An interview with poet Mona Arshi: law, Masala Festival 19, & making sense of the world one poem at a time…

I had the absolute pleasure of being invited along to pretty much all of Gem Arts Masala Festival 2019. Their Bengal tiger certainly strutted across the #NorthEast with seven days of epic #MasalaFestival – This award winning, multi venue festival has been running for several years and has been growing each time. 2019 was certainly their biggest year not only in terms of an ah-mazing programme but also for huge audiences and sell out events. The festival had an incredible line up of the finest South Asian Arts and Culture; screenings, theatre, music, yoga on the beach, Bollywood dancing, crafts, spoken word, poetry and free family fun!

Attending a (nearly) full festival like #Masalafestival as The Culture Vulture is just brilliant;  I get to go and experience lots of things – some of them I might not have managed to swing by unless specifically invited. With the greatest will in the world, as The Culture Vulture, I can’t get to every single thing that I’d like to see and of course, I do miss out on loads. I have to sleep and eat after all. Being invited to everything for Masala Festival and kindly given free tickets meant that I experienced events and things that I really loved (Some I would have probably missed out on) and honestly, feel more enriched from doing so…..

One such event was GemArts Masala Festival: Luck & Hope – an evening of poetry with the endlessly talented poets; Mona Arshi & Imtiaz Dharker on Tuesday 16th July at Culture Lab in Newcastle University. I love poetry, I’m a huge reader of it – but I seek it out largely in books and online in places like Button Poetry. I don’t get to enough poetry events though….. its one of those things that I’m always like I *must* get to more and then never quite get round to it.

The style of poetry I like is usually very real, quite dark, sometimes has some humour but always very contemporary and makes me think. I like it because it shines a light on other ways of viewing and exploring things and topics; I love increasing my insights and perspectives of the world. Poetry really helps me tap into someone else’s experiences and in  a world, where as an introvert I’m sometimes trapped in my own head, I really jump at these moments.

Mona Arshi and Imtiaz Dharker are two of the best poets writing today whose poetry explores the nuances of luck, grief and hope within our often violent and unsettling contemporary world. When I chatted to folks and told them I was going to see them at Luck & Hope as part of Masala Festival…. Both names in the North east poetry community hold huge excitement and respect, so it’s not really a surprise that the event sold out.

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Mona & Imtiaz during Luck & Hope at Gem Arts Masala festival 19

Mona Arshi (the subject of this blog) worked as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. In 2015 she won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. At the centre of her latest book, Dear Big Gods is an overarching commitment to hope.

I asked Vikas Kumar MBE, GemArts Director if I could interview Mona and I was thrilled when she agreed. I was extremely touched and inspired by Mona’s readings – especially the focus and sharing of her own personal grief of the loss of her brother, her use of writing as a way of exploring, expressing and working through her experiences and, of course, the career change from being a lawyer into the creative sector. I really honed on her discussion during the audience question time, as she reflected that she went into the legal profession as a “proper job” to fulfil a melting pot of societal, parental and personal expectations before eventually taking the jump…… I felt so connected to that moment that I could have jumped up and announced “I did that too!”

An interview with Mona Arshi by The Culture Vulture

So, HI Mona! I think I will start with an obvious question and one you covered during the Luck & Hope event, but one I want to share with my readers….When and why did you start writing poetry?

About ten years ago…I have always read poetry since I was very young, but I became a heavy user of the stuff when I got pregnant with my twins and I had a career break from law; I had more time to read. I started reading more widely, contemporary poets, women (we were offered NO female poets at school), so it was refreshing and wonderful to see work being written by women of colour people like Imtiaz Dharker, Moniza Alvi, Sujata Bhatt etc…

CV- How interesting – I went to an all girls’ school and we studied a few female poets  – I saw myself as a tortured soul as a teenager, so used to love to write about it. I was VERY into women writers as a teen and hyper aware of them…

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When did you decide to pursue poetry as a career path?

I think being a poet is not something I set out to do. Who does really? I think poetry finds you rather than the other way around; it’s such a strange thing to do, to make poems and I think most people if they thought long and hard about it would realize it was a really strange and precarious enterprise and wouldn’t do it.

It’s more of a devotion than a career to be honest; in order to pursue the task of making poems you have to make a lot of compromises and be quite bloody minded and determined but when you are knee deep in the making of a poem and it’s all going well there is nothing like it; the freshness, the surprise, the encounter with language and trying to nail down an image and the other ingredient that particle that arrives like magic in a poem.

CV – I think a lot of what you said above is equally transferable across a variety of creative industries and we are taught there is no “money” in the arts sector. For the determined and resourceful – I believe there are opportunities and magic to be had everywhere.

How did you first get published?

I was first published I think…after my poem ‘Hummingbird’ won a competition for the inaugural MAGMA competition. It was quite lovely and unexpected. The poem won first prize; no one had ever heard of me of course and I then had to read the poem at the Prize Event. It was the first time I had ever read a poem on stage, I remember reading it really badly; too fast with my knees shaking.

What inspires you to write?

That’s a difficult question for any writer. I don’t think I can say there’s something specific that ignites a poem…I think you can make poem about almost anything. I think it’s more to do the quality of attention you give to a thing or an experience as a poet. Most writers are curious people but poets can and do get up close and personal to the thing their examining, we turn the stones over and see what’s lurking there, we might probe and stay longer with an experience, that’s what it feels like for me in any case.

You’re read from “Dear Big Gods” at Luck & Hope- it was wonderful.  Can you tell me a bit about that collection of poems?

Dear Big Gods is my second collection and I think of it as a sister book to Small Hands. ‘Small Hands’ was written right in the middle of a traumatic event; a death of a brother and the heart centre of the book contains poems around that experience. But DBG is written with distance but the experience is still being examined and aftershocks felt.

In some ways DBG is a post-event book; it’s me looking at the grief-terrain and taking stock. I think the book looks at other themes too, the garden is a character in the books, there are small things like insects and flowers which arrive like fugitive guests in the soil of the book, I am having conversations with them too.

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Why do you think so many people love and connect with your poetry?

Gosh I hope they do! I think successful poems (or poems that I think are successful) are very good at accessing and ambushing your senses and your heart; I think a lyric poet is very good at this, so you feel very familiar in a poem as well as feeling as if you’ve heard the language fresh for the first time, so in a way, both familiar and foreign. Poems are and need to be active creatures and there is a role that the reader has in participating in the poem in the reading of it. Good poems should allow this space for the reader.

CV- Well I certainly felt connected with your work – you convey very human experiences and emotions.

How did you come to get involved in this year’s GemArts Masala Festival?

Well I think there was some talk of me doing Masala Festival, a few years ago and the dates didn’t work out. But I so wanted to do it as I’d heard what a rich festival it is and have also heard incredible things about Newcastle University so it was wonderful to be asked to be involved in 2019.

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How does the troubling contemporary world, in the present, affect your writing?

This is a difficult question but an important one. What is the role of Poetry (and art for that matter) when we risk losing so much in our liberal democracies? Should we insist on making art that is overtly political? Some artists do this very successfully of course and we need to remember that poets historically have always had a role to play in saying the unsayable in the most authoritarian regimes.

