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The Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture is a Libyan arts and culture NGO that seeks to present and promote cultural and artistic endeavors in the country. The initiative, founded by Reem Gibriel, Khaled Mattawa, and Nedal Swehli, also aims to foster artistic and cultural exchange.
The Libyan-Canadian artist Arwa Abouon interviewed via email Arete's Executive Director Reem Gibriel.
Arwa Abouon: The Foundation's video arts show "First Glance" debuted 2 years ago; what was its impact?
Reem Gibriel: People were impressed by the utilization of the Old City of Tripoli, the alleyways and souq area, as a location for the exhibit. That in itself was new. The whole idea of art in public space is new to Libya – you remember that people were not shown anything except Qaddafi’s image or whatever was in service of him. So to have the public space used by ordinary people for ordinary people was new. Also, the people living in the Old City have been asking for years to have their area developed. They know that it is a gem and that it could become a great tourist attraction. They knew that the arts would be a way to turn the area around. So they welcomed us.
We had shown the videos to a group of young people and they told us their concerns about some of the videos that they thought would be too controversial, or could easily misunderstood. So we removed those. We did not want needless controversy. We wanted people to enjoy the Old City. The middle class never goes there, not even during the day. Families don’t take their kids to one of the most interesting part of their city. We wanted people to associate the Old City with culture, youth, and fun.
Arwa Abouon: What were your obstacles along the way and what do you recall as your greatest achievements?
Reem Gibriel: We can say that we had no obstacles at all the first time. In fact, people were so cooperative in the Old City that their suggestions actually improved our ideas. And because so many people ended up helping us, we realized that perhaps we underestimated the amount of work involved. When we dreamed this up we did not realize that we needed at least 30 volunteers to show the videos at the 9 stations we picked. We underestimated the work that publicizing the show would take. We underestimated the amount of work it would take to make the screens and get the electricity hooked up. And of course, we did not even consider that the electricity might go out on us. It didn’t. Somehow there were solutions to all these obstacles. And we worked very hard too.
The second show, in 2013, faced many more logistical obstacles. We had scheduled the event for early November, like the previous year. But there was an incident in which a militia killed 40 civilian protestors, and we had to delay the event by 3 weeks. And then it rained for a few days, flooding all of Tripoli, especially the Old City. Then there were the power cuts, which made everybody hesitate.
Finally, we changed the location to inside the Red Castle, the big fort in the center of town. It’s an ancient location, a huge palace with many uncovered areas like the Old City. So it was perfect and much easier to manage. The officials managing the Red Castle were very welcoming and they provided security and several electricians, who did an excellent job.
We were delighted by the success. Again about 800 people showed up. Most of them had never entered the Red Castle before. The Red Castle was the last place that Qaddafi made a public appearance in. The response to the videos was also great, better than the first time. We provided sound, and we served hot tea and coffee inside the castle. People felt safe and enjoyed the artwork; they brought their families. We saw new people we had not seen the first time. And it did not rain until the last minute. But at exactly 8:00 p.m., the closing hour of our last day, it began to pour. But we were prepared; we had bought plastic ponchos for such an occasion – we had bought them the previous year and distributed them to the people rushing out to their cars. It was great.
Our greatest success in many ways, both this time and the previous, was the team of volunteers we managed to bring together. We provided the DVD players and the projector and the extension cords. The second time we gave them the screens as well, and they set up everything. They were fantastic – independent and reliable. Finding these young people makes us very hopeful about Libya.
Arwa Abouon: Video Art is an exciting new medium being shown in Libya; Do you plan on giving community workshops or to introduce this in school for artists who want to express themselves in this art form?
Reem Gibriel: Our primary concern when we started out was exposure: to expose Libyan youth and artists to a new form of art. Young people had cameras and, since the beginning of the revolution, there have been many workshops teaching people how to make documentaries and engage in basic citizen journalism. So the actual technical skills were not the problem. The issue was ideas and concepts, that’s what was lacking, and we felt that the young artists needed exposure to different approaches. We still feel that this is the main issue. But we’re also beginning to feel that exposure and technical training need to be combined; we’ve been so short-handed in terms of staff, and had little funding before that, that we have not been able to do much training, but it’s coming.
Arwa Abouon: Will you extend your program by offering art residencies for artists to come and experience the country and then produce work related to the local culture and life?
Reem Gibriel: Our plan is to invite artists to come and give workshops and to interact intensively with young artists. The situation in Libya is still a bit unstable, and visas can be a bit complicated. So we cannot serve as hosts for residencies. But we’ve been serving as a resource for many artists and journalists. They hear about us and we do the best we can for them.
Arwa Abouon: You showcased works of international artists in "First Glance"; do you keep in mind Libya’s conservative culture when selecting these pieces? How much do you want to provoke through art?
