London, Asharq Al-Awsat – 2012 in London was a diamond year with its jovial celebration of the queen’s 60th year on the throne. Besides the royal jubilee, the entire city of London was the star of an amazing Olympics during the summer months of July and August. Culturally, in the year 2012, London was shining brighter than any other city in the world!
Special programs and events were organized throughout the year, on top of the city’s usual slew of festival and fairs. Among the annual events were the more geographically focused, such as 15th annual Palestine Film Festival and the 3rd annual Nour Festival of Middle Eastern and North African Arts, as well as the more global 10th annual Frieze and the 56th London Film Festival. Each of these events brought something strong and new to our cannon of visual cultures and modes of storytelling. Here are some of the most interesting exhibitions, events and individual works of the year 2012.
Starting with the local British scene, among the most interesting exhibitions of the year was surprisingly the National Portrait Gallery’s The Queen: Art and Image. It is a ‘surprise’ because one can argue that Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait is a rather everyday sight. But the exhibition traced more than portraiture of the Queen, but her voyage from the time of her father’s death, marking her accession to the throne, up till today. More than a time-ready celebration of the monarch’s image it was a study of the way she is seen by the public. The exhibition looked at questions regarding royals’ public relations, the people’s respect for their emblem, the shift of the Queen’s image from regal to pop, and even punk, icon, and the personal relationships that affected the nation, namely with the late Princess Diana.
During this year’s Olympics, London was inundated with sports celebrations and events. But not until after the moaning and grumbling about security, prices, traffic and even a possible alien attack (no joke!). Among the first exhibitions to put the excitement back to the games was another portraiture exhibition, this time brought over from Qatar and shown at Sotheby’s Gallery. Commissioned by the Qatar Museum Authority, the portraits included still photographs by the accomplished portraitist Brigitte Lacombe along with short videos by her sister, the filmmaker Marian Lacombe. Without glossing over the individuality of each of the women they shot, the exhibition looked at the challenges that they faced in reaching their Olympian potential. From the cultural challenges of women playing sports to the natural challenges of a disabled athlete, there were women who represented every Arab country in the amazing Olympics and Paralympics games of 2012.
There were two notable designers whose works stood out, both presented at this year’s Nour Festival. Nour, an annual festival of arts based in Kensington and Chelsea, is an autumn-long event. This year’s strengths came in the curators’ decision to give space to newly emerging artists. Of the ones that stood out were the graphic designer known only at Muiz (*1), and the spatial designer, DiaBatal. While Batal’s work ranges between furniture and upholstery that combines poetry and her own signature calligraphy, Muiz’s style is starkly modern, looking at new ways to view words, letters and angles. Both modernize the use of lettering by creating their own forms of typography, but to completely different ends adding a great visual diversification to among the oldest aesthetical forms of the Arab world.
Two very exciting Arab wins in literature this year were introduced to a larger, English speaking world via English PEN, an organization whose service includes defending writers and readers whose human right to expression is threatened. The PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage prize went to Syrian journalist and author, Samar Yazbek, for her book Woman Caught in Crossfire. Her chronicles of the first 100 days of the Syrian up rise was chosen by British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. As a member of the Alawite sect of Syria, Yazbek risked her own freedom and severed many personal ties in order to publish this memoire. Hassan Blasim’sThe Iraqi Christ, a collection of short stories written by the Iraqi writer and filmmaker, won the PEN Writers in Translation Award. While his life story is one he tells with matter-of-fact tumult, his fictional writing challenges the tradition of storytelling and, more importantly, the language used to tell stories. His raw style is refreshing in a world where language and tradition have kept a strong hold on manners and narration.
In film, 2012 will go down as the year that opened doors to Gulf cinema, to Saudi cinema more specifically, and to Arab women in cinema. The first film to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda, toured the world to rave reviews. Director Haifa Al Mansour admits that being a female director in the male-dominated Saudi society was difficult, but it was no reason for her to stay out of the frame. Wadjda won multiple awards for its acting and production values at Venice Film Festival, Dubai International Film Festival and the Tallinn Film Festival. The film will be getting its general UK release in April 2013.
London is very lucky to get knowledge-rich film festivals all year around. The annual London Palestine Film Festival marked its 15th this year. It incorporated over 50 works by artists from 16 countries. The very unique 2012 program included unique film styles, such as comedy festival opener, Man Without a Cell Phone, by SamehZoabi; a deep academic study of British archival films from Palestine with a discussion with historian IllanPappe, anthropologist Christopher Pinney and filmmaker and educator Kamal AlJafari; a study of Zionism in cinema by the academic Ella Shohat; and out-of-the-vault surprises such as the French-made 1972 Maoist film, L’Olivier. The 2013 program is well anticipated.
And finally, this was a great year for Arab theater in London. Spring and autumn brought a number of Arabic plays to the capital. The biannual London International Festival of Theater (LIFT) however brought three plays from Tunis, Iraq and Syria respectively. This involvement from the Arab region is part of the Festival’s focus on a particular area of the world. We were told to expect more from the Middle Eastern region up until 2016.
London this year, probably more than ever before, incorporated Arab and Middle Eastern artists in almost all cultural programs. Most even spotlighted the region as its focus. This trend does not look like it will be calming down any time soon, particularly with what has now been announced as the biannual Shubbak, the London-wide festival of Arab culture, in gear for 2013. With all the upheaval that has bestowed the Arab people since the Spring of 2011, we can expect however that more and more analysis of works, visual and literal, to take place from London and all year around. While we look at this with trepidation and precision in terms of the way we reflect on arts at such a riotoustime, the Arab world is making a turn in its cultural canon. We will be witnessing this for years to come.