By Bachir Habib
“Unwrap the cultural treasures of the Arab world in this Kennedy Center international festival showcasing the varied cultures of the 22 Arab nations that represent the Arabic-speaking world. From the Arabian Gulf to the Levant to North Africa-this region of the world is the birthplace of human civilization and features extraordinary diversity in geography, traditions, landscape, religion, and contemporary aesthetics. In cooperation with the League of Arab States, the three-week festival brings together artists, many of whom are making their U.S. debut, in performances of music, dance, and theater, as well as exhibitions featuring art installations, fashion, a soundscape, cuisine, a marketplace, and much more. Discover the evolution of art forms born from the cradle of human civilization. Experience an amazing breadth of culture that spans both eons and continents.”
This is how John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington has unveiled its 10 million dollars event called “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World”. It is indeed an important moment for the Arab Culture and the Arab art scene to be invited to such a prestigious institution and environment.
Arabesque as the above press release and video show is an important moment for the Arab art scene and the American audience altogether. It happens only a month after the inauguration of President Barack Obama who revealed a new American diplomacy in his speech on the 20th of January. He addressed the Muslim world saying that Washington seeks “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”. The coverage of the launch of Arabesque by international news agencies strongly mentioned the link between the festival and the dawn of a new American diplomacy towards the Arab and Muslim world.
Both events can be linked, but on the other hand, as Alicia Adams, head of International programming at Kennedy Center said, they are not directly related. According to the organizer who spent three years roaming more that 15 Arab countries to find artists and new talents and bring them to perform in the US, the relation between both events is a coincidence. This festival was going to happen no matter what the outcome of the US elections would have been. But Adams insists that it was not an easy task to prepare Arabesque for it was all put in order at “a time when the popularity of the USA was very low and there was a possibility that the artists would say they were not interested because it was America and Kennedy Center, which is a quasi-federal institution”.
Since it started on the 23rd of February, the festival lasting until the 15th of March is of interest for the American, international and Arab media. However, this big event mainly featuring mainstream and “commercial” art of the Arab world, fails to focus on the colossal structural problems the Arab art scene faces at home.
Freedom of expression, censorship and self censorship, lack of investments, negative public reaction to the notion of difference, and finally tyrannical state policies and intolerance are the main challenges art faces in many Arab countries.
Art and Culture are spheres that can generate social and even political changes. If used properly as spaces where concepts, ideas, talents and challenges meet, interact and evolve, they might create the right path towards achieving the “dream of a Nation that draws strength and coherence from its differences and diversities”, as assassinated Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir once said.