Reem Gibriel: At this time, just to get people out of their houses is victory enough. To try to convince them to think beyond the current instability is in itself provocative. You have to do that even with young people now. Libyans are thinking intensely about their society’s problems. They are ready to have new thoughts, despite their heartache and pessimism. We feel the right balance for a weary people is to inspire ideas that make them invest in their country and to think about how to create beauty in their country, because that’s what they need. Yes, you want to provoke, but without needless controversy. You have to give people art that is relevant and engaged, and that opens up possibilities of interaction. We want people to feel empowered enough to be creative, not so offended that they create barriers.
Arwa Abouon: Political themes and the Feb 17 Revolution have been the main subject of the visuals coming out of Libya from either artists or the media; are there new subject matters you wish to address through this initiative?
Reem Gibriel: We wanted to focus on exposure precisely because of the limitations of the themes and discourse of the revolution. It seemed that all blame was being placed on the regime, but no one addressed the fractures in the society that allowed the regime to control the population in the first place. No one anticipated the new destructive forces that had come into being now – the extremism, the corruption, tribalism, the hostility toward women’s freedom, and the criminal gangs. And of course no one wants to say, even now, that the revolution is perhaps failing.
The problem is that artists are seeking consensus, trying to find an acceptable idea to fit their work inside of. And that lack of intellectual independence is the main weakness of our cultural scene and our society in general. We stifle independence with our desire for unity. What we need to learn is that we can have independence and unity together, and if you don’t have artists who think critically then you’ll not be able to anticipate the problems that are liable to break your society. We want to encourage the artist to be ahead of his or her society, not behind it. And we feel that this kind of boldness can be gained by exposure, by seeing bold and ambitious works of art that ask deep questions.
Arwa Abouon: Poetry is deeply rooted in Arab/Amazigh culture throughout North Africa; do you think this can be represented in a video art form? And who are the known Libyan writers/poets whom you would like to see represented on screen?
Reem Gibriel: Actually, there is a deep divide between poetry and the video arts in Libya. Most young people who would be interested in video arts don’t read Arabic poetry, neither folk nor classical. They perhaps know Rap songs in Arabic and English. The poets’ awareness of the visual arts is limited to traditional media and styles. So both poets and the young video artists are to be blamed for this disconnection. The poets are not writing about subjects that matter to young people, and young people are not putting in the effort to deepen their thought and language. It would be great if the two can be paired, but we’ve not seen that yet. You’ve given us a good idea. Thank you.
Arwa Abouon: Performance is prevalent in video art; is the common Libyan viewer open to this type of expression?
Reem Gibriel: The young viewers, as far as we can tell, are open to anything. We have not shown many pieces of performance-based video art. We have not found many that are in Arabic that we could use. Maybe we have not looked widely enough. At any rate, it seemed that the performance would have to be in Arabic to have an impact.
Arwa Abouon: Who is the common attendee of this festival? Are there an equal number of female and male viewers? Is the festival family-friendly? How diverse are your viewers?
Reem Gibriel: Young men are more independent and they came. Many were waiting outside the Castle half an hour before the show. There were groups of young women who came together and there were families as well. The breakdown was perhaps 40% female to 60% male, which we think is pretty good, given the tenuous security situation.
Arwa Abouon: What are the different outdoor landmarks where you are planning to show and why these specific locations?
Reem Gibriel: We would like to go to Red Castle again, and to the Old City, too. However, we would like to be more adventurous and go to other parts of Tripoli, to the suburbs perhaps. We would like to do more stuff for children, something that families can enjoy and feel is beneficial for their kids. It may not be video arts exactly, but short films and perhaps animation, too. Visual materials that they would not see on television that ask different questions.
Arwa Abouon: Which up-and-coming Libyan artists using video art should we know? Are there any other Libyan artists we should know of?
Reem Gibriel: Muhannad Ben Lamin, who’s worked in advertising and public service video, is beginning to make interesting video art work.
Arwa Abouon: Are you hoping to run this initiative throughout the year by establishing a specific center or cinema location in Tripoli or Benghazi?
Reem Gibriel: Our cinema club has been going strong for almost two years now in Tripoli. We are about to show our hundredth film. We are lucky to have a great partner in Dar Al-Funun, The Art House, which has been allowing us to use their gallery to show the films. We would love to have a screening location and performing arts space exclusively for ourselves, but that may be too much to ask at this point. And we’ve had to limit our activities to Tripoli. The security situation in Benghazi has been difficult and we’ve not been able to extend our activities there. We would have to be on the ground in Benghazi, and whatever we do will have to be appropriate and feasible, given the situation there.
Visual artist, born in Tripoli, Libya. Lives in Montréal, Canada.
Arete Founders and Management:
Volunteers at the screening stations:
Mohamed Nattah, Suhaila Ahmed, Hasan Saad, Mohamed Al Yaseer, Hayam ben Jaber, Nada Abou Hmeda, Aya Burki, Mawada Burki, Enas Pach Agha, Anas Hgeeg, Anas Garni, Abullah Turki, Ali Zoghdani, Siraj Dayer Eleel, Waheeb Khaled, Bilal Treesh, Mohamed Yazji, Hisham Arifi, Mohamed Pach Agha, Shaker Gubtan, Omar Zmerli, Ahmad Bara, Abeer El Honi, Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Zinab Fazani.