Ted Hughes said of the Eastern European poets that they were some of the most ‘Wide awake’ poets writing. I think that’s an important phrase, that poetry has to be alive and awake to the times we live in, the meat of the language to work and of course, it has to engage the wider world or what’s the point? There are many ways of doing this, subtle and overt but mostly through the language itself. We should also remember that poetry somehow always manages to survive and flourish in the most difficult of conditions.

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What would you say to someone who thinks an evening of poetry or poetry in general isn’t for them?

I think people who say this should try it before they make up their mind. The most interesting work currently being written is by poets. Poets are imagineers; it’s a very alive creaturely thing a poem and it has a different sort of vitality when you hear poetry live.

Why? Because it wakes up our ears!

So much of what we do in our daily lives is about privileging our senses, that if you sit and listen carefully and tune ourselves into language that hits our ear it’s a very different experience.

My first degree is in law, I studied at Newcastle University Law School and you were a Human Rights lawyer – what was the trigger from legal practice into poetry?

Studying law and being a lawyer equips you for many things but one of those things is not writing poetry! Having said that lawyers and poets are careful and attentive with text. I think it’s helped sharpen my editing skills. I have always read widely including poetry and I think fundamentally like for all writing that is the key to me being able to write. I guess I wanted to write, when I actually had time to write, so I took a career break when my twins were born and did a masters in poetry which opened up a huge new world.

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Advice to an aspiring poet or writer?  Or, advice to someone who is already writing but wants to grow further?

Read widely. Read the canon of course, but also read translation, read out of your comfort zone, and keep on reading some more.

CV – I really don’t read enough – I need to read more.

Can you share with us any other poets that you admire?

So many, that I can’t name. I am a really eclectic reader. I have just finished re-reading Shivanee Ramlochans collection ‘Everyone Knows I am a Haunting’. I  think she’s pulled off something interesting in that book. I am currently reading and loving Maggie Nelson’s strange and wonderful prose/Poetry. If I lose my foothold somehow in this strange ephemeral art there are some go-to poets that always bring me back and they are Keats, Mimi Khalvati, Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath.

CV – I am also the biggest Sylvia Plath fan and often go back to her writing when I need some grounding or in a fug.

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You can find out more about Mona and how to get your hands on her work to read by visiting HERE!

Thank you to GemArts for inviting me along to Masala Festival and enabling this brilliant opportunity of interviewing Mona Arshi!

(#AD) Sundown Social -the new mini festival on the block.

So one of the wonderful things about being the Culture Vulture is that I have my ear to ground and seek out all the lush new happenings and stumbling across or finding a new event is one of my favourite things – I have a serious constant case of FOMO.

And if this was a superhero movie, I’d class this chapter as “the rise of the independents!” The event and festival sector is extremely dominated in the region by big corporates or same old same old and I don’t know about you lot, but I’m hungry for more, things that are a bit special and new. Independent event organisers and commissioners are nailing it at the moment –putting on lush events, with a community heart that focuses on audiences having a great time and are able to experiment, take risks, be bold with their programming. I’m loving watching independents thrive.

I’ve had my eye on Saltwell Park for some time….. I’ve lived at the top of it for 30 years and it just screams potential.. I’ve had three ambitions for Saltwell Park as The Culture Vulture – I wanted festivals, I wanted outdoor theatre and I wanted a Silent Disco. My silent disco ambition has become a bit of a joke across my networks as I’m always banging on about it – but going off Beccy Owen’s success and their beach silent disco – I’m happy that other folks are finally buying into how mint it is! So how excited was I when I heard Third Space events (an amazing independent events company) was building on the smash hit successes of their Gateshead food markets and launching Sundown Social on 27th July – an outdoor event with a festival vibe AND a silent disco. And to use Meatloaf’s song title…. two out of three ain’t bad!

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Thirdspace are doing fantastic things and they are certainly ones to watch – their food markets are full of folks who really “get” their events, food traders who love being a part of them (this is not an easy task believe me!), audiences who return month after month and people just having a bliddy good time. It takes a long time to establish an event and A LOT of hard work has gone into things – so hats off to them…..they were on my list for some Culture Vulture love!

Visit their Low Fell Food Market facebook page to see other events they’ve run!

A head of the launch of Sundown Social THIS Saturday in Saltwell Park (Tickets and more info available HERE) – I thought I’d sit down with them for a weeee interview to find out more about the event, what to expect, why tickets are must have and what’s next!

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Of course, sitting down with me a few days before a new event…perfect Culture Vulture timing (haha!). So tell my readers who you are and what you do?

We are Liz and Sally from Third Space Events; a 3 year old events company which specialises in pairing up interesting, beautiful or underused spaces with high quality events. We each have an MA in Event Management along with a total of 15 years’ experience in events, exhibitions and hospitality between us. So it’s fair to say we LOVE events and creating memorable experiences. We are also friends who go way back and share a passion for good food, the outdoors and making the most the time we have with our nearest and dearest.

Well I can’t think of a more underused space than Saltwell Park’s Grove and all the best friendships are formed over food…..What is Sundown social?

A chilled out gathering in beautiful surroundings with a fun, festival vibe – that’s it in a nutshell! The first one is on Saturday 27th July – this weekend. We like to think of it as an exclusive party in the park where you can sip a craft gin or beer under the trees, be entertained by a host of pop up performances and have a bite to eat from some of the regions’ best street food stalls.

We’ve got two slots – one is 4.30pm – 7pm and is family friendly (adults £4.50 & Children £3) and then a more adult session 7.30pm -10pm (Adults £4.50 & Children £4.50). Babies under two are free but need a ticket.

Who should go to Sundown social?

For all! We’ve split the event into two and packed a lot into both. The afternoon session has more of a family vibe with activities such as a play bus and free kids yoga, dance and storytelling sessions. When the kids have run off enough steam the adults can sit back and enjoy a summer tipple along with the finest regional street food. The evening session is more for adults, so people can take full advantage of the food, wine tasting, holistic treatments, amazing local ales and fizz whilst enjoy amazing live musicians, comedians and of course our silent disco.

Why did you pick Saltwell Park for this event?

Because we love it! It’s leafy, lush and green. Add some live entertainment, street food and folk kicking back and relaxing whilst enjoying a cool drink – well you’ve got the best beer garden in the North East!

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As you know, I’m allllll about the food. My Buddha belly is a testament to that….so come on, what food traders have you got?

Well – not only will we be delighting the senses with live music and performances we’ll also have your foodie favourites to feast on. Folk can choose from freshly cooked wood fired pizzas from Noshbox Pizza, Catalinas Newcastle with their flavoursome topdog kebabs and bruschetta, loaded fries and tasty wraps from Hatch76, Acropolis Street Food with the best gyros in the North East, delicious rolled naan with your choice of tasty curry from CurryRolls and Churros Barcelona will be serving up their dangerously delicious fried treats drizzled in chocolate!

Mama Horts LOVES Churros… I shall alert her. I’ve got friends with minis who want to come…what’s there for families?

