The Nour Festival of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African Arts celebrates all things East
As the audience files in for an evening of Moroccan hip-hop with Master Mimz, they find themselves in the former studio of the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton.
The walls are still hung with some of Leighton's most celebrated Orientalist works inspired by his travels in the Levant and beyond.
But this October evening the view of the Middle East is presented by a young female rapper.
"I rap in English," says Master Mimz, dressed in black sequins and ostrich feathers. "I want to reach an audience that otherwise might not know what is really happening in Arab countries."
Exploring the world of Arabic hip-hop is just one part of this year's Nour Festival of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African Arts, which started at the beginning of the month and runs until November 30. It is the second time that the beautifully appointed house in Kensington west London, once home to the Victorian artist and explorer, has been taken over by more than 50 painters, installation artists and musicians from around the Middle East and north Africa during the whole period of the festival.
The aim of Nour, which means light, is to spread understanding of the culture of the region through a challenging programme of arts-based performances and exhibitions.
Although Myriam Bouchentouf, to give Master Mimz her formal name, has only had a short career as a rapper, she has been getting some attention on YouTube for her debut track Back Down Mubarak.
"Because of the prevalence of Egyptian soaps and films in Morocco, I could relate to what was happening," she recalls. "I began with hip-hop karaoke. But when the track went viral, I decided that this is what I want to do."
Confounding her family's career expectations of their British and Canadian-educated daughter, Master Mimz is breaking down barriers, one of the pioneering Arab women in the male-dominated world of rap and hip-hop.
Introducing Mimz's "In-Your-Face" set was Randa Safieh, a member of the research network Exploring Song and Music Among Palestinians.
"I began my research in 2006," she explains. "Rap is the most effective way of telling people outside what it is like living under Israeli occupation. It connects bands living in the West Bank and Gaza with the Palestinian diaspora."
Going on to explain that this African-American genre speaks for an impoverished and politically marginalised underclass, Randa points out that it was only natural for Palestinian youth to connect with the musical style.
Downstairs in the resplendent Arab Hall, designed to present Leighton's priceless collection of more than 1,000 Islamic tiles brought back mostly from Damascus, the work of students who had attended the Iznik plate decoration course is displayed.
According to Amber Khokhar, a teacher from the Princes's School of Traditional Arts in London's Shoreditch, who is guiding half a dozen mature students through basic geometry and composition, it is crucial to keep this tradition alive.
"You need to master the complex rules," she explains, "before you can develop them."
This more traditional, compelling vision of the east is carried on in the intricate work of Suad Al Attar. Her exhibition of 10 paintings evokes the green, lush vegetation and luxuriant nature of Iraq, the country of her birth.
Titled Tree of Life - Visions from Gardens of Eden, the beautifully executed and richly decorated canvases evoke a time of innocence, rare birds and thick vegetation, redolent of paradise.
Nour also appeals to other senses.
The Bird Ghost at the Zaouia is an installation composed of incidental sounds recorded by the London-based composer and performer Seth Ayyaz at Sufi shrines in Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon.
"There is no musical material," he says. "I found birds, wind, overheard snatches of conversation and the call of prayer. Sounds that were left behind."
Anissa Helou, a Syrian-Lebanese chef and cookbook writer who lives in the UK, is thrilled to be presenting food at Leighton House.
"When I was here last year showing how to prepare Middle Eastern salads there was a painter-in-residence," she explains. "I thought why not a chef-in-residence? I suggested it to the organisers and the idea was snapped up for this year's Nour."
Over three afternoon sessions on November 3, 10 and 17, Helou will be explaining how to use basic Middle Eastern ingredients, demonstrating how to pickle seasonal produce and how best to mix spices.
In a masterclass she will teach her students how to make distinctive Middle Eastern dips. The special event, the Chef's Kitchen, will see Helou inviting a group of 20 into her own kitchen/studio in Shoreditch to get a privileged view of how she works and what sort of equipment she uses. In the process she hopes to draw more attention to Arabic food.
"Contemporaries of Leighton and even more modern travel writers just skip over food," she explains. "They might talk about a coffee ceremony, lavish hospitality or sumptuous feasts, but they don't describe in any detail what was served at those feasts."
But that has all changed with chefs reaching star status and people aspiring to cook rather than viewing it as something they have to do. In Helou's hands, preparing even a simple dish becomes an artistic endeavour.
Her dips are clever varieties on a theme where the Palestinian version is based on steamed pumpkin or butternut squash; the Syrian has roasted beetroot and the Lebanese, aubergine. All look and taste very different.
"My Middle Eastern food is more aesthetic because I've eaten in restaurants around the world," she reveals. "I am interested in producing traditional food in a modern manner and making it look beautiful - something that is often not a concern in the Middle East itself."
Although her prime interest lies in recording traditional recipes that might be lost, she is much more than just a food historian and is particularly thrilled at the surprise element her residency adds to the atmosphere at Leighton House.
"People will be amazed to find me in my chef's jacket in the middle of a museum," she says. "They are going to want to know more."
Her choice of what to prepare is determined to some extent by the original Victorian kitchens at Leighton House being off limits, but she obviously enjoys working around this challenging situation. "You have to work on refining the recipe, developing it as you would paint on a canvas," she explains. "It's the same principle as any other artist uses."
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Updated: October 31, 2011 04:00 AM