Wednesday, November 29, 2023

20 years of “Culturescapes” – An anti-festival shows what the Sahara has to offer

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Global cultural exchange through the ages: 20 years ago, festival founder Jurriaan Cooiman turned his attention to Eastern Europe. Now with Culturescapes he shows what we can learn from the Sahara.

It started at the weekend: a festive atmosphere and cheers for the opening production “C La Vie” by the Burkinabe-Belgian dancer and choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly. “Culturescapes” shows art and culture from the Sahara until the end of November.

Looking back, the fact that the festival is able to celebrate its 20th anniversary is by no means a given and is thanks to the perseverance of its founder Jurriaan Cooiman. He and his team have repeatedly adapted the concept to the social and political circumstances.


The performance “C La Vie” by the Burkinabe-Belgian dancer and choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly took place at the start of the Culturscapes festival in the Theater Basel

C La Vie Photo: Sophie Deis

“We are actually an anti-festival,” says Jurriaan Cooiman. Culturescapes spans two months, much longer than most other festivals. It is not limited to a single city and includes theater, music, literature, art and social and political debates.

Starting signal in Eastern Europe

Georgia was the first country that Jurriaan Cooiman focused on at his festival in 2003. The impulse was a personal interest. The now 56-year-old cultural manager wanted to travel and wondered what the culture behind the former Iron Curtain looked like, which is little reported on in the West.

Culture from the Sahara

Open the box
Close the box

The multidisciplinary festival “Culturescapes 2023 Sahara” presents art and culture from the Sahara until November 30th: exhibitions, readings, lectures, concerts and theater in 15 Swiss cities.

In the first few years, the focus was on one country from Eastern Europe. First Georgia, a year later Ukraine, followed by Armenia, Estonia and Romania.

Political topicality

It was precisely during the first edition of the festival that the Rose Revolution took place in Georgia. “That gave the festival political clout. “Suddenly Georgia was in the media attention and with it our events,” says Jurriaan Cooiman, looking back.

An old man and a young woman, both in oriental dresses, stand in the desert


For the 17th edition of the Culturescapes festival, the organizers are looking to the Sahara: the three films from Nacer Khemir’s desert trilogy are on the program in Basel and Lugano, among others.

Imago Images/Everett Collection

The interaction between culture and politics sometimes became a balancing act for the festival directors: at the opening of the Culturescapes on Israel, the pro-Palestinian BDS demonstrated in front of the Basel Theater. Certain governments wanted to influence the program.

Struggle for national identities

Looking back, Jurriaan Cooiman is self-critical: “I wouldn’t want to do a festival about China, Israel or Turkey anymore today.” The fight for national identities has become more extreme and aggressive in recent years.

The sustainability of the festival also became more and more of an issue. Since 2015, Culturescapes has only taken place every two years. This gave Jurriaan Cooiman and his team time for in-depth research, building networks and finding new partner institutions.

Ecosystems replace country portraits

Two years ago, another pioneering decision was made: for the first time, Culturescapes did not focus on a country or metropolis, but rather on an entire cultural region or an entire ecosystem: the Amazon.

“In doing so, we have also put our European concept of culture at risk,” says Jurriaan Cooiman. “When you interact with shamans or activists, it changes your own understanding of art.”

Dancers from Abidjan Ivory Coast.


With the dance piece “Prophétique (on est déjà né.es)” Nadia Beugré focuses on the experiences of the transgender community in patriarchal Abidjan (Ivory Coast).

David Kadoule

With this year’s focus on the Sahara, Culturescapes is consistently continuing on this path. And not just for one issue, but for two.

“We are interested not only in the geographical area, but also in the metaphorical and spiritual message that the Sahara has for the entire planet.”

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