We’ve got this covered in the afternoon session. As well as the street food and free live entertainment, there is free activities with yoga, dance and storytelling. We also have a play bus and for just £1.50 for your child to climb, slide and play in the ball pool! We also have the amazing Kay Ella who’ll be adding a bit of extra sparkle to the event with her glitter creations.

I’ve got a troop of my child free pals coming…. What is there for them? I’ve heard rumours of a Silent Disco (literally screamed with excitement and hope Britney is on repeat) and my pal Si Beckwith providing some funnies!

If you’re pals are planning to come to sessions 2 then we’d fully expect to see them dancing the evening away with our Silent Disco. We’ll be keeping it old school with hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s – so we recommend your pals to wear these dancing shoes!

The evening will also feature amazing live acts with Duke – Duo – acoustic music, Matt Grant and comedians Si Beckwith and Andrew Flood from Off The Wall Comedy.

They won’t be going thirsty either with regional ales from Black Storm Brewery, fizz on tap with Fizz On The Tyne and a great selection of gins, lagers and wine with The Tipsy Trailer.

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Mama Horts is coming with me and she loves all your events – which is high praise indeed…. What is there for Mama Horts and her pals?

We know Mama Horts is a lady of refinement so a spot of wine tasting with Laneberg Wine Ltd would be right up her street – you can book onto a slot via this link or at the event. Gateshead’s first and only Urban Winery, Laneberg Wine Ltd invites you to a night of wine tasting like no other! Head Winemaker Elise Lane will guide you through their very first vintage made here in the North East, sampling four fantastic 2018 English wines, explaining how each wine was made and giving you the chance to taste.

Or if Mama Horts is after a bit of pampering then she should head over the our Holistic Treatment tent which includes Indian Head Massage and Organic Facial Treatment with Neal’s Yard.

I’m obsessed at outdoor events – at being head to toe covered in glitter….my boyfriend has embraced this by getting involved too….i need glitter deets?

Who isn’t?! We love a bit of sparkle! Expert in all that shines and glimmers Kay’Ella will be at Sundown Social creating that glasto vibe with glitter face and body creators.  We love Kay’Ella because all her products are water based, biodegradable and alcohol free so everyone can be part of her fabulous festival services.

Why are you so passionate about championing and supporting North East (and often Gateshead based) independents?

As we’ve said, we both live in Gateshead so what can be better than supporting your home town by hosting a range of events. Keeping it local is always part of how we operate. From the food, to the drink, to the live entertainment – Sundown Social, like all our events, showcases the melting pot of creativity and hard-working small independent businesses we have here in the North East.

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Blackstorm Brewery

Why do you think people are really buzzing about Sundown social and that tickets have been flying?

Hopefully we’re adding something different into the mix of fabulous events that are offered in Gateshead and the region already. For us the setting of Saltwell Park for this kind of event could not be any better. We can’t wait to welcome everyone in the event on Saturday 27 July and to have a well earned drink (or two) when it’s finished.

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Sum up the event in 3 words

Chilled, feel-good, fun

Is there going to be more Sundown socials?

The next Sundown Social lined up is Friday 23rd August. Stay tuned for announcements about that! Next year, as well as Saltwell Park, you will be able to find us at some new exciting venues and locations across the region.

P.S. For any of you festival loving couples who are looking for an alternative wedding, give us a shout as we offer individually curated Sundown Socials for your special day. How exciting!

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If I was going to get married, I’d want an outdoor festival vibe! You’ve certainly tapped into something there….and we’ve got some collaborating to do in 2020 haven’t we!? I’m super excited for Saturday and to see how this grows and grows.

Well you will find me down at Sundown Social on Saturday as The Culture Vulture with my gal Marion in tow – so if you’re around and coming along– make sure to say hello!

Tickets for Sundown social are available here!

Disclosure : I have not been paid to write this post but I have been given comp tickets to the event and doing a social media take over on the second second.

Artist interview with Naomi Edmondson – life survival techniques, mental health and positive vibes through guerilla street art!

Those of you who follow me on social media on my Culture Vulture Facebook will know I’m on a bit of a mental health mission (check out my Mental Health event in September!). It’s something that I’m extremely passionate about and as someone who has had significant mental health issues through-out their life, I’m determined to be an advocate, champion that there is life during and post mental health issues, celebrate creative expression as an outlet AND just taking some time out to look after number one (YOU!) every so often.

Mental Health is a topic that has been explored and tackled in many of my recent projects…. And is something that I am (alongside lots of artists) are using as a stimulus within current and future creative projects. I want to be part of the positive change and also to smash the perception of exactly WHAT mental health is and WHO “suffers” from it.

I recently worked on a brilliant festival called Make & Mend Festival; this festival focuses on and celebrates the power of craft, colour and creativity. It doesn’t just imply that being creative and engaging in creative happenings might be good for mind, body and soul – it all out, uses this as its core value to attendees. And being there on the day, doing their live social media, meant that I was able to enjoy the atmosphere and absorb the festival vibe and it just filled my soul with joy. You could literally feel people’s passion, happiness and creativity over flowing through-out the festival site. Perfect and more events like this please!

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

As part of Make & Mend Festival, I had the opportunity to engage with lots of artists, makers, artisans, creatives, motivational speakers, wellbeing practitioners and everything in between. Lots of them I knew already, some only through my constant social media stalking and fan girling so it was a pleasure to meet and chat in “real life” and there were lots of new folks to meet….. it blows my mind how much talent and lushness there is in the North East and that with the greatest will in the world, you just can’t know about them all. But events like that festival are all about creative discovery and I get a real buzz from that.

An artist/creative that I’ve fan girled for some time is Naomi Edmondson. Those who know me, know I’m in love with street art – I love bold, creative designs in urban areas. I’m of the mind-set that it’s an art form that I’d like to see more of and it’s an expression of “reclaiming” space and communicating with the rest of the world. Good street art stops you in your tracks and often makes you smile. Naomi’s work makes me smile and champions positive affirmations (not in the cheesy way – I can’t DEAL with a cheesy motivational quote), but actual real shit….. stuff that sometimes our brains just need to see as a pick me up, a metaphorical and colourful high five and a reminder that when things are crap, you’ve still absolutely got this.

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Naomi Edmondson in front of one of her murals.

So of course, I was delighted when I found out, that Naomi had been commissioned to produce some pieces of work to display across Make & Mend Festival grounds to be enjoyed. In fact, I think I did a little scream and said “THE Naomi Edmondson!?” …. I love it when fate just brings things together. So of course, when the opportunity arose to interview a Make & Mend artist as Culture Vulture, I was ALLLLL over Naomi like the creepy fangirl I can be…. “hi hi hi, I love you, I follow you on Instagram and I think you’re brilliant!”.

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Before I launch into my interview with Naomi, I suggest checking out her work to get a sense of it all. It’s mint. Naomi has turned the Instagram and advertising negativity on its head… instead of a social media feed with things that will make you feel inadequate or an advert in the street, that will remind you of all the things you should be doing to be a good adult….her work, is the antithesis of this – it’s like shit hot, positivity street art that shares some basic survival techniques in life.

