Art, in all its forms and formats, is one of the most powerful and endearing forms of human expression. One that can transcend barriers of any rigidity, and effectively convey culture and identity through engaging the body’s most basic senses, piercing preconceived notions, sensibilities and beliefs, and culminating in an awakening of the mind. In a world where geopolitical circumstance, social strife, and religious clashes permeate the air between peoples of the world, there are spaces that serve to close the gaps between cultures, an example of which would have to be the P21 gallery.
Established in December of 2012 and owing greatly to a grant from Prince Sultan Al-Qassemi, P21 is a London-based art gallery and officially commissioned charitable trust located in the heart of London. It is a culturally diverse and strategically significant platform for the arts; with a key focus on shedding creative light on the issues, trials, and tribulations of the Arab world, its storied history and its more-or-less recent struggles with the world in modern times. In addition, P21 also provides artists from around the Arab world with a nurturing and proactive environment to creatively convey their cultural identities, backgrounds, and rich heritage through various forms of artistic expression – with Palestine being a thematic focal point.
“We strongly believe that there is a dominance of negative images and portrayals of the Arab world here in the West, when in reality, Arab cultures are incredibly rich, with many astonishing artists that western audiences are not aware of, or know very little about,” says Yahya Zaloom, P21’s Director. The gallery has been host to many a prominent Arab artist; the likes of award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, bold multidisciplinary Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, audiovisual conceptual Egyptian artist Rasha Amin, and Moroccan contemporary urban artist Mouad Aboulhana.
Work byMoroccan artist Mouad Aboulhana
Zaloom, a graduate of Mixed Media Fine Arts from the University of Westminster, runs the day to day operations of the gallery, while also working closely with artists and curators. Zaloom had told me about the myriad initiatives and endeavours the gallery provides to establish itself as an open forum for artists, filmmakers, and performers from across the MENA region to establish an effective cultural exchange. “Art plays an important role in better understanding certain hot topics related to the Arab world, especially issues relevant to Palestine, religion, and tradition. Recently, we start seeing many young artists working on these issues more and more; the best example we’ve seen so far is our recent show on Pop Art from North Africa. In this exhibition, the artists exposed many serious issues in a satirical manner,” he explains.
‘Pop Art from North Africa’ was one of the gallery’s many noteworthy exhibitions, with offerings by 15 Middle Eastern artists putting their own regional spin on the ever-so-popular pop art formula. Viewers could bear witness to the cultural clash between tradition and modernity, aspects of North African society, as well as the overall human condition, all displayed in brilliant and colourful pop art fashion. The artworks offered a subtle critique of the overwhelming consumerist globalisation that thoroughly nested in Arab and North African culture.
However, the gallery isn’t all just art installations and static exhibitions; one of the primary goals of P21 is to offer properly rewarding engagement with the public, with a varied programme of events working in line with the exhibitions themselves. In addition, the gallery often hosts film screenings with follow-up discussions with the directors, book readings related to the Arab world, forums about the issues discussed and tackled within the literary works, as well as open talks between the many artists and curators at the gallery and the audience during the exhibitions. The gallery also organises its fair share of workshops, musical events and engaging activities to immerse western audiences in Arab culture in its many, many forms.
Getting into the art scene, regardless of where you’re from, can sometimes be daunting. Getting your work properly showcased? That’s a whole other (artistic) kettle of fish. Everybody needs a helping hand every now and then, and this is where P21’s reACT programme comes in. “I believe that we have to keep P21 a free platform for artists and curators to work on issues related to the Arab world, give more opportunities for experimentation, and encourage young and new artists to organise small shows through our reACT programme,” Zaloom says.
Work by Jordanian artist Mo Awwad
The reACT programme is P21’s initiative to encourage emerging artists and students of the arts inspired by the Middle East and North Africa to participate in the gallery, as a form of artistic intervention. With a keen focus on showcasing examples of contemporary art from younger generations, growing up in a time of mass diaspora and political turmoil, the programme dedicates part of the gallery, for a period of one to three weeks, to burgeoning artists; in an effort to entice more artists into creating P21-specific artwork. Spaces are provided to artists at no cost, with full curative assistance and printed materials, with only travel, accommodation, and any additional material left to the artist. “It’s important that art institutions in the Arab world connect with us and work on collaborative projects. Also, we love to give opportunities for artists and curators from around the Arab world to do shows at the P21 and introduce their works to the London audience,” Zaloom concludes.
Photos courtesy of P21 Gallery
Main image artwork by Malak El Ghuel.