MOUSSEM: A Cultural Organisation of Immigrant Background Questioning “the Canon” Interview with Mohamed Ikoubaan

Question: What difficulties did you face when founding MOUSSEM? What were the ideas behind its foundation?

Answer: We had many struggles. The first was highlighting the non-European minority cultures, mainly of Turkish and Moroccan origin, in Antwerp and Flanders regions. These communities were subjected to an extremely negative, polarising and generalising political discourse. (MOUSSEM’s founding coincided with a period when the Flemish far right was on an unprecedented rise.) What was more, the cultures that these communities were a part of were almost completely absent from the arts and culture scene except for a few cultural projects, which only exocitized them and turned them into a target rather than liberating them. The second struggle we had was being a part of or contributing to the public discussions on migration, integration and cultural diversity through arts and culture. MOUSSEM was a manifestation of the movement of self-emancipation that emerged during that period; the second generation was greatly represented in this movement. The third struggle was encouraging these communities to participate in the public cultural life.

Question: Since its founding, Belgium has not only been a culturally diverse country but also the (administrative and political) centre of Europe. What made you choose Brussels? How do you plan on contributing to or benefiting from its cultural diversity?

Answer: MOUSSEM is based on a local structure founded in Antwerp in 2000. Over the years, it turned into an international organisation; so, moving to Brussels in 2014 was a highly reasonable decision. Brussels is not only the capital of Europe, Belgium or the Flanders region; it is the second most globalised, most cosmopolitan city in the world after Dubai. But it is also a centre, a hub when you look from a human scale, more than Berlin or Paris is; it is a centre for artists from around the world. Also, the Maghreb community (mostly of Moroccan origin) constitutes one of the most significant communities here, and Arabic is the fourth most spoken language after French, English and Flemish.

Question: MOUSSEM has many partners on many levels, including Bozar, Toonelhuis, and C Mine. How has your initiative been received within the arts community or by the official authorities and audiences?

Answer: Since its inception, MOUSSEM has preferred carrying out its activities inside existing structures instead of creating a physical space dedicated to Moroccan, Maghreb or Arab culture. This is why we have so many partners. We are against ghettoising ethnic minority cultures; and we believe that all citizens, irrespective of their origins, have a right to culture; and that public institutions have the duty to be open and accessible to all Belgian citizens with immigrant backgrounds, all of whom are taxpayers, as much as possible. Initially, we had to convince our partners and public authorities; but as time passed on, MOUSSEM has become a respected actor in the arts scene. Surely, the nomadic character of our arts centre and our constant dialogue with our partners have also helped.

Question: Despite all measures, prohibitions and reactions, the refugee movement in Europe continues. How does this movement affect the form and content of your work?

Answer: This movement affects us in two ways. First, on a political level and with regards to public discussions; we are experiencing the same situation we had almost 10-20 years ago. And regarding our work, we can say that we are trying to adapt into this new situation, for instance by being involved with the slowly forming new Syrian community. We support and work with artists from this new wave of migration.

Question: How have the European institutions and initiatives reacted to MOUSSEM? Did they want to collaborate? Have they accepted the centre?

Answer: We have been supported by the European Commission twice as part of the Creative Europe calls for projects. We have no contact with other European institutions.

Question: MOUSSEM’s mission statement mentions that the centre aims to “question the prevailing artistic canon and help create vital narratives by contributing to the establishment of a new arts scene”. How would you define this new scene, and who do you think would be its actors?

Answer: Ideally, this new arts scene should be diverse and be positioned away from the dominant Western and Eurocentric perspective, and be open to other, non-European cultures. Artists should draw inspiration from other cultures and their stories. The artists from the newly formed communities should be able to find a place in theatres and museums alongside native-born citizens. Together, they will establish what we call the new canon or the future common national heritage. The actors of this new scene will be the public authorities and institutions who will adapt their policies to new realities just as much as the communities and artists with immigrant backgrounds, who will play an active role in the arts scene.

Two of our projects clearly reflect this vision:

MOUSSEM Repertoire: Translating and publishing Arabic theatre plays. MOUSSEM Collection: Inclusion of visual artists related to the Middle East and North Africa region in the collections of two museums in Flanders region. -

Question: Your programmes consist of a series of events, including residence programmes that focus on production as well as programmes dedicated to a city, or related to distribution and dissemination, such as the “Masrah Performing Arts Festival” or “MOUSSEM Cities”. What are your criteria when choosing an artist or a city?

Answer: Our artist selection criteria is based on a complex process. The most important thing for us is the intrinsic quality of an artistic project and its capacity to create added value, preferably in the long run, for the Belgian arts scene as well as the international arts scene. This is why we prefer forming long term relations with artists, and try to stay away from the trap of producing dull and dry programmes, which in my opinion, would be a fleeting approach. We are more interested in artists who create a discourse, who produce a lasting, continuous work of art instead of the ones who jump from one production to another. We avoid working with artists who submit to the demands or implicit expectations of Western programmers. We have no interest in “L’Arabe de Service” ( Regarding cities, their contemporary arts dynamics are more influential for us than their histories. That is why we have chosen Casablanca in Morocco instead of an imperial city like Fes or Marrakech.

Question: Lastly, how have you determined who you would receive funding from both on a central level (like the Flemish government or the Flemish Ministry of Culture) and on a local level? How do you diversify them so as not to lose your administrative and artistic autonomy?

Answer: Our main funding comes from the Flemish Ministry of Culture. We also receive a limited amount of support from local authorities; and for specific projects, we receive European and international funding. Our secondary source of income is our project partners and co-producers. We also have a small income from ticket sales.

Question: Do you plan on playing a role in the development of Belgian, Flemish or European cultural policies? How can you contribute?

Answer: We already have a role in developing the Flemish cultural policy by being involved with the federation of arts organisations or commissions... We are trying to do the same in Brussels, but considering our small size, we do not have a goal on European level.