So you get the sense that I LOVE her work, love the positive mental health theme running through out it and I want to shout loud and proud about Naomi to you all……. We need more of it in our lives and when I have an office, I want Naomi’s work within in.

So over to Naomi…

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Hi Naomi, absolute pleasure to talk to you and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat….so tell my readers who you are?

I’m Naomi Edmondson and I’m an artist with a street art project called Survival Techniques; it aims to promote hope and optimism and bring a little light to people having a dark day.

4 years ago, after a period of feeling very low, I wrote a list to remind me what to do when I was feeling bad: things that always made me feel a bit better. They were always super simple things like ‘Talk to someone, anyone, about anything’ which came from me chatting to the guy in my local shop for a few minutes. I realised that I would leave the shop feeling much more a part of the world again.

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After finding that friends found similar ‘Survival Techniques’ worked for them, I began to think about ways of sharing the list, and after seeing a local street artist at work in East London, decided that the street would be the best, most democratic place to share them.

The first wall I painted was “Hide Less Chat More” – words from the friend I’d first shared my list of Survival Techniques with. There are now many paintings spread across the UK and Japan.

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How did it all start….tell me about your journey into the creative world?

In my early twenties I was a professional freestyle skier, but after a string of season ending injuries, I decided to move back to the UK. I had a quarter-life crisis and eventually decided to study a 1 year Art & Design foundation course in London. I’d always enjoyed Art at school, but hadn’t really considered it for work. I completely loved my first course and went on to study BA Graphic & Media Design. I started working as a graphic designer for a book publisher and have been working on a freelance, part-time basis for that same publisher up until very recently, as I simultaneously worked on building the Survival Techniques project.

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You have a signature style….I love the bold typography choices…can you tell me the inspiration of your style?

I’ve always loved typography, and the reason I studied for my degree at London College of Communication was because they had a huge letterpress studio, full of drawers and drawers of letters. In particular I like dynamic, bold typography. It took me a while to get to the Survival Techniques style as I wanted to find that balance between colourful and eye-catching, whilst also putting the message first and foremost.

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How do you come up with the phrases for your Survival Techniques work?

When I first started the project I asked my friends and family to send me their Survival Techniques in any form. I then created phrases from what they told me, or edited down their words into the size and tone that I wanted. I am always collecting phrases; whenever I hold an exhibition there is a submissions box that people can post their Survival Techniques into, and I have always had a form on my website for the same thing.

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So for those who follow you on Insta, like this creepy fan girl right here, know you’ve been in Japan super recently with your work – so me about it?

This past year I’ve been out to Japan several times and have had 2 solo exhibitions in Tokyo. The first exhibition was in summer 2018 at UltraSuperNew Gallery during an intense heatwave. I gave a talk about my work and in partnership with the gallery we hosted a charity auction of 3 pieces of work in aid of the West Japan disaster that happened whilst I was there. The exhibition led onto a commission for the gallery to paint the shutter at the entrance to the building, and it also led onto my work moving across Tokyo in autumn for another solo exhibition to Park Gallery. I also collaborated with Park Gallery to run workshops for a group of adults and children, and I painted the front of the gallery in Spring 2019; I painted Open Your Doors, which are words that a 14-year old boy posted into the submissions box at my first exhibition at UltraSuperNew.

It feels incredible to be able to make work there, and be involved in the culture in a way I would never have expected and I feel so grateful for the experience and opportunities.

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People can buy your work….we all need more of your Survival Techniques in our life. Where do you tend to sell your work – where can people get them from?

Initially for print sales it was purely through my own online shop, which I still have and sell through, but I also now sell via galleries and dedicated print shops, in particular Atom Gallery and PrintClubLondon.

Paintings tend to sell via exhibitions and occasionally Instagram.

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

How do you get approached for commissions?

Often commissions will come after I talk about Survival Techniques at an event; I think it’s the best way for people to understand the journey and reasoning of the project. Otherwise, having my work out on the street means that lots of people see it and then recognise other paintings. I think there is something immediately engaging about seeing work physically. To see work online or in print is always interesting and inspiring, but if people see my work in real life, out on the street somewhere, I think it is even easier to engage with.

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I find your work bold and yet quietly reflective – the colours enable the message to permeate whilst it triggers reflective thoughts about why i don’t necessarily feel that way in that moment and ignites a self determination to strive to feel that way. Was that intention?

Thank you and yes. I always try to find a balance between the colours being bright and hopeful, whilst also not shouting or being too commanding. I don’t have a scientific approach other than I always use a limited colour palette. I just work on it until it feels right, and like the colours together have the same feeling as what I want to say.

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What do you want people to feel and think when they see your work?

I hope that the messages will be gentle reminders of things you can do, or ways to look at a situation when you’re feeling low. It could be something you can do that same day or moment, or something that perhaps sticks on your mind and that you can call upon at a later date. I also hope that the messages will make people realise that everyone is struggling at different times and that they aren’t alone.

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Again through my stalking, I’ve discovered you were part of the World Book Day Teen campaign….how that that happen and how did you get involved?

I gave a talk about my work at an event in South-East London, where I have a lot of paintings. The ladies that run the studio that head up all of the design for World Book Day were there, started following my work, and a year later they got in touch to see if I’d be interested in collaborating. Reading has always been very important to me and I think World Book Day is such a brilliant event and charity, so it was a very easy decision to say yes.

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Some of your pieces have a distinctively positive feminist vibe – what does being a feminist mean to? Would you class yourself as a feminist?

I would definitely class myself as a feminist because I want to be treated equally to men. The inner levels of ourselves that the patriarchy reaches can be terrifying to discover sometimes. I think there can be no shortage of voices that give strength to women.

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Last year, you placed pieces “I am Here” – “I am a Woman” around London….. what did you want to achieve from that project?

I wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day in a way that felt relevant to my work and how I feel. I took those two paintings to locations around London that were or are key to women’s history and rights, for example meeting places for the suffragettes. I wrote the words I Am A Women and I Am Here as a way of unapologetically celebrating and claiming the place of those women, and of my own space in the city today.

You painted several commissions for Make & Mend Festival this year – I had the privilege of seeing them on site during the festival and they were just perfect additions. For those who didn’t attend, can you tell them a bit about your commissions.

I’ve created 5 paintings on wooden boards that were spread around the festival site. The words are Survival Techniques that relate directly to the ethos and vibe of Make & Mend.

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

How did you come to get involved in this year’s festival?

Rachel, one of the organisers of the festival, got in touch about a collaboration and working together. I could immediately see so much common ground in what we were both doing and it was the perfect event for me to get involved with.

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

Make & Mend Festival is all about giving yourself space to be creative and investing into your mental health through the power of craft and well-being focused activities – that seems to blend and connect well with your ethos at Survival Techniques. Why do you think creative opportunities and events are important for positive mental health?

I think we all need to be creative in one way or another. Finding that way is difficult nowadays as a lot of people don’t have that opportunity in their jobs. To be making things seems to be so important to what it means to be human. I run workshops where people can create their own Survival Techniques artwork and every time people are amazed at how relaxing it is to sit down and be creating something. One friend helping me to paint a mural and she said she nearly reached nirvana.

