In 1966 the United Nations adopted a covenant on cultural rights. Everyone, it states, has the right to cultural participation, the freedom of artistic expression, the protection of one’s cultural heritage, and a society that actively contributes to cultural diversity(1). This, in a nutshell, has been the life mission of Mohamed Ikoubaân and Moussem.
The origin and growth of Moussem cannot be separated from the history of Belgian migration and the many developments that (cultural) policy, the debate on racism, and the arts sector have gone through over the past 20 years. Ikoubaân moved from Morocco to Belgium in 1989, at a time when cultural diversity first surfaced on the political agenda after a decades-long policy of denial – even though the first guest workers arrived in Belgium from Eastern Europe as early as 1920, followed by Italian, Spanish and Greek workers around the time of the Second World War. In the golden 1960s, the government even organized special campaigns to attract North African and Turkish immigrants to the mining, textile and railway sectors. Family reunification was actively promoted to ensure the influx of new workers.
In the 1980s, there was a growing awareness that these new Flemish residents would not simply allow themselves to be uprooted again and that they also had rights and needs in the area of political representation and religious-cultural autonomy. After integration policy was devolved to Flanders by the state reform of 1980, the High Council for Migrants was established. Under the title ‘Objective 1982’, a number of migrant organizations advocated local voting rights in municipal elections(2). In response to the breakthrough in Antwerp of the extreme-right party Vlaams Blok in 1988, a Royal Commission for Migrant Policy was set up, the forerunner of the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities Unia. Commission chair Paula D’Hondt (CVP) issued the first policy note on Migrant Policy (1989) in order to address the ‘integration problem’(3). By then, however, xenophobia was already deeply rooted in Flemish soil. Two years later, on Black Sunday, the Vlaams Blok also won the federal elections with the slogan ‘Eigen Volk Eerst’ (Our own people first).
After the success of the Vlaams Blok, a great many citizens with a migrant background felt ‘singled out and politically abused’(4) and wanted to stand up for equal rights through their associations. Ikoubaân too was outraged by the political criminalization strategy adopted towards citizens with other roots. At the request of the Flemish Integration Centre for Migrants, in his capacity as a lawyer he gave many lectures at Moroccan women’s organizations across the country and became aware of the emancipating power of bottom-up organizations, against the mindset of the then dominant ‘integrate or leave’ credo. When Ikoubaân subsequently started working for the Centre for Foreign Workers, supporting these citizen initiatives and self-organizations became a priority. Inspired by Flemish civil society, Ikoubaân fought for autonomous organizations and associations that tear themselves loose from the mosques, from the paternalism of the white welfare sector, and from the influence of the Moroccan government, which sought to tighten its grip on its immigrant subjects through the circles of friends Les Amicales(5).
In 1993 the Federation of Moroccan Associations (FMV) saw the light of day with, among others, the first Antwerp-Moroccan student association, Talaba. The starting point was simple: minorities have the right to experience their ethnic-cultural identity freely and to take a critical view of both their country of origin and their new homeland. The political reactions were split: some saw historical parallels with the fight for equal rights within the Flemish and feminist movement, while others accused the Moroccan and other communities of isolating themselves. Even today, the basic right to one’s own identity, culture and language is equated by some politicians with segregation. In 2019 the N-VA, Open VLD and CD&V put forward another bill to strip subsidies from organizations that ‘fell back on their ethnic-cultural origins’(6).
Within the Federation, Ikoubaân set up a separate work group for culture in 1996. During four years, the department organized all kinds of cultural activities with local artists from the Moroccan diaspora until the call for a structural operation grew louder. Together with the initiators of the Immigrant Festival, which ran between 1976 and 1995 in the Zuiderpershuis, Ikoubaân founded a new, non-profit organization: Moussem.
In 2006 Moussem was recognized for the first time as a multidisciplinary arts festival under the Arts Decree. This was a symbolic step. The urban, participative activity remained central, but the essence of the bigger story began to shift. Moussem refused to see itself as an organization ‘of and for migrants’, and demanded a place in the regular arts field in the framework of full-fledged citizenship. If cultural heritage determined the future history of a country, how could new Flemings be part of it? Many of their (grand)parents contributed to the economic prosperity of Belgium; now it was time for the next generations to leave their mark on the country’s thinking, image-formation and immaterial culture.
Based on the firm belief that all societies are equally contemporary, Moussem’s activities increasingly focused on breaking open the Western canon and dismantling Eurocentric and colonial ideas. Ikoubaân and co. went in search of multiple stories and images that were representative of the diversity of the modern city. The key moment was undoubtedly the exhibition Zonder Titel (Untitled) at M HKA in 2007. Together with artist Charif Benhelima, Moussem claimed the museum as ‘a place that also belongs to the Moroccan and other communities’(10). The directors agreed and Moussem took over this institution of the Flemish Community for three months.
Zonder Titel was anything but a classic exhibition. Rather it was a stage festival, a visual arts presentation, a meeting place and a cultural-educational experiment all rolled into one, entirely in line with Moussem’s hybrid profile. In the exhibition section, the focus was on artists(11) who refer to North Africa in a contemporary manner and counter (un)conscious assumptions about East and West. A few committed volunteers of the Moussem Club also got the chance to make their own selection of works from the collection. They had no affinity with contemporary art, but spent a year immersed in the depots of M HKA to put together a special exhibition with pieces by Anish Kapoor, Bruce Nauman and Ria Pacquée, among others(12). For Moussem it was a powerful signal: this heritage is also ours. And: contemporary art does not have to be elitist. Three years later the collection was invited to Rabat. It was one of the largest contemporary exhibitions in Morocco ever, even before the first museum for modern and contemporary art opened in Rabat.
