Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

Clown Me In has performed worldwide. (Supplied photo)
Updated 23 June 2019
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Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

  • Sabine Choucair and Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, which performs and organizes workshops for vulnerable people
  • Initially people wanted Choucair to do clowning for children's birthdays while she wanted to use it for a social cause

BEIRUT: Sabine Choucair, a professional clown, is on a mission to spread light relief to Syrian refugees and vulnerable people worldwide. She discovered her true calling when she learned the art of clowning while studying theater in the UK.

“I found it (clowning) magical. I found the answer to why I really wanted to do theater and how to use it with people,” she said.

Soon enough, Choucair and her friend Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, a Beirut-based theater company that performs and organizes workshops for refugees and other disadvantaged communities worldwide.

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country as refugees, according to the UN.

Half of them are children, many of whom now live in Lebanon and other neighboring countries, where temporary settlements have become home to tens of thousands of refugees who have stayed for years. Having experienced civil war as a child, Choucair understands the hardships that these children face every day.

“I know exactly how these kids feel and what they’ve gone through. Going to a refugee camp is very special for me,” she said.

Professional clown Sabine Choucair. (Supplied PHOTO)

But it was not easy introducing clowning in Lebanon. People wanted her to do clowning for children’s birthdays, while she wanted to use it for a social cause. She decided to invest her time and money into growing her company and making clowning a known art. “I sent proposals to 70 different organizations to tell them about the importance of clowning,” she said.

Her hard work paid off. Today, Clown Me In is one of Lebanon’s largest clowning groups, bringing performances to people who need it the most. The group has performed around the world for Mexican, Lebanese, Palestinian, Indian, Moroccan, Jordanian, Brazilian, Greek and British communities.

In November 2015, Choucair travelled to Lesbos, Greece, to perform with the non-profit group Clowns Without Borders for the influx of refugees arriving at the island. “I broke. It was so sad. People weren’t finding their relatives. We’re also human beings, but it didn’t stop us from performing,” she said. “On the contrary, it was important for us to be there, to bring joy to the people and children who really need it.”

There is usually a common feeling of hopelessness and despair in most refugee camps, but when the clowns begin their performance there is an instant change in energy, from stillness to joy, said Choucair, adding: “It’s magical despite the misery.” Clown Me In also uses clowning to raise awareness of social issues such as children’s rights, education, early marriage and the environment.

Now they are working on organizing a “trashion” show to talk about garbage, which is not only a problem in Lebanon, but also in the Middle East and across the world. The audience tends to be receptive to the ideas and messages being conveyed during these performances, said Choucair.

“People listen more and pay attention when they’re not being attacked. They also accept things better when they’re happy. Play and laughter can do wonders,” she added. Choucair was recently invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she organized a workshop on dealing with loss and talked about the importance of play at work.

“It was an amazing experience. It’s not only important to be there, but it’s also important to be active and get the message out about the importance of clowning,” she said.

With the global refugee crisis not going away anytime soon, Choucair believes that we need clowning today more than ever.

“We need more of this in the region and in the world, because we don’t have enough of it. We all need more joy,” she said.

 

This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

 


Emirati artist Farah Al-Qasimi’s first solo US show set to open

Farah Al-Qasimi’s ‘Living Room Vape’ (2017). (Supplied)
Updated 16 July 2019
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Emirati artist Farah Al-Qasimi’s first solo US show set to open

DUBAI: Emirati artist Farah Al-Qasimi’s first solo exhibition at a US institution is set to open on July 30 at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Working in photography, video, and performance, Al-Qasimi’s work explores themes of gender, nationality and class. Her photographs subvert ingrained expectations of how images are constructed and understood and she is known for borrowing conventions from various sources, including documentary photography and Renaissance paintings.

Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire) (still), 2019. (Supplied)

Camouflage and concealment play a central role in the artist’s work. In a recent series of portraits, Al-Qasimi obscures the faces of her subjects while capturing intimate images, despite the lack of a clear, engaging face. Various compositional strategies hide identifying features — behind plumes of smoke, a well-placed hand, or sumptuously patterned textiles and drapery — while she still manages to accentuate the opulent interiors her subjects inhabit.

Alongside a group of recent photographs, the exhibition will include a screening of Al-Qasimi’s new film, “Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire)” (2019), which was recently unveiled at Art Basel Statements.

M Napping on Carpet, 2016. (Supplied)

The 40-minute video is structured like a television documentary following a jinn — a ghost-like entity in Islamic tradition. Delivering a confessional, reality TV-style monologue, the jinn appears on camera beneath a patterned sheet. The video interweaves her thoughts on centuries of Portuguese and British colonial meddling in the modern-day emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah in the UAE. The video also explores the influence of the European presence in the region and the use of Euro-centric practices for the display of historical artifacts.

Curated by Henriette Huldisch, the director of exhibitions at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the exhibition marks the first time Al-Qasimi’s work has been shown in a solo exhibition in the US — it is set to wrap up on Oct. 20.  

The artist lives and works between New York and Dubai and has seen her work exhibited in The Third Line gallery in Dubai, Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and the San Francisco Arts Commission, among other locations.

Al-Qasimi received her MFA from the Yale School of Art and has participated in residencies at the Delfina Foundation in London; the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine; and is a recipient of the New York NADA Artadia Prize and the Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship.