Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF), the UK’s longest-running festival of Arab arts and culture, has returned for its 23rd edition with a multi-artform programme of live and online events.
This year’s festival is an artist-led response to the complexities of the climate emergency in the Middle East and North African region today. Programme director Jack Welsh told The National that the team had been struck by the variety of issues addressed under the theme.
“It's such a complex array of factors and countries are often dealing with the impacts of colonialism, conflict, economic resources, political landscape, [and] all those factors impact how each country is experiencing it. And for us, it was the disproportionate impact that are already been felt in these countries.”
Beyond giving those works and stories a platform to exist, Welsh, a freelance artist, hopes the festival will provoke further thought and critical conversation on the topic.
In its longest run to date, the festival will take place over four months, from July through to November, instead of its usual 10 days in July.
“That also brings us up to Cop26 in Glasgow, so it made sense to focus all the projects and all that conversation towards November for that wider platform as well,” Welsh told The National in the Bluecoat, Liverpool’s contemporary arts centre.
Founded in 1998, the LAAF has delivered arts and community programmes with the aim of increasing appreciation and awareness of Arab culture and arts locally, nationally and internationally for more than two decades. The UK’s fourth most populous city is home to a large Arab community, particularly from Yemen, who first arrived at the turn of the 20th century as seafarers working aboard British ships.
At the heart of the festival, Welsh says, is the opportunity for "dialogue and exchanges" between Arab and non-Arab audiences.
“For each event, we get a mix and that's the beauty of it really,” he says. “It really is celebrating the era of heritage, especially with younger generations of families who are British born, but have that dual identity.”
Instead of its usual two-week flurry of activity, the festival will now release three to four projects every month and includes a series of talks and a film programme. The first wave of festival events encompasses July and August, with events for September, October and November being announced later.
A specially commissioned work by English and Syrian poet and writer lisa luxx (who uses lower-case spelling) called Eating the Copper Apple, launched the festival's series of live performances. Taking the audience on a journey from West Yorkshire to the borders of Syria, luxx’s one-woman prose play explores identity, culture and displacement. Her performance in Liverpool capped off the writer’s three-city tour of the show in the UK, including Bradford and at London’s Shubbak festival.
Speaking to The National ahead of her final performance in the tour, luxx, whose biological father is Syrian and who was adopted as a young child by a Lebanese-English couple, said her piece had been crafted as a way of making sense of her place in the world.
“What that unravelled was a construction of identity and its relationship with love, and how we learn and the impact of displacement on my life, from foster care, through adoption, through being diaspora from being mixed heritage too, which is a form of displacement from yourself,” she said. Many people from the audiences on the tour, she said, had told her they had found their own reflection in her work.
Working in close collaboration with LAAF over 18 months and funded through the Al-Omar Family in Liverpool, Welsh said that Eating the Copper Apple was an example of LAAF’s ambitions to "maximise collaboration" and invest in the long-term development of UK-based artists. A digital version of Eating the Copper Apple is available online until 25th July.
The festival launch programme includes an installation by English and Moroccan artist Jessica El Mal, called Grounds for Concern. Hanging on the outside wall of the Open Eye Gallery by Liverpool’s famous Albert Docks waterfront, the artwork consists of two digital collages printed on chiffon that depicts the Strait of Gibraltar.
Once an historic trade route between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the Strait is now more infamously known for being a passage for migrants. Using satellite imagery to focus on the pestilence of a tiny organism, the Rugulopterix okamurae algae, and its effect on ecology and tourism in Spain, El Mal subverts the aim of the satellite’s monitoring to emphasise the presence of an ungovernable living organism. Welsh said El Mal’s work was a commentary on the ‘brutality of border control’ that asks important questions.
Festival-goers will have to wait a little later in the summer for a live presentation of UK-based artist Youcef Hadjazi’s exhibition, Trauma Then, Trauma Now. The project explores collective and transgenerational trauma in post-colonial nations with a focus on the Algerian Civil War and will take place in August.
As has become the festival norm since the onset of the pandemic, LAAF’s online offerings are as compelling as those in person. A new and exclusive podcast series called What Happened in Baghdad by UK-based Iraqi Kamel Saeed, takes listeners on a journey through the lives of artists who once lived in the Iraqi capital; meanwhile, music lovers will no doubt appreciate the specially created playlist for LAAF by musical collective N3rdistan. Between rock, trip hop, electro, oriental-beat with world influences, N3 to Liverpool is available to listen to on the LAAF website and promises to be “an exploration of the very best in emerging Arab music”.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival takes place in person and online from July to November 2021. For more details on the programme visit here.