Zonder Titel left its mark on M HKA. Works by six participating artists from the exhibition were purchased. It was the first time that artists from North Africa and the Middle East were given a place in the permanent collection. With the Moussem Collection, which began in 2019, Moussem aims to ensure that its influence on the purchasing policy of Flemish museums will last, especially now that debates about colonial looted art and the Eurocentric art market have been raging. M HKA and Mu.ZEE have committed themselves to produce, in collaboration with Moussem, an annual solo exhibition of an artist from the MENA region and to purchase a work in co-ownership with Moussem afterwards.
One of the initiatives that met that wish was Moussem Repertoire. Moussem wanted to expand the complacent Flemish canon by translating new and old theatre texts from the Arabic language region. In 2015 there was a special programme, in collaboration with Toneelhuis, on the Syrian author Saadalah Wannous. His iconic text Tuqus al-Isharat wa-I-Tahawwulat was the first Arabic theatre text to be translated and published in Dutch, under the title Rituelen, tekenen en veranderingen (Rituals, signs and changes). In dialogue with a reading group composed of directors, translators and dramaturges(16), Moussem then launched a special series with the Bebuquin publishing house. Releases included, among others, De dictator (The dictator) (Issam Mahfouz), Kop dicht en graven (Shut up and dig) (Hala Moughanie), Ik herinner het mij niet meer (I don’t remember) (Waël Ali), Geiten (Goats) (Liwaa Yazji) and Abu Hayyan al Tawhidi (Tayeb Saddiki).
For Moussem, this global canon is an ideal starting point to translate its mission to the field of higher education. Even more than on stage, the influx of students and teachers of colour in those institutions remains very limited, leading to Eurocentric curricula that reinforce Western cultural hegemony. Although it is not part of its core business as an arts centre, Moussem also wants to get a foot in the door at the basis of art production. Therefore, together with several theatre schools, they set up text projects around the Arabic repertoire.
The young generation was also actively addressed through youth theatre productions, a line which Moussem has consistently pursued since the family days at ccBe. The musical production UMM (2015), based on the life of the Egyptian star singer Umm Kulthum, was an incredible success, and Moussem and De Kolonie MT toured with it from Casablanca to Sweden. Rimah Jabr and Radouan Mriziga also took their first steps in the youth theatre circuit with Moussem’s support. Their stories brought a different cultural heritage to the Flemish stages, but are in essence universal. That is precisely what ensured a broad and diverse audience.
Cities being the engine of innovation everywhere in the world, urbanity ultimately grew to be an increasingly important focus in the Moussem story. This led to a new festival series: Moussem Cities. From 2016 onwards, Moussem and its Brussels partners focused each year on a metropolis from the Middle East or North Africa. These were cities with a rich and culturally varied history, but above all cities that play a vital role in contemporary societies through their artistic momentum. Moussem Cities is a platform for international writers, film directors, visual artists and theatre makers working on universal themes and at the same time shedding light on the local artistic context. Theatre city Tunis was the first, five years after the Jasmine Revolution. Beirut, the artistic centre of the Middle East that flourished before the civil war, the port city Casablanca, the cultural hub Algiers and Damascus followed. Given the humanitarian crisis, the latter edition called for a different approach. Moussem put together the programme in close consultation with Syrian curators and the Syrian community in Belgium, many of whom once came here as refugees.
After 15 exciting years in Antwerp, the lure of Brussels became too strong and Moussem moved to the capital of Europe in 2014, at the same time the funding for its local operations came to an end. This set a new transformation process in motion. From 2020 onward, Moussem gave up the geographical focus on the Arab world and started from the super-diverse and metropolitan reality of Brussels, where different diasporas come together in a complex urban fabric. More than ever, Moussem wants to support artists whose work explores global stories about urbanity, modernity, globalization, identity and the canon, regardless of their origin. In this context, working locally and working internationally increasingly overlap.
And so Moussem, which was awarded the Ultima for performing arts by the Flemish Government in 2017, finally came home to a city that encompasses the world. With the purchase of a work and residency space of its own in Anderlecht, it could increasingly focus on supporting artists, both on a project basis and in the longer term. As regards programming and presentation, Moussem continues to seek out nomadically a dialogue with cultural centres in Flanders and Brussels, because that is where there is still great potential for change.
After two decades of slow emancipation, work on the sidelines and incessant knocking on doors, the arts sector finally seems convinced that it must embrace cultural diversity if it wants to remain relevant to the audiences and artists of tomorrow. The solitary energizers who tried to break open the canon in the 1980s and 1990s but failed to get in have made way for a broad, articulate generation of artists, intellectuals and activists who claim their place in front of and behind the screens. They no longer long for the recognition of a white institution and often set up their own off-spaces, or take the helm of cultural institutions themselves. Fired up by the great social debates about the West’s colonial heritage, equal rights for minorities and cultural multilingualism, there is a growing realization that more colour on stage is not enough, but that a redistribution of power is necessary. That is exactly what Moussem has been about from day one.