The second annual Nour Festival of Arts, with a program that includes film, fashion, food, photography and more, has now completed its first week.
Held at the Leighton House Museum in West London, the festival includes a diverse range of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa, aiming at opening up interpretations and perceptions of the greater region, its religions and societies.
The festival opening inaugurated, “Tree of Life – Visions from the Garden of Eden,” an exhibition of paintings by Iraqi artist Suad Al Attar. Al Attar is the recipient of a number of awards throughout her 20-year career, but among her highlights is the fact that she was the first woman to have held a solo show in her home city of Baghdad. Complex, detailed and bejeweled, the palm trees of this collection are suggestive of Klimt’s glow, while other works evoke a sense of dark dreams of forests and bold, deep color. The trees, a common theme in Al Attar’s work, while generally representative of endurance and strength, have come to communicate various ideas to different people. In a 1985 catalogue forward, art reviewer Genevieve Moll noted the trees to be symbolic of femininity, representing their rootedness while striving to move beyond subservience. In the catalogue for the current exhibition, journalist Yasmine Alibhai-Brown’s forward likened them to the “common human condition”: magnificent yet “tragically confined.” Al Attar’s exhibition will be on display until Oct. 28.
The first event of the program brought a “souq” to the upstairs hall of the Leighton House on Saturday with stalls including crafts from Morocco: handmade furniture inscribed with poetry and made by designer Dia Battal, as well as a collection of rare central Asian history and photography books, collected from all over the world by Silk Roads Books.
Showcasing edgy as well as more classical events and exhibitions, the Nour Festival of Arts links the historical setting of the house to the 21st century artists included in the program. “We want to do different things,” says Alan Kirwan, Education Officer at the Leighton House Museum and Chief Curator of the Nour Festival. “We want to go towards the radical and new, and not so much the traditional. And we can.”
Yet, rather than separating the idea of traditional versus cutting-edge, the program does an interesting job of mixing the two. Ziad Ghanem, Lebanese fashion designer also known as the “Cult Couturier,” will be presenting a special collection entitled “The First Time I Cried in a Turkish Bath,” which promises an event that will cross fashion into art. His works are based by his travels through Turkey and Syria, bringing old stitching methods to the modern age. Other works are inspired by Victorian drapes adorning women in the paintings resting on the Leighton House walls, making it a fitting setting for his project.
A sound installation by artist Seth Ayyaz, entitled “The Bird Ghost at the Zaouia,” will explore ideas on Islamic social sound, bringing together recordings of calls to prayer, birds and conversation, but in response to clerics’ request, no musical sounds. Although it is ironic to bring the archeology into the “radical” mix, presentations of findings from pre-Islamic Saudi Arabia and Iran will be given.
“Islam certainly has a rich cultural heritage, but it also integrates with civilizations that came before in those lands,” explains Kirwan. “One of the talks will bring out the pre-Islamic heritage of Iran, which is in threat of being whitewashed from powers who want to cast away the pre-Islamic history.”
Other events in the program will include a performance by the Moroccan hip-hop artist Master Mimz who will discuss the growing role of this genre of music in the Arab world. Literature will have its place with two contemporary books. Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor at The Guardian, will discuss his new book, “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.” Throughout the second month of the festival, Anissa Helou, Syrian-Lebanese chef and food writer, will be given the creative space of having the residency, an opportunity usually given by artists and writers to give workshops and demonstrations on ingredients, spices and how to find Middle Eastern essentials in London.
The festival organizers are most proud of the involvement of community players, including galleries, schools, culture organizations and the like. Speaking at the festival’s opening event, Councilor Nicolas Paget-Brown noted the contribution that the events are making to the Royal Borough of Kensington:
“Arabic is the second most common language spoken in the borough. The festival not only showcases international works and artists but also builds connections between local people and the Middle East.” Kirwan added that the concentration of Arab and Iranian communities in West London have made it “almost natural” that this kind of event would occur at the Leighton House.
The Nour Festival of Arts will be running at the Leighton House Museum until Nov. 30.