Creativity rises from the ashes of revolution

UK and Arab artists are collaborating to rebuild societies

"II feel danger", announced the Cairo-based theatre director and playwright, Ahmed Al Attar. "I have always been an optimist, but now I am frightened." In late December, the British Council convened a debate at the Southbank Centre examining the role the arts and artists are playing in the social and political upheavals of the Arab world. We wanted to ask how, and if, the arts sector in the UK should respond; it was the result of research undertaken by Professor Sultan Barakat, Director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York on arts and social change in the region.

From the research, we extrapolated a report, Voices of the People, which we hope will stimulate more collaboration in the arts and creative industries between the UK and the region. Our objective is to use this report as an action plan, in partnership with the UK arts sector and artists from the Middle East. A piece of cultural diplomacy if you like, but not on the traditional model of a simple export of arts and artists from the UK.

I was struck by several things during the course of the day: our Arab friends grasped fully the importance of a healthy cultural sector in rebuilding societies where, for so many, injustice, inequality, poverty, corruption and repression have long been the norm. They also understood the need to get the arts beyond the core elites into the wider community and the public space. They are hungry for their compatriots to have the freedoms of expression that we take for granted in Europe. Al Attar again: "In the days of Mubarak, people forgot how to talk to each other. Discourse around the table was reduced to abstract generality, like an Ionesco play." But he and his colleagues are equally keen to be seen as artists and not merely as social activists: "Yes the arts can make a difference, but we are keen to be seen and heard for our artistic expression, as professionals."

From the UK side, there was a palpable desire to engage but a relative lack of known networks in the region. That is probably the single most valuable service we at the British Council can offer all our friends – with our arts network in the region and our links to the UK arts scene, to make the connections, to support emerging artist development, to build bridges, to foster new initiatives in region with partnerships in the UK, and (a demand wherever I go) to build capacity, skills and expertise using UK experience. Not forgetting talking to governments, even the more conservative ones, about the role and value of culture in their newly reshaped nations.

This isn't some exercise in imposing Western operating models, but in genuine enablement and assistance, as well as a spirit of artistic exploration in a region rich both in heritage and new ideas. For example, we heard of an independent Palestinian/UK enterprise that's set up an annual music and arts festival in Gaza from 2014: that would be a positive and inspiring story from a region not renowned for its positive stories.

One can only hope that the Arab Spring remains a Spring, and doesn't turn to Winter, that our office in Damascus can open again, as we were able to reopen in Libya, and that new governments of all persuasions in the region will forge a vision for culture in their countries, recognising the potency of the arts and creative industries in helping to build a stable society, to create employment, to enrich the lives of their citizens, and to define a new and positive national identity. The fear of people like Ahmed Al-Attar is that self-censorship, or worse, will return.

Graham Sheffield is director of arts at the British Council

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before