Ahead of what organisers describe as “arguably the most vital edition to date”, Taher Qassim, Chair of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) considers how art captures the global, social and cultural issues that help us to recognise what unites us.
“We were talking about the space in between us all/And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion.”
The Beatles, Within You,Without You (1967)
Liverpool’s city-wide 50 Summers Of Love programme has inspired an exciting range of artistic responses marking the golden anniversary of both the 1967 Summer Of Love and the release of The Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s 2017 programme has responded directly to the opening lyrics of George Harrison’s Sgt. Pepper track Within You Without You. As Harrison’s second recording in an Indian classical style, and the only non Lennon-McCartney song on the album, the track presented Indian classical music to a new Western audience while encapsulating the spiritual themes of the Summer Of Love.
Within You Without You tells of overcoming the forces that prevents us from recognising what unites the world. 50 years later, this remains highly pertinent. We are living in an era of dramatic change, flux and contradiction. In some respects, we live in a more open, connected and accepting world than ever before, while at home and across the globe people live in fear, and endure conflict and oppression.
Since 1998, LAAF has provided a space for all types of people, regardless of their background, to experience the work of artists from the Arab diaspora; artists who push us to think radically and deal with a sometimes uncomfortable reality, who see the world as it is, and imagine how it could be. This year – arguably the festival’s most vital edition to date – we explore the constructs, boundaries and spaces that exist between us through music, dance, visual art and food-led celebrations.
Iraqi-born visual artist Wafaa Bilal brings together people in Liverpool and Baghdad through a powerful examination of the dual processes of destruction and exchange. In 2003 looters raided the library of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad and destroyed the entire collection. 15 years later, the college still hasn’t recovered from this monumental loss. Bilal’s acclaimed installation 168:01, which will be restaged at FACT during the festival, presents a sizeable, austere white bookshelf stacked with blank tomes. Liverpool visitors are invited to participate in an exchange; by becoming donors they will receive one of the blank books, with their contribution funding a new replacement textbook for the Baghdad library. Bilal’s work is an affront against cultural destruction, a globalised monument invested in hope and the future.
In Liverpool, a city built on migration, we are lucky to have so many opportunities to use our cultural heritage to explore and forge new artistic meanings. The World Museum houses over 16,000 objects from or relating to Ancient Egypt and is one of the largest such collections in the UK. In her performance Ancient Modernity, Choreographer Zosia Jo asks how can a museum charting 5,000 years of history reflect modern Egypt? We are keen to see what happens when ancient and contemporary worlds collide through site-specific dance; can the complexities of modern day Egypt be reflected within a Western museological environment?
I believe that theatre can provide a unique space to explore powerful, personal narratives that forge a connection between performers and audiences. And Here I Am at Unity Theatre does just this. It chronicles one Palestinian’s extraordinary true-life story from armed resistance fighter to artist and refugee. Performer Ahmed Tobasi crafts a solo work inspired by his own life experiences but anchored within the wider context of Palestinian and Arab refugee communities in Europe.
By collapsing the time between modern day Woolwich and colonial Somalia in the early 1900s, the critically acclaimed one-woman show The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, explores modes of resistance rooted in the lyrical tradition of Somalia and the legacy of Britain’s imperial past. The title is a reference to the man who led the Somali resistance against British occupation.
In the US, Donald Trump’s divisive executive order, otherwise known as the ‘Muslim Ban’, led to outpourings of resistance in both the US and UK. We’re delighted that Independent Manchester publisher Comma Press will launch Banthology: Seven Stories From Seven Countries; an anthology of translated texts from emerging writers impacted by the ban, at the festival. This urgent and timely collection celebrates a people determined to reclaim their dignity, freedom and self-expression.
Our two biggest events provide platforms to realise this. Eid On The Square on Saturday 8th July will be a colourful, joyous programme of family-friendly cultural celebration of Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. Taking place at Tiber Square, this event celebrates the diversity of Lodge Lane and the local businesses and partners who are the lifeblood of the area. Our annual Family Day festival finale on July 16 will bring thousands of people together at Sefton Park Palm House with international music, Arabian souk, cultural cuisine and family activities.
Ultimately LAAF is, and always has been, about bringing people together. All our events, artists, supporters and partners share this ethos. We should aspire to tear down the ‘wall of illusion’ that Harrison referred to: the transformative power of artistic expression can play a huge part in achieving this.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival – ‘The Space Between Us’ takes place between 8th and 16th July in various venues across Liverpool. Find out more at arabartsfestival.com