Tawahadna Introduces MENA Artists to a Global Community
Interview by Daniel H. Rey
Published on September 14, 2020
This month, the UAE’s creative community witnesses the relaunch of Project Tawahadna, a storytelling production house that shoots documentaries about MENA-based women in the arts. Alongside films, Tawahadna also hosts workshops and public programming that bring together the regional artistic community. With a strong foundation dating back to 2017 and remarkable collaborations, the project returns revamped. Today, Tawahadna looks into reaching a wider audience, featuring more artists, and dreams of reaching global streaming platforms. Daniel H. Rey hosted an extended interview with Greek-Syrian filmmaker and founder Stavros Antypas about the project, its core values, and matters to consider in the local artistic landscape.
Daniel H. Rey: How did Project Tawahadna come about?
Stavros Antypas: We were working on a final year project for university and it had to be a mini-passion project. I knew I wanted to get into documentary filmmaking, and I thought “I want to shoot a documentary, why don’t we shoot an artist?” And so we did. We had our university screening but it didn’t feel as if it was enough. I wanted to do more with this screening. When you get into the film world, they don’t teach you how expand your movie’s reach after you finished it.
I submitted it to festivals and I decided to screen it at an art gallery. I was working at Showcase Gallery, it was my first job in Dubai and I asked if I could do a film screening and exhibit an artist’s work. The owner of the gallery said yes, “You can definitely do whatever you want as long as you return the gallery as it is and as the art was the next day,” she said. I replied “cool, let’s do it.”
That was October 7th, 2017. I cleaned up the whole space, got seats from the neighboring gallery, FN Designs, I got a projector from Gulf Photo Plus, I got speakers from Abu Dhabi, I was DYI-ing basically, and sent out invites. We had 50 people RSVP-ed. I thought, “50 people,” that's probably my family because I’m Greek. Next thing we know, 250 people were lined up outside the gallery doors and I thought “ok, how do we do this?”
We held 2 private screenings that night and sold all her [the artist’s] prints. It was a success. The demographic that we attracted were people that were our friends that never thought about the idea of collecting art or buying art. People like my brother, for example, came to watch a documentary in Alserkal and then decided to buy art. From that night onwards, I was thinking there could be something I could start here. I know how to get my father and my brother interested in this, why don’t I use my skill set into getting people like my brother more into the art world? It’s been my mission to bring the art world into a more fun light.
It’s been my mission to bring the art world into a more fun light.
D.R.: Who was the artist featured in that first showing?
S.A.: Maryam Alzaabi. Super cool, super wonderful, incredibly beautiful. I’ve never met anyone so relaxed and humble.
Part of what Tawahadna realized is that artists like Maryam have never been trained to value their art, the same way a filmmaker is not trained to value their films. We don’t know how to make money out of our creativity. It’s not part of the daily conversation and it’s not a career choice we talk about growing up. Part of exhibiting Maryam’s work was an educational process not just for her, but for me to understand how to sell art, how to value art, how does art acquire more value over time. How do you celebrate and value live artists?
2. Maryam Al Zaabi - Episode 1. Photo by James Harvey. 2017. Courtesy of Tawahadna.
How do you celebrate and value live artists?
D.R.: Tawahadna in Arabic means “we have united”, you also use that slogan in English. Can you talk about the concept and value of union? Who needs to unite with who? For what purpose?
S.A.: Everyone needs to unite. The reason I called it Tawahadna was because this was going to be a film about a female artist, by a male filmmaker, and I didn’t want to name it something feminine or masculine. What’s cool in the Arabic language is that a verb in plural form loses its gender. “We have united” works as a society and as a whole; and that’s the idea of what I wanted to communicate. I’m a man that wants to support a female artist, and she’s a female artist who wants to support a male filmmaker. You don’t need to fit a box to support that society or individual. You can be anyone if you want to make good in this world. And I think that’s the modern interpretation of what feminism is, especially in the Middle East. Feminism is the support for men and women in a society. It only works better when we can support each other.
It only works better when we can support each other.
D.R.: Why is it important to collaborate across genders in the UAE’s creative field?
