Arabisk London hosts Afrah Qassim, Chair of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival; Oriental Originality Adorns Britain
A bridge that connects Arab and Western cultures, filled with a broad spectrum of artistic and creative activities and events, starting from the city of Liverpool to be a beacon of art and beauty.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, a world of creativity awaits Arab art lovers; this is what you will read in an exclusive interview with Afrah Qassim, Chair of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.
interviewed by: Reem Ibrahim
- The Liverpool festival is the bridge that connects Arab and Western cultures. We saw this in its embodiment of Arab arts that reflect creativity. Afrah, in your capacity as the chair of the festival, can you tell us about its establishment and its beginnings?
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) was founded in 1998 by my father, Taher Qassim, following our move to the UK from Yemen. He discovered that there were barriers to integrating in the UK due to the intergenerational differences within families. My father, despite not having an arts background, wanted to do something to address this by representing Arab culture and people in a positive way through music, dance, food and clothing. Liverpool Arab Arts Festival started as a series of small weekenders held at Bluecoat (an arts centre in Liverpool) and it has grown into the longest running and most successful annual festival of its kind in the UK. From the beginning I have supported my father to build up the festival, alongside my sisters, mother and many other friends and colleagues over the years.
- What priorities does the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival target?
When it started LAAF was one of the few prominent platforms for Arab artists to present artistic works to mainstream audiences. Our work continues to support underrepresented Arab creative talent who face barriers to developing a professional artistic practice. As well as creating a platform, our mission is to educate, challenges and engage communities about Arab arts and culture across the UK and internationally, keeping Arab arts, heritage and culture alive. We prioritise bringing diverse groups of people together through arts and culture, increasing public knowledge and understanding of Arab culture while changing perceptions.
- What types of arts does the Liverpool Festival organize and display?
The festival showcases a range of artforms, from exciting music performances to large family events, such as our closing Family Day event at Sefton Park Palm House, which attracts thousands of people each year. The Family Day continues to demonstrate LAAF’s ability to bring communities together from all walks of life. For us, it is the best way to challenge the negative stereotypes and misconceptions of the Arab region from the media. Our festival shows the richness and diversity that Arab arts, culture and heritage can offer. The thing I enjoy most about Family Day is seeing families together, dressed in their traditional clothes from their country while being proud of who they are. I see no sign of any barriers.
- Liverpool recently launched various artistic and creative activities and events. What awards did the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival win?
Our positive impact on the cultural sector in England has long been recognised. In 2010 we won the Arab British Culture and Society Award in recognition of the outstanding contribution that it has made to the British public understanding of the life, society, and culture of the Arab people. 2018 LAAF was nominated by UNESCO UK for the international Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture and was a finalist for Liverpool Echo’s Community Event of the Year. We continue to successfully secure funding, such as being part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio of national arts organisations.
- What Arab countries are hosted by the Liverpool Festival?
While our festival has grown from Yemeni roots, we work with artists across the Arab region each festival. Last year we featured the work of 19 Lebanese printmakers as part of an exhibition by the Arab Image Foundation at Liverpool John Moores University. In 2021 our project ‘22’ featured Arab artists, creatives and activists from 19 countries, from Morocco to Kuwait, producing a creative response to how the climate crisis is impacting their respective country.
- How did the Corona pandemic affect the festival, its activities, and its program?
Like many other organisations, the pandemic greatly impacted our work. We had to cancel our planned 2020 live festival programme in Liverpool. However, LAAF’s Board and team worked intensively to produce our first digital festival in a short period of time. This provided paid work to freelancers and generated new creative works from artists. Our work in the digital digital festival saw us nominated for Liverpool City Region Arts Organisation of the Year in recognition of us reaching 225,000 people across more than 24 countries and four continents.
- What are the obstacles you could face during the preparations for the festival?
Planning an international festival always has numerous challenges. This can range from issues securing visas for Arab artists to closely monitoring any external developments in the Arab region that might impact artists we work with. The festival team and board carefully plans the festival drawing up contingency options, but sometimes things happen beyond our control and efforts. Last year’s Family Day event took place in the intense July heatwave. The Palm House is a glass greenhouse for tropical plants – so you can imagine the temperature inside with the stage! Our event team produced detailed plans and risk assessments the week before to ensure the safety of attendees, artists and staff and volunteers. Despite the risk, the event went well with minimal disruption (and lots of water drunk!)
- Was there a large turnout by the British during the festival period to learn about Arab art in its various forms?
LAAF is a community and grassroots festival and engaging with Arab and non-Arab audience is at the heart of what we do, especially as Arabic is the second most spoken language after English in Liverpool. We run a Cultural Education Programme working closely with Arab artists to develop workshops to be delivered in Primary and Secondary schools in the Liverpool City Region. This gives young people a genuine opportunity to engage with Arab art and culture, often for the first time. For those who come from an Arab background is often the first time they have seen their own culture and heritage represented in their classroom. The enthusiasm students show when they excitedly share the words they speak at home with their classmates, or to discuss the music, art and culture that is part of their heritage, is a powerful tool to strengthen their Arab identity.
- The West’s view of Arab society is often militant and extremist. So how does the Liverpool Festival try to deliver another message that corrects this misconception about Arab society and culture?
Our festival serves as a celebratory, joyous, educational, inspirational and inclusive event that welcomes everybody, and positively promotes Arab culture and people. This positively counteracts misplaced views that some hold of the Arab region, invariably framed by images of war, conflict, conservativism and the oppression of women. Arts, culture and heritage are powerful tools to challenge prejudice, while fostering understanding between people and creating new opportunities for dialogues and discussion.
- Why was the city of Liverpool chosen to host a festival that embodies Arab arts and cultures?
There is no question why Liverpool was chosen to host LAAF: we very much identify as Arab-Scouse! LAAF is the largest Arab arts festival outside London and makes a prominent social, economic and cultural contribution to Liverpool as a major city in England and its international reputation.
- Are there plans by the festival’s organizers and curators to expand activities and events within the Liverpool Festival? What are the most prominent events and performances the festival will organize in its next edition soon?
2023 marks our 25th anniversary since we were founded in 1998. For Liverpool Arab Arts Festival 2023 we are invite Arab artists and those of Arab heritage to explore how their stories have shaped them, how they are crafting their own stories and how it relates to modern Arab identity. This includes artists we’ve worked with and new creatives. We have just announced the first wave of performances, including a launch gig by exciting Somali musician Aar Maanta on Friday 7 July at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall Music Room and a comedy night, Arabs Are Not Funny, on Saturday 8 July at the Royal Court Liverpool, in association with Arts Canteen. Syrian musician Maya Youssef performs at the Philharmonic on Friday 14 July. Our Family Day closing spectacular returns on Sunday 16 July to Sefton Park Palm House.
for more information: www.arabartsfestival.com