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London and the Arabs: Historical connections to contemporary art

London – “London is a global city in which Arab culture played a significant part over the centuries – the word ‘Trafalgar’ even originates from the Arabic language,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson, while promoting the month-long “Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture” festival.

Trafalgar Square is a famous London landmark, named after the 1805 British naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, off Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain. The name of this coastal Spanish headland is rooted in the original Arabic “Taraf al-Gharb,” meaning “Edge of the West”.

This is but one example of connections that stretch back through European and Middle Eastern history, and that were the subject of a talk, held as part of the Shubbak festival, by Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London. According to Lohman, goods from the Arab world have passed through the port city of London since Roman times, and a diverse collection of Arab communities, from Yemeni sailors to Moroccan spice sellers, have settled in the capital city.

A 14th century Syrian medicine jar, on display at the museum, is a well-preserved testament to a history of cultural exchange, trade and travel. The stout circular ceramic pot, in distinctive blue and white design, is a fascinating insight into medical practices of the time, but its journey into England also tells of the great demand for Arab scientific knowledge in Medieval Europe.

Despite this rich web of enduring ties “Arab history in London is particularly elusive and understudied,” laments Lohman.

There are traces, however, that can be found and that inspire contemporary artists in the city. The work of artist Ariane Severin has captured something of these historic connections, through a photography project called “Orient Street,” on display at the Arab British Centre earlier this year.

“Orient Street” is a series of photographs of street signs named after Middle Eastern places, an idea that struck Severin when she came across Luxor Street in south London. Cairo Road, Palestine Grove and Lebanon Gardens are included. The places are compiled in a concertina book that seeks to “remap the city,” creating an alternative A-Z walkthrough London.

“Psycho-geography” is Severin’s term for her work. She explains it as a process of “travelling in your mind” to the distant places from which distinctly urban English streets bear their names, and the layers of meaning different people may find in them.

“Streets named after Middle Eastern locations in London become a journey of exploration capturing the flux of history in the juxtaposition of sign and place,” explains Severin, a German who has made many trips to the Arab world over the years. “Conceptually what binds most of my projects is the experience of travel, both geographical and cultural, with an emphasis on the Middle East, and the photograph as a souvenir.”

It seems that the themes of collecting and travel are powerful ones, and speak to the experiences of many immigrant communities and the cross-cultural art they produce. 

It is definitely a strong thread running through Moroccan-born Londoner Hassan Hajjaj’s work, which spans printing to photography and furniture design. The theme is particularly present in his current installation in the APART Summer Show 2011, an annual event held by an international touring gallery that specializes in contemporary and street art.  

Hajjaj’s creation is a room created from items collected from Morocco and that come together to present constellation of fragments and debris from everyday life. It is bright and playful, but still genuine – inviting the viewer into a self-contained world seen through this celebration of ordinary, discarded items. The walls are adorned with uneven, yet somehow ordered, bottles, cans and boxes, pop-art style prints and wallpaper made from empty rice sacks. Stools made from empty paint tins and chairs from coca-cola crates complete this space that visitors can sit in, turning this room crafted from recycled and re-appropriated bits and pieces into something interactive.

Hajjaj moved to London from the Northern Moroccan town of Larache as a teenager in the 1970s. His family was part of the flow of North Africans to Britain at that time, documented by the late Middle Eastern scholar Fred Halliday in “Britain’s First Muslims.” By the mid 1980s, “substantial communities of Moroccans and Egyptians in particular were present in London working in services and the professions,” writes Halliday.

And it is the experience of migration and travel, of growing up between different societies that defines Hajjaj’s work. This cultural hybrid is uniquely captured by Hajjaj’s “Cross-Dressing” project, a series of photographs taken in 2010 that coupled images of Londoners wearing their “London clothes” with the traditional dress of their country of origin. Through this direct and striking representation of being from two places, Hajjaj cuts to the heart of multi-cultural London.

“That project was something quite simple, I suppose,” explains Hajjaj. “It all started from looking at myself, at being from Morocco yet growing up in London. When I go to Morocco, I speak a different language, sometimes I have to wear traditional clothes and eat different food – I become Moroccan. And then I get on a plane and come to London, where I have to become the London Hassan, so I have to play two different roles.”

To return to the words of Jack Lohman, “the great thing about London is its parade of cultures,” and nowhere is this truer than in the work of artists such as Hajjaj, who draw on their mixed heritage to create art that continues the long tradition of Arab influence in London.

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