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Inside The Shubbak Festival: Interview With Artistic Director Eckhard Thiemann
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Inside The Shubbak Festival: Interview With Artistic Director Eckhard Thiemann

Picture of Biya Haq
Updated: 4 January 2017
Giving us a behind-the-scenes look at London’s Shubbak Festival, artistic director Eckhard Thiemann talks about the origin of the festival, his role in it and what everyone should be keeping their eyes open for.

How did this festival come about?

Shubbak was planned in 2010 and the first Shubbak took place in July 2011. It was initiated by the Mayor of London as the last in a series of festivals, which exposed culture from emerging countries that had fast growing links with London. Previous seasons were dedicated to India, China and Brazil. Shubbak was already different, because it was dedicated to more than a single country. Shortly after the festival, it constituted itself as an independent charity with the aim to present contemporary Arab culture in London every two years.

Does the Arab community actively take part in the festival?

Arab communities play an important role in Shubbak – as creators and audiences. London is blessed with having long-established Arab populations who have called London home for many years. In addition, the city is enriched by the presence of large number of students, tourists, business travellers and refugees. 29% of our audiences in 2013 identified themselves as Arab, and this year we present the work of more than 30 artists who are based in London. Our free open-air events, like Eid of Trafalgar Square and Hafla on the Square, attract large family audiences.

What is different about this year’s events?

This year we created a series of focus seasons, which offer our audiences a chance to explore a theme in greater depth and variety. We moved a significant part of our visual arts programme into the public realm by creating ‘In Situ’: eight projects in which artists respond directly to London’s history and topography. The works range from eL Seed’s first commission for one of the city’s most coveted graffiti walls, to new sculptures by Ziad Antar placed on the riverfront of the Thames, to five installations spread across London by Issam Kourbaj that replicate the geographical location of major refugees camps surrounding Syria. We highlight London’s fast-growing Arab theatre sector by presenting five productions created in the city by Arab artists. We honour renowned film director Michel Khleifi by inviting him to curate a personal selection of important films of Arab and European cinema, and we concentrate virtually all of our literature programme into a dense two-day event at British Libraries, bringing together more than 30 writers in one place and at the same time.

What is your favourite part of the festival?

My favourite part is really the diversity and variety of the programme. On 25 July, for instance, you can start the day by being intellectually stimulated at our literature festival in the British Library in the morning, wander across to Trafalgar Square in the afternoon for a big outdoor concert with Egyptian band Massar Egbari, before ending up in East London to dance the night away with young DJs in our late night event ‘The Mix’. And of course you can take in a few ‘In Situ’ installations on the way. It is the eclectic mix and the surprises which are my favourite element of the festival – and something only a festival can do.

How did you get involved in the festival?

I have been promoting contemporary Arab artists since 2000, when I initiated a literature festival in West London with the title ‘Word-Wide’, which focused on literature from Arab, Iranian, Kurdish and Afghan authors. Later I noticed the emerging scenes of dance creators in Tunis, Beirut and Marrakech and began promoting the work of Arab choreographers, leading to the first season dedicated to Arab choreographers in the UK as part of the Birmingham International Dance Festival in 2010. I curated the 2011 Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival before joining the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad, which put a spotlight on the UK’s global connections in the Olympic Year. The 2011 Shubbak festival did not have an artistic director and the board of the new charity decided to appoint one to develop an ambitious and coherent vision for future festivals. I was lucky and privileged to be offered the position.

What should our readers really be on the look out for at the festival this year?

If you are in London, then you will be spoilt for choice, but highlights are of course the UK premieres of international groups who will visit London for the first time. This includes the wonderful opening concert Burda with the Asil Ensemble and Karima Skalli at the Barbican, the 10-strong Palestinian dance production Badke at Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the two-day literature festival at the British Library. If you are not in London, you can still watch and listen to some of our new commissions on our website. Sophia Al-Maria’s sound work ‘Bright Echo’, the new music video ‘Shahba’ by Hello Psychaleppo, and five new episodes by ‘Top Goon – Reloaded’ will all be launched on our site during the festival period and will be visible from wherever you are in the world.

Shubbak Festival runs from 11-26 July at venues throughout London.