A photo taken in Tunisia by artist Wassim Ghozlani captures the spirit of the region in 2010. (Image credit: Art dans la rue – Art dans le quartier, Février 2010, Wassim Ghozlani Photographie)
Stephen Stenning, our regional arts director in the Middle East and North Africa, shares new research that suggests art and culture can pave the way for development in North Africa.
A gnarled veteran of staging rock concerts introduced me to the idea that ‘the closer you are to disaster before the event the more certain you are of a glorious success during it’. I reflected on that mantra in the immediate build up to our recent London launch of a new report, ‘Voices of the People: Arts and Social Change in North Africa’. Two key speakers were missing and guests were about to arrive.
Professor Sultan Barakat had delayed a trip to the West Bank in order to present the results of his research into artistic practices and social change in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, only to get stuck on a train just outside York. Egyptian theatre and festival director Ahmed El Attar was still on the Eurostar with a journey across London to negotiate once it arrived at St. Pancras. A hundred people had gathered to hear about the British Council’s report carried out by the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York. But as with rock and roll, so it is with the British Council: both contributors arrived.
Ahmed El Attar delivered a provocative and inspiring address. The press later focused on his fears for artistic freedoms in fast changing and politically turbulent times, but I was struck by his conviction that art and culture are in themselves a big part of the answer to the problem of unrest. It highlighted a powerful truth about the role that the British Council plays in countries experiencing the upheaval of dramatic social change.
Following these remarks was a productive working session to address issues raised by the report, such as engaging with grassroots activity, supporting platforms for creative expression and building capacity in the region.
Since the event, new partnerships are seeking to create ambitious networks of public platforms and festivals, and a pilot project is starting in Libya designed to use street theatre as a catalyst for public debate. In addition, the European Commission plans to support projects that use culture to spur development.
I am excited by those opportunities that recognise the value of culture as a tool for economic or social development. However, cultural engagement is not merely an instrument; it has a value in and of itself. Creative platforms offer a way of exploring identity and exposing the structures and frameworks around us. They provide a focus for presenting, debating and rallying around ideas and for envisioning new ways forward. Such platforms for artistic and creative expression are not just useful but vital for developing healthy, prosperous and informed societies.
For me a key message from this research is that supporting diverse programmes of cultural activity and encouraging wider access to cultural expression is absolutely fundamental to the British Council’s mission, particularly in countries undergoing rapid social change. I guess that should be obvious to a cultural relations organization – it’s all about culture!
Watch interviews with arts practitioners from the UK and North Africa:
Read ‘Voices of the People: Arts and Social Change in North Africa‘.
Learn more about our work in the arts and in the Middle East and North Africa.