Case Study: Liverpool Arab Arts Festival

Programming content that is relevant to and reflects the concerns faced by young people

by Jack Welsh (Festival Programme Manager, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival)

I’m Festival Programme Manager at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF). LAAF is the UK’s longest-running annual Arab arts and culture festival. The organisation was founded in 1998 by members of Liverpool’s long-standing Yemeni community. Their aim was to increase awareness and appreciation of Arab culture by introducing local schoolchildren to authentic Arab culture, including music, language, and dress. This ethos continues to drive our artistic and educational work today.

I recently presented at A New Direction’s Principles into Practice: Environmental Responsibility event in February. It was a joy to hear inspirational presentations and provocations from fellow panellists Paddy Dillon (Theatre Green Book), Toby Peach (Young Coney) and Bridget McKenzie (Climate Museum UK).

My presentation took a different perspective. It focused on a key project from our 2021 festival, which ran from 16 July - 14 November. The theme of our 2021 festival was the climate crisis and its disproportionately impact on the Arab region, an area that has faced unprecedented climatic events in recent years.

We spent several years speaking and listening to artists, creatives, activists and organisations based in the region and beyond, understanding the challenges that uniquely impact each country situated in the region. Scorching temperatures, rising sea levels and dwindling natural resources increasingly threaten a region already confronting the continuing realities of conflict and colonialism. Projects included Jessica El Mal’s Grounds for Concern, which questions the concept of land ownership and the true boundaries that are enforced by human-made borders, to the Between Two Islands soundscape, which poetically visits a sub-aquatic Bahrain in 2121 after it has been swallowed by rising seas.

One of our major projects was ‘22’, a creative anthology of artistic responses to the climate crisis. The project was creatively produced by theatre producer and climate activist, Penny Babakhani, and funded by Arts Council England. Featuring a diverse array of artistic responses, ranging from poetry to performance to photography, a new work was released online each day during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. Our aim was to provide a platform for the lived experiences of those often excluded from climate conversations and advocate for climate justice.

I highlighted several works from the project. Moroccan photographer M’hammed Kilito’s project Hooked to paradise is an ongoing and long-term photographic series highlighting the complex issues causing oasis degradation in Morocco and its impact on its inhabitants. Kilto’s photographs present an oasis and the impact of when they run dry.

Egyptian-born artist Nada Elkalaawy has produced a gorgeously painted portrait of a ringed seal called Slappy. The cuteness of this dabbled painting is brutally undercut as we realise this is Slappy’s Obituary. The text sadly informs us that ring seals are at risk of extinction in the future due to climate change, with one-third of all plant animal species at risk by 2070.

Ala Buisir is a documentary photographer born in Ireland with Libyan roots. Her beautifully staged photography series Returning to traditions situates Arab females in traditional dress posing in natural environments. Buisir is adamant that we need to revisit our traditions to realise the necessary change. Our fast way of life will have to change due to the damage we are causing to the Earth. She asks: why not slow it down before it’s too late?

You can see all works from 22 here.

As I made clear in my presentation, LAAF is very much at the start of our environmental sustainability journey. We are using the Investment Principles as a framework to improve our work in all areas, from sustainably realising creative projects in Liverpool, to how we capture and use data to influence our decision making. Our artistic and education programme will focus on influencing, educating and advocating for environmental responsibility long-term. This reflects the concerns of younger artists and audiences, many of whom consider the climate crisis as a vital issue.

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