Zoukak wins international artists award
BEIRUT: The Japan Art Association held its annual award ceremony this week. Its high-profile laureates, winners of JAA’s Praemium Imperiale, include such internationally renowned figures as Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, Senegalese music star Youssou N’Dour and Iranian artist Shirin Neshat.
Lebanon’s Zoukak Theatre Company is also among the beneficiaries, winning JAA’s Grant for Young Artists, a prize given to arts institutions that work with young people.
Zoukak co-founder Maya Zbib was awarded the 5 million yen ($45,000) grant at the announcement event in New York.
Zoukak was founded in 2006 by seven artists wishing to tackle heavy topics through theater. The group has worked with regional refugees, minorities and marginalized communities. The theater troupe was nominated for the prize because of its initiatives that focus on social and humanitarian youth issues, such as gender, religion and identity.
“We have outreach programs for young people from all over Lebanon, especially in a marginalized context,” Zbib told The Daily Star. “We have drama therapy workshops that have produced amazing work.”
Nominated by Bree Jeppson from Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, the theater company was recommended to Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School, who was part of the nominating committee.
“It was a surprise and a big honor,” Zbib said. “Even though we got the grant, it’s more that we’re being put on the same level as big artists, which is a big responsibility and highlights our duty to deliver a certain level of work. People are looking into our work now, which is both a joy and a responsibility.”
Zoukak’s latest program is an outreach project designed to allow high school students from around Lebanon to come and see their performances, followed by discussions of the issues in the work.
“Each year we will invite 1,200 students to come and see the plays.” Zbib explained. “Our latest one called ‘Silk Thread’ was a site-specific performance that deals with identity and sexuality. It uses fairy tales and local myths to confront our conceptions about males and females.”
“Silk Thread” premiered in 2012 with shows in Beirut, Berlin, Marseille and Kerala, and was later adapted to be performed for schools in January 2017.
“I was worried about how they would react,” she added, “but they really enjoyed it and in the discussion afterward they were making connections we hadn’t even considered.”
Zbib says the group has yet to decide in what to invest the grant’s winnings exactly, but the money will be put to good use.
“We will probably either use part of it for productions or part for the workshops with drama therapy with different young people from around Lebanon and we’ll produce a play at the end.”
Zoukak’s next performance, “The Joker,” a collaboration with Le Carre-Colonnes, will be staged at the Festival International des Arts de Bordeaux Metropole, then return to Beirut in December.
The play is funded by Switzerland’s Drosos Foundation, which has been supporting Zoukak since 2016 – covering training of practitioners in psychosocial intervention techniques, artistic creations, artistic mentoring and drama therapy.
Zoukak also has plans to open a 100-seat theater and rehearsal space in December, located in the Corniche al-Nahr-Burj Hammoud area.
“It used to be a factory which then got turned into an art gallery. ... We hope to have a cafe added by next year,” Zbib said. “It’s important for us as a community to support new artists and allow them to use the space, in a way that’s profitable but not expensive. We don’t want to open it and then have it close later like so many others; it needs to be sustainable.”
Lamia Abi Azar performs in “Silk Thread,” which was adapted to be performed for schools in January 2017.