To go to an event that is focused on creativity is such a wonderful and important thing that you can do for yourself, and the benefits last way beyond the event itself.

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

How does your practice and painting these positive affirmations influence your own mental health?

Painting each phrase onto a wall cements it into my mind and means it really stays with me. I still sometimes forget things, and when I think a little more in a situation and remember a certain painting I’ve done, for example ‘You Can Rest’; it helps me to stop dodging doing the good thing for myself, and just do it.

The actual physical act of painting is so calming and I feel lucky to be able to do it often.

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I’m an avid champion of the Northern Arts scene and I ask all artists from the South this question : Do you think there is a difference between the North & South Art scene?

I’m sorry to say I don’t know much about the North Art scene. I live in London, and up until recently all of my work has been based there, growing on the exposure and contacts I have in my local area until eventually I’m now creating work all across the city. I was so delighted to make work that was going to be outside of London as this is something I’ve always wanted to do.

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Make & Mend Festival 2019 – photo: Clare Bowes

Do you come up North much?

Not as much as I’d like to. I really want to see the Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool, so hope to make a trip there soon. I spent New Year in the Lake District which was even more beautiful than I’d imagined. My brother and his family live in Scotland so I will visit them a couple of times a year, but I don’t currently have many other connections in the north at the moment.

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Well Naomi my dear, the North East is calling out for you to properly visit and if you need a tour guide….this gal is the one to ask!

Naomi’s work really is fantastic and I suggest that you follow her on Insta for some colour and positivity in your life!

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(#AD) An Indian Abroad: An Interview with theatre maker, writer and…professional wrestling manager(!?) – Pariah Khan

My creative journey started when I began writing – that was always my safe space; making up stories in my own head, wild and fantastical and writing them down. I was a big fan of make believe – I could spend an entire day on my own, in my own head having an absolute ball, adventures and I’d write all about it.

When I got older – I really hated being an introvert. Being so much in my own head – sometimes I preferred it there (sometimes I still do)…but I recognised that I needed to engage, to communicate, to socialise, to interact with the world to make sense with it, to experiment and theatre and drama became my safe space to do that. It was always hard, terrifying but I grew to fall in love with the being a part of theatre making and drama.

Now I was never the star of the show…..I was not really a natural performer but I forced myself to do it so I could prove a point and learn how to command a space and an audience. But I loved being part of a production and I still love being a part of the theatre. I work with lots of performers and theatre companies now at The Culture Vulture and it’s an absolute delight. I also attend the theatre as much as I possibly can…..theatre to me, is the same to others as reading a book. It’s not a one off, or a once a year activity….I love going regularly, discovering new writers, new performers and it’s the type of activity that I just really love; it feels good for my soul and it feeds my curiosity. As an introvert, I really love escapism…. And theatre, seeing a show is exactly like that, escaping into someone else’s’ constructed creative reality.

Now very few writers are theatre makers or performers. Very few performers and theatre makers are writers. Totally different skill set – but a gifted few out there are all three. This talented elite are all singing and all dancing and usually make great theatre. But there is an even MORE, crème de la crème within this elite and that’s those who can write, make theatre, perform AND make you laugh…. I’m about to introduce you to one such person and the subject of this blog post – Pariah Khan!

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Pariah Khan is a writer, performer, filmmaker and professional wrestling manager (naturally). He was named one of Bristol’s most influential young people for his work in theatre and comedy. He was selected by BBC Three and The Latimer Group as one of the UK’s top 50 creative young people and he was selected by Channel 4’s Random Acts to write and direct his first short film ‘Slice’.

Basically, he’s super talented and he the man behind An Indian Abroad, coming to Northern Stage on 20th July as part of GemArts Masala Festival. Tickets are from £10.

This wonderful show tells the story of Krishnan, stifled by life in middle-class India and desperate to see more of the world, he visits the exotic island of Great Britain to learn about life and who he is. What does Krishnan’s journey teach him about the world? What might he learn about himself? And what happens when he falls in love with one of the natives?

Reviews:

“A shrewd and bitingly funny send-up of the ‘spiritual journey” ★★★★ Pub Theatres Magazine

“With precision, smart observational writing, and a small selection of props, Khan has created something really wonderful – a warm, funny, and thought-provoking piece of theatre” ★★★★ Stage Talk Magazine

“That Pariah Khan is a smart man. It’s a jaunty hour, full of well-timed gags yet beneath the joviality, there lies an acerbic touch” ★★★★ Bristol Post

“A generous and hilarious writer and performer with a keen eye for detail and impeccable comic timing. Hari has a big future ahead of him” Nikesh Shukla, Editor of The Good Immigrant

Basically, it’s going to be hilarious and it’s a must see as part of GemArts award winning Masala Festival at Northern Stage. And naturally, I was curious about this talented theatre maker and part time wrestling manager……so I embraced my inner Martin Bashir and decided to get in touch, to interview him…..

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Pariah Khan: The Interview

For the record, please tell me who you are?

Pariah Khan, the Prince of Persuasion, the South Asian Sensation, the Bodacious Bro with a Bebop Flow and Writer & Performer of one man show An Indian Abroad. I work in theatre, stand-up, film and I’m a professional wrestling manager.

I love hearing about people’s journey into the creative sector and performance, it’s always so colourful and different…..so, tell me about your journey into writing and performing?

I never grew up around theatre or was that interested in it, apart from studying Blood Brothers at school. I decided to take Theatre Studies at A Level because I thought it would help my performance skills in order to get into wrestling, and just like that I fell in love with theatre and performing.

I carried on through sixth form and university, but when I graduated I wanted to give wrestling a go. Since then, I’ve developed a unique style, performing in front of different audiences; theatre, wrestling and stand-up. This has influenced the show (An Indian Abroad) because my director (Eduardo Gama from Manga Theatre) and I wanted to create a blend of two art forms, combining the subtlety and precision of theatre with the openness and honesty of stand-up comedy. I would say working with Ed has been a vital part of my growth as a performer.

Is this your first show or have you written before?

This is my debut production, and it’s been unbelievably exciting. I’d written smaller scripts beforehand, 10-30 minute pieces showcased at scratch nights, a short film through the Random Acts scheme; but I’d also had experience writing two original full-length musicals during my time at university. All of those experiences were vital for giving me the confidence to pursue a career in the arts.

That’s really interesting – I know so many performers, theatre makers and animators who started their “professional” creative journey through Random Acts! How did go from writing musicals to comedy writing…. Have you always been funny?

There’s an energy and excitement that comedy brings to scriptwriting and live performance and it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I don’t particularly enjoy writing straight drama or other genres, whereas I absolutely relish comedy, dark comedy and satire. Most of the work I write now has a satirical or subversive nature to it. I’m not sure if I’ve always had a strong sense of humour but I do come from a very funny family, one that celebrates good company and storytelling. I’m not sure if it’s related but I started finding my comedic voice around 13 when my parents separated.

How did you end up being a part of this year’s amazing Gem Arts Masala Festival and part of the programme?

