The Arab British Centre in London has been a hub for Arab creatives since the 1970s, and though its fundamental mission hasn’t changed, the world around it has, so the center and its staff are always adapting.
The changes brought by the Covid-19 pandemic are no exception. While social distancing and travel restrictions made it difficult for the staff to work together with artists from across the Middle East, the center found ways to work around these problems, and at the same time expanded its reach to more people outside of London and beyond the United Kingdom.
Sir Derek Plumbly, the center’s chairman since March 2016, talked to Al-Fanar Media about the charitable organization’s work and how it has adapted to carry its mission forward, before and after the pandemic shutdowns.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we responded very quickly by translating a cultural program, which has been very much a physical one, to an online one,” Plumbly said.
It was tough on the organization’s staff to undertake this task so quickly, he said, but the result was a net gain because it allowed the center to reach more people across the world. The center will always have a physical presence in London, he said, but will now combine a mix of physical and online programs.
Part of the center’s mission, Plumbly noted, is to bridge cultural gaps and promote better understanding of the Arab world.
The United Kingdom has long been at the global forefront of promoting other societies, but there is also an element of restraint when it comes to understanding Arab culture. A 2017 Arab News/YouGov poll of U.K. attitudes toward the Arab world found that 56 percent of respondents had limited knowledge of the Arab world. Notably, 23 percent associated the Arab world with extremism and 14percent with violence.
Plumbly said the center is striving to help change misperceptions. “The best way to provide a sense of understanding of the actuality of the Arab world is through partner organizations and residents within the center,” he said. “We highlight their activities and achievements, and that encourages people to get in touch and find out more.”
“Sudan now is at a moment of real possibility compared to when I used to live there, where cinemas didn’t even exist. There is a prospect of a bright future.”Sir Derek Plumbly
The center’s chairman since March 2016
Showcasing Arab Cinema
One project the center has sponsored since 2012 is the SAFAR Film Festival, the only festival in the U.K. dedicated to cinema from the Arab world. (See the related articles “The Arab Uprisings Left a Creative Imprint on Cinema” and “An Arab Film Festival in the U.K., SAFAR, Adapts to the Online Environment.”)
The festival has shown the high caliber of filmmaking coming out of the Middle East and Africa, Plumbly said.
This year, the festival is presenting the film program of the Shubbak Festival, another U.K.-based celebration of contemporary Arab culture. (See a related article, “London’s Shubbak Festival of Arab Culture Returns, Live and Online.”)
One of the films shown this year, “You Will Die at 20,” directed by Amjad Abu Alala, is the first film from Sudan to be submitted into the Academy Awards.
“Sudan now is at a moment of real possibility compared to when I used to live there, where cinemas didn’t even exist,” said Plumbly. “There is a prospect of a bright future.”
This will encourage other artists within the Arab film industry, he said, but it’s all down to funding; different countries have different circumstances, and it is only through a recent change of governance in Sudan that the arts are beginning to open up. (See a related article, “Sudanese Writer in Exile Knows Life’s ‘Violent Reality,’ and Its Flashes of Joy.”)
Two-Way Artistic Exchanges
As more Arab countries, especially the Gulf region, begin to open up and invest more in cultural arts, the center fosters collaborations between British artists and those coming from the Middle East.
“There is a strong female presence in the arts in the Arab world, notwithstanding the constraints and restrictions that apply.”Sir Derek Plumbly
The Making Marks program, in partnership with the British Council, sponsors creative exchanges between artists based in the U.K. and the Gulf. In a 2019 exchange with Kuwait, a selection of U.K. artists traveled to Kuwait, where, led by the Kuwaiti artist Deema AlGhunaim, they visited galleries and museums, and met with artists including Ghadah Alkandari and Aseel Al-Yaqoub. Later, a group of Kuwaiti artists traveled to the U.K., where they visited cultural sites like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Belfast Exposed gallery, and a Welsh mining museum.
None of the participants knew about the work of the Arab British Centre before, Plumbly said. Now that it has happened, more people will know about the organization’s work and be interested in doing something similar, he said.
Arab Women in the Arts
Women play a crucial role in the center’s work, Plumbly said. “Throughout my time, the leadership team has always been made up of British and Arab women.”
Many of the artists the organization sponsors are also women.
“There is a strong female presence in the arts in the Arab world, notwithstanding the constraints and restrictions that apply,” he said. “Over the past year, Manal AlDowayan and Haifa Al-Mansour have emerged from Saudi Arabia with great talent. Women’s role in the arts is at the heart of what we do.”
Half of the films included in this year’s SAFAR festival were directed by women.
However, Plumbly said there are still ceilings that really have to be broken for women to achieve their full potential.
Engaging Arab Youth
Crucially, artistic potential can now more easily arise from the younger generation, as new technologies develop and opportunities open up.
“Throughout my time, the leadership team has always been made up of British and Arab women.”Sir Derek Plumbly
Engaging with youth helps keep Arab culture alive, and the center works with partners to provide various cultural courses, such as Kufic calligraphy and learning to play the oud. Such programs help young Arabs in the U.K. connect and share cultural traditions that they would otherwise be missing out on.
After the pandemic forced many programs had to go online, the center introduced a series called Friday Hangouts, which allows young artists to chat and exchange ideas. Plumbly said these online conversations have been well received and that the center is continuing with other programs that include young artists, such as Arab Britain, a series “that sets out to explore and document the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain.”
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The Arab British Centre is in an enviable position, right in the heart of central London and surrounded by museums and galleries for inspiration. But with it being a charity, Plumbly says it can be hard to raise funds and maintain a physical presence that is crucial to its work.
Since it opened in 1977, the Arab British Centre unlocked many doors for Arabs from all walks of life. Going forward, Plumbly’s vision is for the center to take lessons from the past two years, to connect with more Arab artists to create rich cultural work, and to promote that effort to all corners of the United Kingdom and beyond.