and collaborations between artists and institutions from the Arab world and those from Scotland and the UK. The late night collaborative component was envisioned as an incubator for artists from both sides to meet and get a taste of working together, potentially inciting them to continue these collaborations further.
- Adding more diversity to the Fringe
Although the Edinburgh Festival Fringe already represents a large swathe of world arts, with several venues in recent years focusing on work by Arab artists, we believe there is still room for improvement through increasing the visibility of Arab artists (particularly those not residing in Europe who may not otherwise find opportunity to travel with their work) by creating a showcase of Arab work for the first time at the Fringe.
- Accessing new audiences & engaging Arabic-speaking communities
In addition to the Fringe’s usual audience of theatregoers, this showcase hopes to attract audiences from Edinburgh and the surrounding area who may not otherwise attend theatre shows; Arabic-speakers, UK citizens of Arab lineage, and members of the Arab diaspora. Through presenting this condensed segment of performances by Arab artists, the AAF Edinburgh hopes to create room for underrepresented narratives and stories, and for the audiences who will relate to their particularities.
In summation, the Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh edition will be an opportunity to develop dialogue, capacity-building, as well as connections between artists and institutions from the Arab world, Scotland and the UK. But most importantly, it will create the chance to showcase some of the finest new theatre work from the region to new and wider audiences. Ultimately, we hope the AAF Edinburgh edition will catalyse the participating artists’ careers, contribute to the development of the independent performing arts scene in the Arab region, and act as a platform where local and international audiences and artists can have meaningful exchanges concerning the interplay of art, geography, identity and society at this critical historical juncture.