I took part in a Black Box Showcase event at York Theatre Royal where I was invited to perform an extract from the show An Indian Abroad. Vikas saw that I was programmed but wasn’t able to make it, however he approached me to see if I’d be interested in bringing the show to Gem Arts Masala Festival, and here I am!

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Sounds like it was fate….Have you been to “the toon” before? If not, what are you looking forward to most?

I haven’t been there before so I’m quite excited to explore the city. My usual habit is to eat at a local tea room, take a walk through any nice parks and try to catch a show at the venue (or perhaps any of the other wonderful programmes as part of the Festival). However, The Lion King is being released that weekend, so I might try to catch it sometime.

Well as The Culture Vulture, if you need any recommendations for places to see, do, eat…I’m your gal! Right, now onto An Indian Abroad; tell me about the show…

An Indian Abroad is a one man comedy show following Krishnan, a young man from India who decides to take a gap year to Britain to ‘find himself’. It’s an exploration of race, culture and identity in contemporary Britain which is refreshingly honest, heavily autobiographical and entirely false.

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Sounds brilliant and right up my street…but why should people come to see it?

I’m very proud of my show; I feel it intertwines comedy, narrative and more serious elements in a unique and interesting way. If you have an appetite for more diverse stories, are looking for a night full of laughs or are a fan of great theatre, come see An Indian Abroad on July 20th at Northern Stage, as part of GemArts Masala Festival. .

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing the show?

There are several themes and issues explored in the show and from speaking to audience members afterwards, different people strongly resonate with completely different sections. All I can do is present my show, the rest is up to them.

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What was the inspiration behind writing the show….you’ve said it’s autobiographical but also entirely false!?

I moved from India to England, then England to India, then back again. I’ve had the opportunity to see India from a British point-of-view and Britain from an Indian point-of-view. Each has allowed me to truly appreciate and love each culture, but I’m not blind to the negatives in each. So listening to ‘gap yah’ students talk about these transformational experiences they underwent travelling to an ashram in India, really got on my nerves. I felt Karl Pilkington’s bitter, miserable approach to travel was far more authentic, so I decided to flip the gap year concept on its head, in order to expose the ludicrousness of such an exoticized or fetishized narrative.

(For anyone who hasn’t seen the “Gap Yah” sketch… you can watch it here.)

Have you ever had a “gap yah” type of adventure?

No gap years, however I’ve felt like the past 12 months touring this production has ironically been a sort of gap year in terms of learning and growing from it. I moved around a lot when I was younger – born in Libya, moved to India and then to England (and back and forth again) – so the long term travel bug never bit me.

What do you think people think, when they visit/come to live in Great Britain? Is there a particular quirk that you think stands out?

I think my parents’ generation saw Britain as a land of hope and dreams, with the potential for a “better life” and greater opportunity. Years on, I think they found out that wasn’t quite true and life in India would have been fine. But for a more detailed look at what people think when they visit the UK, then they will have to come see An Indian Abroad on 20th of July.

Tell me a bit about being chosen as one of the UK’s top 50 creative young people in the UK?

It was pretty cool, I was chosen as one of 50 people to help BBC Three’s early stages of moving to an online only platform. I learned a lot through that about writing treatments and pitching projects, and the overwhelming likelihood of rejection in the industry.

As an aside; tell me about the professional wrestling management?

I’ve loved wrestling ever since I was young, the battle between good and evil, the ability for characters to change for the better or betray the trust of everyone around them, it harkens back to Greek theatre, or physical theatre. It has been described by WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan as the purest artistic expression of martial arts and combat, which is a fascinating device to frame conflict and resolution.

Back to An Indian Abroad, can you try to sum it up in three words?

Funny, honest, surprising.

What’s next for you?

I’ve really enjoyed touring this show and being invited to different cities to perform. Part of me is ready to start writing the next show; then again, Phoebe Waller-Bridge didn’t stop with a theatrical version.

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And there you have it Culture Vultures – I’m very excited to see An Indian Abroad and escape into Pariah’s world! Expect brilliant writing, lots of laughs, an increased awareness of how ridiculous “gap yahs” are and a brilliant addition to this years’ GemArts Masala Festival. Tickets are flying – so make sure to nab yours which you can do from here!

(Full disclosure – I have received free tickets to see the show at Northern Stage and have an on going short term partnership relationship to champion GemArts Masala Festival 2019)

(#AD) GemArts Masala Festival 2019: strutting into Summer like a Bengal Tiger….

We are so blessed in the North East for wonderful events and festivals all year round – there are often total gems in the event/festival calendar that due to you all being busy bees that you might not know about or discovered yet. I see my role as Culture Vulture to tell you about them and champion them!

Well let me tell you about a PROPER Culture Vulture festival gem – GemArts’ Masala Festival….

This award winning, multi venue festival has been running for several years and has been growing each time. It’s back for 2019 across 15th – 21st July 2019 with a mix and blend of the finest South Asian Arts and Culture. They’ve got an incredible line up of film screenings, theatre, music, yoga on the beach, Bollywood dancing, crafts, spoken word, poetry and free family fun!

I sat down with Vikas Kumar MBE, GemArts Director recently for a catch up (I’ve been a GemArts supporter for many years now and he’s been a Culture Vulture champion since the beginning!) and to interview him about this year’s festival. But before I get into our interview, I thought I’d walk you through this year’s Masala Festival programme…because it’s a corker!

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GemArts in The Crack Magazine

Masala Festival launches on 15th July, at Sage Gateshead, with an incredible collaboration and special evening of music composed and performed by the internationally renowned Sarod maestro Ustad Wajahat Khan with a String Quintet from our region’s fantastic chamber orchestra Royal Northern Sinfonia. And if you’re like me, and have to be the first at everything, then you’ll be joining me at this feast of music. I’ve seen RNS quite a few times and they are quite something, so I’m excited for this collaboration.

This is followed by, on the 16th July at the Lit & Phil, two of the most prominent women on the contemporary jazz scene, pianist Zoe Rahman performs alongside saxophonist Laura Macdonald. These two ladies are at the top of their music game and so accomplished…. I will be fan girling from the audience. And after the show, why not continue the Jazz theme and swing Prohibition Bar…that’s why I will be headed!

For spoken word and poetry, look no further than Luck and Hope: an evening of poetry with two of the best poets writing today Mona Arshi and Imtiaz Dharkar at Culture Lab on 16th July. I know those in the poetry scene are extremely excited about that one! They also have a a stellar line up of regional spoken word talent in Strictly Spoken with at Arch16 on18th July which is now sold out. Spoken Word largely thanks to Button Pottery and the likes of McNish has jumped in popularity and the fast, Strictly Spoken has sold out highlights that – but good news is, that I’ve nabbed tickets just in time, so I will let you know what it’s like!