S.A: First, because the Middle East does not necessarily celebrate modern-day creativity. Second, because the creative industry in the Middle East has not been celebrated as a viable career path to achieve a stable life, to support a family. Creativity has always been feminine unless you were Picasso. You had to be super ultra famous, super successful for you to be deemed as a good creative, a creative that can pursue their career and passion because they are making enough money day to day. In the Middle East especially, we deem success in the financial sense. And it’s difficult to grow in the creative world, everyone knows this. But it’s only difficult because we don’t have the education nor support from our family and our friends. That’s the truth.
The creative industry in the Middle East has not been celebrated as a viable career path to achieve a stable life, to support a family.
We need to remove this concept of gender, that creativity is either feminine or masculine. As soon as we remove that box and we start allowing our children to become more creative in their actions and their intentions as well as teaching them about viable creative career paths, only then will we be more innovative in methods of valuing our artists.
The context of creativity in our world is not valued as successful because we don’t realize that it is. You don’t have to make a painting to be creative. Every billboard you see, every logo, everything that is designed in the world was done by a creative person. These are all designed and thought through by individuals.
We need to remove this concept of gender, that creativity is either feminine or masculine.
Our society needs to acknowledge the time and value that it takes to make something, or design something, or to be creative about something. And that’s why it’s important for both men and women to work towards this common goal.
D.R.: As you talk about success, this reminds me that Tawahadna advocates for “creative leadership.” This combination of words is rather new to many people. What does creative leadership mean to Stavros Antypas and to Tawahadna at large?
S.A.: Creative leadership is acknowledging and realizing that not everything is built on logic. Not everything is black or white. There are a lot of grey areas. A lot of people can excel in a lot of other things. Creative leadership is the acknowledgment that someone might have the skill set that you can learn from and as a leader you need to make sure that they enhance that skill set and become much more confident in using it.
It’s great to be celebrated and be told “I love what you are doing, you are doing great.”
Creative leadership is realizing that every human being is built different and everyone is motivated by different things. People are stimulated to do better if you study and enhance what motivates them.
Creative leadership is realizing that every human being is built different and everyone is motivated by different things.
D.R: With the creative leadership that you are currently pursuing, what projects are coming up for the relaunch of Tawahadna?
S.A.: We are taking a different turn. We are not going to feature only Emirati artists. We are expanding to the MENA region, we are looking to Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. Moving forward we are shooting in every part of the MENA region. We are no longer limiting the conversation to artists in these parts but we are also going to talk to artists that have travelled to other regions of the world to be better artists. Travel and migration raise important questions. Why is it that an artist decides not to depend on their government? Why aren’t they depending on the people of their home country to push them forward? Why do they need to move towards more Western cultures to be celebrated as artists?
Why do they need to move towards more Western cultures to be celebrated as artists?
We have the talent, we have the creativity, we have the inspiration. So why are we leaving where we are to get support? Why can’t we just get support from here? Moving forward, we will be highlighting these questions.
D.R.: With this in mind, what is your ultimate goal in producing short films exclusively about MENA-based artists?
S.A.: I grew up in the Middle East, I grew up with Middle Eastern parents. I’m Greek, but my parents grew up in Syria. And their upbringing taught them that you had to be a doctor or engineer or businessman to be successful or financially capable of supporting family and friends. That was the goal for everyone back then.
When I grew up, my parents wanted that for me, because that meant financial success and stability. But that led them to not allowing me to be creative. And it led to me going into architecture school to make them happy, and then to drop out of architecture school to attend film school because they didn’t trust me anymore.
Now I want you to ask the same question to someone who comes from a more conservative, traditional upbringing. What were their experiences when they told their parents that they wanted to become artists?
Other than cultural barriers and societal barriers, we also have big educational barriers. We are not educated about being creative growing up. We may have a stricter society that we need to analyze and understand to reach our artistic potential and develop our sensibilities. But we also lack the education over here, which is why I focus on the Middle East. The MENA region is so important to me because we are all fighting the same fight. I also think it’s a lot more difficult for young women who come from a conservative and traditional backgrounds where they are not expected to be on the public eye and are not expected to socialize.
D.R.: What values and places are shaping this relaunch of Tawahadna?
S.A.: We’ve already started with shooting some interviews around the world. They are launching on our social media soon. I’m very excited.
Other than the interviews, something that I’m really passionate about, that no one in the Middle East talks about, is defining our social responsibility and creative responsibility. By social and creative responsibility, I’m referring to developing ties within our communities rather than succumbing to competitiveness.
