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17 April 2024


Dear friends, colleagues, directory users and newsletter subscribers,


MENA ARTS UK emerged out of an invitation during the first lockdown in 2020. It was a modest start: a tweet to see if there was enough interest among UK-based artists with ties to the MENA/SWANA region to come together and have a collective voice. The desire for connection and community in the midst of the pandemic was immediately palpable.


At the time, an industry-wide conversation was taking place about the BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) label, later to be replaced by Global Majority. For some of us, the “ME” was where we were just about visible, and there were fears about disappearing from view altogether. So, after more Zooms and town halls, MENA ARTS UK was formed based on the interests of those who were now in the room. We started out as a directory of MENA/SWANA talent working in the UK live and recorded arts but grew into a fortnightly newsletter with job opportunities, shout-outs and industry news. We collaborated to create a writer's group, secured ticket deals, produced talkbacks, film commissions, screenings, showcases and town halls and hosted creative huddles, interviews and networking events.


We expanded quickly and made meaningful contributions to important conversations:

Consistently categorising our communities as “Other” (e.g. “Other - Arab”) dehumanises us and erases our diversity, and this language is no longer being used by some major arts organisations in the UK. Spotlight’s “Appearance” section has been a long-standing barrier to authentic storytelling and is now being replaced. It’s been heartening to see our allies notice and take a stand with us when canonically MENA/SWANA roles continue to be miscast, though there is still much to be done.


Three years later, we have made some wonderful connections, met many new friends, and found genuine allies. We have received consistent feedback about how our work has brought many of you together to be your own support networks and allowed you to be seen in a sector where we’re often asked to play everyone but ourselves.


But it has also been challenging.


MENA ARTS UK has always been led by a volunteer group of creatives. For many of us, this was our first experience of starting something new: leadership and decision-making. There aren’t many blueprints for how to run something like this, and so we’ve been coming up with processes and procedures as we needed them – often on the back foot, reacting to situations as they arose rather than planning proactively. We made many decisions by consensus, on the understanding that we were acting on our best intentions and that we would revisit these conversations once we had more capacity and stability. Since the beginning, questions have been asked of us, and our mission has been challenged. We are not complaining about that; it’s appropriate and correct. But sometimes, we have been too late with an answer, and even then, our answers have not always been clear. To do what we do, our values and processes need to be watertight and enforceable, but currently, they are not.


So, we have made the decision to stop and take stock.


We have found it very hard to make the necessary structural changes while still delivering our day-to-day activities. There is only so much depth you can go into when your time to think and have difficult conversations is borrowed from commutes, lunch breaks, bedtimes and weekends. If we continue on our current path, we will simply be tinkering endlessly around the edges when we desire a radical overhaul.


We have taken down the website and cease all activity. We are in conversations with our funders about the small budget we have been given.

The open town hall we announced for 21 April will not take place. This doesn’t mean that we won’t examine where things went wrong.


Instead, we are exploring the feasibility of monthly blog posts and/or roundtable conversations where we share our experience, engage in research, and invite everyone to ask questions and give feedback, good and bad. Some topics we think would be useful to cover are:


  • Where should the borders of the “MENA/SWANA region” start and stop?


  • Do our communities need producing companies, membership organisations, lobby groups or political activists?


  • How do we determine and uphold our values?


  • How do we fund this work, and what are the ramifications of becoming a charity?


  • How helpful has our name been? This is not simply a question of branding but understanding if we have been monopolising this label and thereby restricting others from entering this space.


  • We may operate in the UK and for UK-based artists, but we are linked to a global community. In the three years that we’ve been active, our communities have witnessed devastating earthquakes, famines, refugee crises, annexation, violent state suppression, military coups, massacres and war. The pain and trauma experienced by the people we work with is real and relentless. As we write this, there is a genocide happening in Gaza and an occupation in the West Bank with no end in sight. How can we offer meaningful support and not make things worse?


So, what’s next?


We hope to find the right platforms and partners to host our resources and facilitate these conversations. We will share updates on this process through social media, though our accounts will otherwise not be monitored and remain inactive.


If you have the interest, capacity or knowledge to contribute to - or even lead - conversations like these, please reach out. Please reflect on your engagement with us, respond to the research, read the blogs, and join the roundtables. The more of us that engage in these conversations about identity, policy and governance, the better.

If we find there isn't the capacity or interest to support this work, then we will read the room and not return.


We know there is enormous diversity - of culture, opinion and politics - within the region we are connected to, and we may not find enough common ground to justify another iteration of MENA ARTS UK. That may, however, mean that different groups emerge to take on those elements from what we created that excite them. We never set out to be gatekeepers to our communities and have no ambitions to monopolise this work or hang onto any intellectual property. A legacy of more activities by and for the UK’s MENA/SWANA creative community is a very valuable outcome in and of itself.


Thank you to everyone who has worked with us, supported us, advocated for us, critiqued us, and held us to account. Whatever happens next, we are proud of our work to date and the change we have made so far.


Yours in solidarity,


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