Masala Festival has a fantastic line up of films and this is music to my ears as since turning 30, I’ve really got back into my independent films and visiting the cinema at least once a week. At Masala Festival they’ve got the heartwarming, ‘feel good’ comedy of the year Eaten by Lions on 15th July; half-brothers Omar and Pete are on a journey of discovery via Blackpool, featuring Jonny Vegas, Jack Carroll and rising star Antonio Aakeel. At Tyneside Cinema on 17th July, they’ve got The Sweet Requiem with stunning cinematography and subdued tension highlights the ongoing and often forgotten Tibetan refugee crisis. This film, feels extremely timely and I’m sure will provoke a lot of reflections.  At BALTIC on 19th July, GemArts are screening Woman.; a specially curated evening of  contemporary South Asian film shorts about freedom, desire, resistance and the indomitable spiriot of women.

Writer, performer and professional wrestling manager (natural combo!), Pariah Khan brings his ‘shrewd and bitingly funny’ An Indian Abroad to Northern Stage on 20th July; we follow the story of Krishnan, who is stifled by life in middle class India and decides to visit the exotic island of Great Britain. This is a hilarious journey of self-discovery especially when he falls in love with one of the “natives”.

If you want to get yourself moving, why not try out Bollywood dance on 20th July,  yoga on the beach  on 21st July or if you are in need of a little TLC before your summer holidays try out an introduction to Meditation on 15th July.

Masala Festival is back at Dabbawal Street Food Kitchen. Over seven days, you can sample a specially crafted and delicious menu created by Dabbawal’s talented chefs. I’m a HUGE fan of Dabbawal’s food – as soon as I found out they did gluten free onion bhajis and lush spicy curries, I’ve been visiting lots ever since. I’m planning on going a few times to work my way through the menu…..

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GemArts Masala  Festival ends on a total high on Sunday 21st July at Live Theatre’ Garden with a spectacular FREE fun packed Mini Mela finale, with South Asian arts, craft, music and dance workshops for all of the family to enjoy! This year enter a seafront arcade in a caravan with ….. Elvis’ Bingo Balls, neon, sounds of the slots and an Indian Elvis as your bingo caller! Not to mention Circus Raj, a circus troupe from India performing throughout the day, with stilt walkers, extreme juggling, sword swallowing and acrobatics, plus dancing marionettes, Dabbawal serving up delicious Indian street food, and much, much more…..

Visit www.gemarts.org to find out more and book tickets.

Look out for GemArts Masala Festival beautiful brochure around Newcastle and Gateshead or download your full brochure here GemArts Masala Festival 2019 Brochure

And if that hasn’t convinced you to come along to Masala Festival starting on Monday, well…. Let’s hand over to Vikas Kumar MBE, GemArts Director to find out more!

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So I know how important GemArts is to our region but for those who haven’t heard of GemArts, tell us what GemArts is?

GemArts is an arts organisation and charity based in the North East of England.  We are a nationally recognised leader in the South Asian and diversity arts sector, and we create, produce and programmes high quality concerts, events, festivals, workshops and commissions with regional, national and international artists across all art forms. GemArts is committed to excellence in our participatory arts practice, particularly supporting artists working in the diversity sector, and we specialise in delivering arts projects with schools and community groups across all age ranges, to provide creative and enjoyable learning experiences, and to promote a greater understanding of people and their respective cultures.

Why and When did GemArts start?

GemArts started in 1992, working in Gateshead primarily and then across the North East.  We now work Nationally and Internationally through our commissioning and touring programme.  We passionately believe the arts enrich the lives of individuals and communities through celebrating our shared cultural diversity – Raising aspirations, building stronger communities and breaking down barriers.

We know that inequalities exist, and many communities and artists face social, economic and cultural barriers, so are excluded from taking part; this is disproportionately more so if you are from a Black, Asian, minority ethnic, asylum seeker or refugee background.  GemArts mission and focus is to increase equality of opportunity for everyone to engage with culturally diverse arts – as artists, producers, participants and audiences.

I’ve told everyone about what Masala Festival is in the present (top of this blog) – but can you tell us what was the inspiration behind starting it?

The festival is a mass of GemArts yearlong programme condensed into one colourful and creativity fuelled week in July.  We wanted to really show the breadth of incredible artists and art forms from the Indian subcontinent and diaspora, and celebrate the fantastic contribution that South Asian communities and culture has made to the region, UK and the world.  Masala itself is a mix of spices that goes in a curry or tea; we’ve taken that concept and replaced the spices with amazing arts and culture!

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Oh I like that Vikas! Masala festival is award winning (in fact I can remember “whooping” for you in the audience) which is just fantastic as I know you are such a small but perfectly formed team who work so hard, so to get that recognition is lush; can you tell us about the award? 

GemArts Masala Festival won the coveted Arts Council Award at The Journal Culture Awards in 2017, which was brilliant for everyone involved!  And we were runner up for Best Event Tyneside in 2018, which again is great recognition…..hopefully more in the future!

How would you describe Masala Festival to someone who hasn’t been before?

Since its launch in 2016, the weeklong festival has become a yearly celebration of South Asian arts and culture, bringing thousands of people to experience the best music, dance, theatre, visual arts, film, literature, performances, workshops, pop, ups, talks, family fun days, food events and much more.

The programme presents a diverse mix of contemporary and traditional South Asian artists, art forms and identities, produced and curated by GemArts, working with artists from the UK and Indian sub-continent.

This year the festival is across even more venues than ever before and the programme feels jam packed – is the intention to keep growing it year after year?

We’ve always had aspirations and ambitions to grow and develop the festival, and it has year on year.  We are very lucky in Newcastle and Gateshead to have so many amazing flagship venues who we work in partnership to present work.  Accessibility and ownership is something which is fundamentally important to GemArts, and we are absolutely committed to working with independent and community venues to programme arts and cultural experiences by, with and for communities, so we always want to build on our current work.  It would be great to expand the festival further South of the region……..watch this space!

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Last year’s GemArts festival launch as part of Gateshead Council’sGreat Exhibition of The North programme

Why are independent festivals like this important in the North East? 

Independent festivals are massively important because they shine a light on artists and art forms which might not get a look in otherwise.  They are culturally relevant and enable communities to celebrate their identities; people see their traditional and contemporary lives and stories reflected in venues and spaces.  Independent festivals, like Masala Festival, absolutely demonstrate that in the North East creativity and diversity is thriving and championed, and that we can connect on so many levels across so many experiences  whether that’s food, music, dance, etc .  We need more of this now than ever.

We absolutely do Vik!Tell me a bit about this year’s festival programme?

The design of this year’s Masala Festival brochure is just brilliant, if I do say so myself….you need to see it to believe it!

GemArts is (literally and visually) strutting into summer like a Bengal tiger as we bring the region another magnificent Masala Festival!  Over 7 days, from 15th to 17th July we are thrilled to present another  incredible line up of classical, traditional and contemporary artists from the UK and Indian sub-continent exploring themes of home, belonging, freedom, resistance, luck and hope.  We have music, dance, theatre, visual arts, film, literature, performances, workshops, pop, ups, talks, family fun days, food events and much much more.

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I’m excited! You always start the festival with a big of a bang with a launch event, what’s in store this year for the launch? 

Launching Masala Festival on 15th July, at Sage Gateshead, we have an incredible collaboration and special evening of music composed and performed by the internationally renowned Sarod maestro Ustad Wajahat Khan with a String Quintet from our region’s fantastic chamber orchestra Royal Northern Sinfonia.  It’s going to be epic!