Saudi Arabia inspired me. I traveled to Jeddah in January, I stayed there for three months, and something that I noticed was that everyone in the creative community supported, appreciated, loved one another. Each member of the community was making sure that everybody had their “day.” This was the case for every exhibition opening, film screening, evening program. If an artist was celebrated that day, everyone was there to support. Nobody was putting up excuses.
I noticed that the reason why Saudi is excelling so beautifully right now is that the community tends to push and support each other so much that they find new ways to get better. They want to continue to be part of that community. And the difference is that over here, in Dubai, we are competitive. We don’t know how to appreciate each other.
I want the creative community over here to learn how to celebrate one another. When it comes to community-building, try to do it for each other. Stop doing for the purpose of your own personal growth. Realize that a creative person’s growth will come with support. If you support me and you support Tawahadna and you watch my movies, I will have more opportunities to grow because you continue to give me this attention. The same goes both ways. That’s the conversation I want to start: we need to start cultivating social and creative responsibility.
I want the creative community over here to learn how to celebrate one another.
D.R.: What types of content are cooking up?
S.A.: Art workshops with our artists. We are doing exhibitions for our artists, live art, films. We are trying to get a lot of artist collaborations with bigger brands. The aim is to get more recognition of Middle Eastern art with Western brands. I think we don’t see our emerging artists on an international level because we don’t give them opportunities to be on international levels.
8. Yara Bin Shakar, Fashion Designer - Episode 2. Photos by Clint Davis. Courtesy of Tawahadna.
We don’t see our emerging artists on an international level because we don’t give them opportunities to be on international levels.
D.R.: What is the process of collaboration between Tawahadna and the artists? How do you connect?
S.A.: It’s very easy. Firstly, slide into our DMs, I’ll respond. Second, if you go on our website, there are two forms. There is a form for artists and there is a form for people who just want to collaborate.
If you are an artist and want to get featured the two criteria are: identifying as a female, and the next one is identify as Middle Eastern or North African. Fill out the form, share your art and we’ll reach out to you and we’ll try to feature you. We’ll try to make you part of this community.
I don’t care about your followers count. I don’t care if you are not famous, I don’t care if you don’t even publish your work anywhere. If you make art, and if it can be appreciated as an art form, I’ll post it.
I talk to every artist we feature. I try to understand more of who they are and what they are trying to achieve. Because, other than featuring you on Instagram, I want to make sure that you know how to value your work and value your creative form. And take your art into a full-time process rather than just an online hobby.
D.R.: If Tawahadna could collaborate with any gallery, platform or cultural institute, who would your ideal collaborator be?
S.A.: Tawahadna is currently only pushing forward for collaborating with Middle Eastern brands and artists. So my goal is to continue sticking to the passion driven over here. I want to make it an Arab-run brand. I want to be part of the Arab entrepreneurial community that can recognize each other and realize how we can support each other. There are so many things that we can do.
I want to be part of the Arab entrepreneurial community that can recognize each other and realize how we can support each other.
To be sustainable, if I want to realistically educate the world on Middle Eastern and North African creatives in the modern day, I’d say my dream collaborations would be either Apple TV or Netflix. I know they are not Arab brands, but they are global brands. And our artists deserve global notoriety. The reason why our artists go out to the Western world is because they get appreciated there and they get recognized as artists. But imagine how much stronger it would be if our artists were recognized here, got appreciated as artists here, and then they got picked up by Western brands because they are from here.
Imagine how much cooler it’d be being a Syrian artist that lives in Syria and gets globally-recognized while living in Syria.
As a general advice to the region, I’d say, open a good art school, educate your individuals so that they can be artists and creatives, and then realize how your whole community will start celebrating your artists and creatives in a much nicer way.
D.R.: What are the big dates we should expect for Tawahadna?
S.A.: The upcoming two months are very exciting. You are going to see a lot of things happening. Our dream and our goal is to be picked up by a major platform. We want to partner up with a big video on-demand platform that can fund us to continue supporting the creative community that is based in the Middle East. We deserve our exposure and some light. We deserve the spotlight.
We deserve the spotlight.
Tawahadna is a storytelling production house that shoots documentaries on female artists from the MENA region and screens them in art galleries for public viewing. Tawahadna’s mission is to introduce Middle Eastern and North African art to an international audience through mainstream entertainment platforms.
Visit Tawahadna’s website.
Get featured as an artist.
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Follow Tawahadna on Instagram.
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