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LAAF at Bluecoat: past, present and future

It’s almost 20 years since the Bluecoat turned to Liverpool’s Arab community to help publicise a summer evening’s music performance.

But out of tiny acorns mighty oaks grow, and two decades on the 16th annual Liverpool Arab Arts Festival is about to get underway, with a host of events taking place across the city over nine fascinating, thought-provoking and fun-filled days.

Bluecoat artistic director Bryan Biggs and Taher Qassim, chairman of LAAF, are due to launch this year’s festival with an ‘In Conversation’ at the School Lane venue on July 7, talking about the event from its early days to its position as the UK’s leading Arab arts festival today.

Ahead of that, Catherine Jones caught up with the pair to learn a little more about LAAF’s past, present - and future.

First LAAF festival, 2002 © Sean Halligan
Take me back to the late 1990s. How did what would one day be the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival come about?

Bryan: At that time Dinesh Allirajah was our programmer and he was interested in what would be termed ‘world music’, basically music from outside the Western mainstream. He booked a Palestinian oud player in 1998 called Adel Salameh,.

We wanted to attract the local Arab audience, and through Dinesh’s contacts at the city council he knew someone who was involved in the Liverpool Yemeni Club and said would you translate the publicity for us?

From that point onwards, we realised there was an interest among this group in Lodge Lane to profile Arab culture in the city.

We got to know them a bit and then decided to do an Arab Weekender together, Nadey Al Bluecoat. That was in 2000.

That was successful and as a result we decided to make it into a festival in 2002. We spent a year fundraising, and got Arts Council money and some trade union support from Unison. The actual festival was launched at St George’s Hall and was quite a big event.

So, it was our shared interest in Arab culture that started the collaboration. But even before that Bluecoat was doing quite a lot of work with Arab artists in its gallery art exhibitions. We were interested in that region, and what was happening politically, but also how culture was expressing some of that politics.

Taher: LAAF was an idea that started from zero basically, a small group of people who were interested in music and dance as a starting point. And this group was from the Bluecoat as well as the Liverpool Arabic Centre, although at that time it was called Nadey Al Cul, which means a club for everybody.

We were invited to translate a leaflet for the Bluecoat. Then they called us, and said ‘we’re interested in exploring this’, and organised a weekender. And then we started to think about should we think about something else, and that’s when the idea of LAAF came about.

 First LAAF festival, 2002 © Sean Halligan
How has the partnership, and the festival, developed over the years?

Bryan: It’s changed an awful lot. It began as Bluecoat driving it in terms of the management, getting the funding, having the staff to deliver it. It was a stand-alone project but very much run by us and Liverpool Arabic Centre in partnership.

It grew and developed, and as a result of it raising its profile, the Arts Council said ‘we think for long term sustainability it needs to be Arab-led, rather than a project of Bluecoat’s’.

It made absolute sense to do that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds because you’ve got to start a new organisation and recruit a board, and basically it has a different dynamic. I think Taher has been quite brilliant at managing that – he’s been the steady rock throughout the whole process.

It did become independent from Bluecoat and set up its own board. And it grew, particularly around the time of Capital of Culture. Marcel Khalife became patron, and it really put down a marker as the UK’s leading, probably the only, actually, serious Arab festival.

What made it distinct is, it’s a typical Liverpool thing I guess, that it had international ambition and high-profile events, but was also rooted in the community. That’s always been strong, particularly on the family days.

The festival has always displayed an ambition to work across a wide range of artforms – as shown by this year’s programme.

Bryan: I think that comes from the interests of the partners and the board members involved. You need people on the ground who are passionate about things.

Bluecoat has got a particular interest in contemporary visual art. We’d already been doing ambitious exhibitions with Arab artists, but having them set against the backdrop of the festival has given them that much more resonance.

There is a lot of traditional programming in the festival but at the same time, and increasingly over the last few years, it’s very much about contemporary voices, what young Arabs are doing today, including work from the region itself and of the Arabic diaspora. I think it’s engaged with the contemporary world rather than being seen as being something “exotic”.

I think it’s a very relevant festival. We talk a lot at the Bluecoat about why we do what we do – what’s the measure for doing what we do? And we keep coming back to this. It’s got to be relevant to our times.

I think this festival is absolutely relevant.

Taher: At the beginning when we were developing the festival, our concern was, how are we going to find artists? And how are we going to find artists of good quality for the programme we want to present in Liverpool?

The whole picture has changed now. Now, the requests we get are far more than we can take. And I’m so proud that we have changed that, so people want to be associated with the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.

Tony Heaton, Gold Lamé, in The Art of Lived Experiment, Bluecoat, 2014 
Do you have any particular highlights or memories from previous festivals?

Bryan: There was an event we initiated around the time of the Arab Spring called The Freedom Hour.

Every day during the festival there was a dedicated hour when we’d invite guests and the public to talk about what was happening in the world, because it was literally changing as the festival progressed.

And some of the exhibitions we’ve done here have been very powerful, such as Arabicity, which was curated by Rose Issa.

The highlight of that was a car, and piled on top of it were all this person’s belongings, a metaphor for migration. It was by Ayman Balbaaki and it was called Destination.

It was on a revolve. It moved slowly round like being in a car showroom and could be seen in the gallery from the street. Increasingly as the situation in much of the Middle East and Africa has deteriorated, we are seeing in the media images of migration, distressing stories about people drowning. So, this remains for me a very powerful piece of art.

Taher: I do, vividly! We were ready for the launch of the festival, 2001 to prepare for 2002. As we were planning, 9/11 happened. It was a panic. What do we do now?

There was serious debate, and there were serious concerns. People said - we will be targeted, this is too serious. And other people said, this is a terrorist attack, it could happen anywhere in the world, we have nothing to do with it. We’re promoting art. And if we cannot say something positive now it will never happen again.

That fierce discussion, and the consensus that if we don’t do it now, we will never be able to do it again, that was the most vivid discussion I remember.

Where does LAAF go from here? What does the future hold and what ambitions do you have?

Taher: It was so difficult to attract young people to be part of LAAF, but the situation is changing.

Last year we produced a film by young people. Tomorrow we’re going to see another film called Aden Narratives, about the British presence in Aden. Some of the members of that group are young people who produced the film last year.

Then we have a staff member working with Young LAAF. And another group of young people are going to produce an artistic work for World Museum Liverpool. And then there’s another group who are going to perform at Tiber Square on July 8.

My dream is that whenever Taher Qassim is no longer able to lead the organisation, a young person from those different groups will say ‘I will take that leadership role’.

Bryan: In terms of programming, we can now plan with a bit more certainty because we’ve just got our National Portfolio Organisation result (from the Arts Council). It means we can review what we do with LAAF in terms of future programming together.

I’m hoping we can do more together, and certainly around things like literature. We’re very committed to that because literature is a key part of our offer and a rich part of Arab culture, historically and for today. And also, smaller music and live art events, and of course visual arts.

What I’ve been encouraged by in the last couple of years is the festival’s community element in terms of supporting local young Arabs. There’s been a real commitment to engage with young people in the community and give them a sense of ‘I do have a voice and I can do something’.

In a few years, we’ll hopefully see really interesting film and music and literature emerging from the Liverpool Arab community itself, and that will be, for me, the biggest success for the festival.

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