I’m really looking forward to attending Woman at BALTIC – feels like a very pertinent time to be showing film shorts about women in the current climate; have you seen any of the shorts? Is there one that you are most looking forward to seeing?

Curated by Bobby Tiwana, this year’s shorts programme on 19th July at BALTIC is inspired by the political act of being a woman; exploring themes of freedom, desire and resistance. You can read about Bobby’s film choices in his blog post here and why as a man he has curated a programme about women.  I have seen all the films, and ‘The Field’ is a beautifully crafted short set in rural Punjab in India.  I’m from Punjabi heritage, and go see family in Punjab whenever I visit, so it particularly resonated with me, especially the scenery.  I’m looking forward to seeing War-ia again as it was written and directed by Bobby. We also have a post-screen discussion with filmmakers Sandhya Suri and Riffy Ahmed which will give a great insight into their creative process.

Don’t forget your complimentary glass of wine or juice on arrival!

I’ve fallen in love with poetry – both written and spoken word performance – I literally hit 30 and it just happened. You’ve got quite a few poetry related events as part of the event programme, can you tell me a bit about them?

We are working in collaboration with curator Dr John Challis and NCLA to present Luck and Hope on Tuesday 16th July at Culture Lab, an evening of poetry with two of the best poets writing today, Mona Arshi and Imtiaz Dharkar, whose poetry explores the nuances of luck, grief and hope within our often violent and unsettling contemporary world.

Then on Thursday 18th July we have a stellar line up of North East talent in Strictly Spoken (it’s sold out!) at Arch16.  We have Tahmina Begum, Prerana Kumar and Wajid Hussain presenting spoken word and poetry on identity, South Asian heritage and inspiration.

It’s really exciting that you’ve taken some of the festival out to Whitley Bay – WB is having a real evolution as an independent cultural hub of the region – what made you take some of Masala out there? 

GemArts has been working with Jam Jar cinema for a while now, and they are always up for working with us and programming films with a South Asian flavour during Masala Festival.  It enables us to expand our cultural offer and engage new audiences up in Whitley Bay.  We’ve got heart-warming, ‘feel good’ comedy of the year Eaten by Lions, which follows half-brothers Omar and Pete on a journey of discovery via Blackpool, featuring Jonny Vegas, Jack Carroll and rising star Antonio Aakeel.

For those who attend Masala Festival every year/have attended before, what would be your recommendation as a “must experience”?

I’d recommend two things:

If you’re looking for a night out and a good laugh – Definitely recommend An Indian Abroad, as writer, performer and professional wrestling manager, Pariah Khan brings his shrewd and bitingly funny show to Northern Stage on Saturday 20th July.  It’s getting great reviews as it tours the UK, and we are delighted to be presenting at Masala Festival this year.  It follows the story of Krishnan, who is stifled by life in middle class India and decides to visit the exotic island of Great Britain.

I’d also recommend The Sweet Requiem at Tyneside Cinema on 17th July with stunning cinematography and subdued tension it highlights the ongoing and often forgotten Tibetan refugee crisis

For those who haven’t been to Masala Festival before, what would you recommend them checking out to introduce them to the Masala vibe?

The true Masala vibe will be at the Lit & Phil on the 16th July; we have two of the most prominent women on the contemporary jazz scene, pianist Zoe Rahman performs alongside saxophonist Laura Macdonald. This will be a powerhouse of a performance, and guaranteed to sell out so get your tickets quick!

What about for those, who prefer to have a go at something….what do you suggest?

We’ve got a whole host of workshops that people can take part in Bollywood dance, yoga on the beach, or an introduction to Meditation.

Also check out the Chai & Chat exhibition at Gateshead Central Library, beautiful textile artwork inspired by traditional chai recipes.  You can also take part in paper tea cup making.

Full details to book on workshops see www.gemarts.org

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GemArts Bollywood Dance workshops as part of Late Shows 2019

Through-out the festival, you’ve got a bespoke special menu at Dabbawal, which is my favourite place to get a curry, so i’m excited for the Masala menu! Can you tell me a bit about the (commissioned!?) art work, you have on the walls at one of Dabbawal’s restaurants?

Dabbawal are the original authentic street food restaurant in the region, and it’s always a pleasure to work with them – their food is simply outstanding!  Each year their talented chefs craft a special menu which is available during the festival, and we can’t wait to sample it!

Our artist Kate Hunter Parker will be creating art work inspired by this year’s Masala Festival brochure design, as well as elements from the programme and the menu, so expect to see vibrant, luscious and colourful work at both High Bridge and Jesmond restaurants.

So the finale…. any yearly Masala Festival goer knows that you round off the festival in style with a mini Mela at Live Theatre courtyard for families and adults alike. Can you tell me about this year’s Mela programme, what can attendees expect?

GemArts Masala  Festival ends on Sunday 21st July at Live Theatre’ Garden with a spectacular fun packed Mini Mela finale, with FREE South Asian arts, craft, storytelling, music and dance workshops for all of the family to enjoy! If you love caravans, bingo and Elvis, then look no further as this year’s finale brings you…….. Elvis’ Bingo Balls –  enter a seafront arcade in a caravan with neon, sounds of the slots and an Indian Elvis as your bingo caller! We’ve also got Circus Raj, a circus troupe from India performing throughout the day, with stilt walkers, dhol drummers, extreme juggling, sword swallowing and acrobatics, plus dancing marionettes, Dabbawal serving up delicious Indian street food, and much, much more…..

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How on earth, did you stumble across the Indian Elvis bingo caller? He sounds brilliant and fellow Culture Vultures who love things a bit out there and different will be all over this! ?

This is going to be so special!  We really wanted to introduce something new and exciting to this year’s mini mela which will connect with young and older audiences alike, and Elvis’ Bingo Balls absolutely will.  The theatre piece has been produced by Black Country Touring and it’s great that we can bring it up here for the finale.

It’s perfect, as it’s the start of the summer holidays and you’ve got a bingo caller clad in his Elvis outfit, telling stories of moving to this town ‘so every day can be a holiday’……what’s not to love!?

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And finally, if you could sum up Masala Festival 2019 in three words, what would they be?

  1. Epic

2.Vibrant.

  1. Fun

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Mini Mela 2018 as part of Masala Festival 2018

Well thanks Vikas and I just can’t wait! I’m taking over GemArts social media during the launch on Monday AND during Mini Mela, AND I will be attending lots of Masala events so you can follow my journey on my Facebook & Insta.

Visit www.gemarts.org to find out more and book tickets.

Look out for GemArts Masala Festival beautiful brochure around Newcastle and Gateshead or download your full brochure here GemArts Masala Festival 2019 Brochure

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Circus Raj Puppets which are set to be at Mini Mela

That’s all for now Culture Vultures – until next time!

P.s. I’ve had the exclusive opportunity to interview several Masala festival artists and performers – so look over for those interviews coming out in the next week or so!

(Full disclosure: I am not being paid to write this post but I have received complimentary tickets to the full GemArts Masala Festival 2019 programme and I am working with them on the festival’s audience development).