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The Actual Human Being

March 13, 2015

I caught the tail-end of an event last Sunday to celebrate ‘Arab Women Artists’ at Richmix in East London. I walked in, as the last act, Alia Alzoughbi, was finishing off a storytelling performance, after which a more general discussion was mediated by the eloquent Malu Halasa, who spoke of the importance of raising/ supporting the voices of Arab Women Artists.

I sat in the auditorium with a mix of excitement, hearing people like me speak of something I care deeply for (the arts), and a less easy sense, feeling somewhat uneasy about the label ‘Arab Woman Artist’. Do we risk objectifying ourselves with such labels?

Whilst reviewing a piece of writing by a non-Arab author portraying ‘an Arab of unidentified country’, Malu questioned the authenticity of such works, and I heard her saying: you need to at least have family ties to a region to write about these characters, otherwise, you’re just writing about yourself.

As an artist, where does the question of authenticity begin and end?

Now, I believe that women need to raise their voices, and the rest of society to prick their ears. I want to experience more Middle Eastern voices on the UK art scene, and I actively support works by all ‘women of colour’, as an audience member, a creative practitioner and an artist.

Thus far, I walk side-by-side with Malu, and this is when I felt a sense of camaraderie with those present last Sunday.

On the authenticity front, I also agree. I went to see David Hare’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre last year, and I had an uncomfortable sense of a critical outsider looking-in. A little too Orientalist for my liking.

However, in terms of artists interpreting/ imagining and creating worlds to suspend our disbelief, to invite us to reflect and question ourselves through their own critique of themselves, I want to believe there are no limits.

I am someone of Middle Eastern origins, with more than family ties to Iraq, as I distinctly remember arriving in the UK as an 11 year old and hearing English as gobbledygook for the first few months until I learnt the language. Am I then better equipped to represent Iraqis than say, a playwright who’s born and bred in London, never been to Iraq, but has been profoundly moved by a story on the news? Maybe a story that resonated with her on a human level, as a daughter losing a son, or a woman surviving a traumatic event?

A few days ago, a playwright friend approached me with exactly this question. He has a story set in Iraq and feared that his non-Iraqi Londoner voice may be publicly criticised, should he instead leave the origin of the character as ‘unidentified’ to avoid the risk of objectifying the other? To him, I quoted by psychotherapy trainer: ‘all art is projection’. So do the research, trust that whatever sticks is enough and write from yourself, as in reality, this is the only place we can think and create from. When an artist takes the risk of sharing their work publicly, then there will always be critics. I know of another British-Iraqi playwright who was accused of not being Iraqi enough. Where does this stop?

As an artist, do I create to please others, or create from an authentic inner voice, trusting that someone somewhere will connect or not, as the risk may be?

Also, in my very brief stint on the ‘jobbing actor’ scene, I resented mainly being cast in foreign roles, be these as diverse as sephardic jewish, Romanian asylum seeker, Arab scientist etc. I had trained in classical European theatre, and hadn’t imagined I’d only be playing people similar to me on stage. As an artist, I wanted the freedom I may not have in reality, however, I didn’t find this to be the case. Hence, perhaps, I resisted the labelling assumed last Sunday.

Alia Alzoughbi said, as an artist, she is very political, without a capital ‘P’. I liked that, and the statement stayed with me.

And, I ask: does everything created need to directly relate to the Middle East or/ and Arab identity to be politically charged and relate to these communities?

I’ve often been bored, as an audience, seeing politicised works on stage that (to me) can miss the beautify and integrity of the art form. The art becomes all about the message represented, rather than what is evoked by the artistry and humanity of the piece. For example, variations on themes of Arab Spring and Syria ad nauseam. The magnetite of the message drowns the humanity, and here I’m reminded of a quote by Francis Bacon:

I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being.

Over the last few years, I’ve kept my own artwork private, only showing to invited peers, largely because I did not trust my personal work in the public realm. I want to playfully mix spirituality with sensuality, narrate stories of ISIS and chihuahuas, question myself and others, without the fear of flagellation. As I write, I notice that within my artist network, I do not have any Middle Easterners or Arabs, and I now wonder if my fear has largely been of the critical voices within my own communities.

This is where, I return to last Sunday, as the beauty of subgrouping, i.e., bringing people with a shared sense of identity together, deepens a sense of belonging.

My imagined critics suddenly had voices, faces and I left the event wondering if in fact, I want to actively share my work with these women, and also the men who had organised and supported the event. And I remain wary of the possibility of objectifying myself as a ‘SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING’, because I want to hold onto my sense of freedom, rather than weigh myself down with the duty to represent any one group of people. I can only ever speak from my experience, and yet my imagination has no limits.

This is what I am ultimately left with, and I truly look forward to more such events.

Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) was organised by Arts Canteen and hosted by Rich Mix.

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