27/10/22 - 06/11/22
Zackerea Bakir’s first gallery exhibition explores what it means to be a dual Libyan/British national, playfully navigating the tensions and contradictions between two cultural identities.

Shwaya is a colloquial Arabic term which means a little. The slang phrase Shwaya, Shwaya is often passionately used in various contexts, from telling people to calm down, to expressing that someone lacks knowledge.

This body of work, across sculpture, collage, video and graphic design, playfully riffs on the phrase. By responding to outdated media depictions of Arab nations (such as the Libyans in Back to the Future, a nostalgic touchstone for the artist), it presents a modern, open-minded and inquisitive take on dual heritage identity. Zackerea asks: can he truly be Arab, or engage in Arab culture, without being able to speak Arabic?

Zackerea Bakir is a British-Libyan creative and actor. His work examines the nuances of being an Arab dual-national within Britain. Driven by a restless energy, Zackerea’s diverse creative output interrogates this question, using either screen, gallery or stage to tell his story.

Website: https://zackbakir.wixsite.com/maker
Instagram: @zackbakir

Please join us for the exhibition launch on Thursday 27th October from 5-8pm.

An Arabic translation of this text, and the interview with Zackerea below, can be downloaded as a PDF here.

Shwaya Shwaya is OUTPUT's third exhibition held in partnership with Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, following on from Hilan Gully's 'Voices' in 2021 and Yasmin Ali's solo exhibition in 2019.

Can you explain the meaning behind the modified clothing in the exhibition?

For me, it was all about desirability. I very rarely see Arab or Muslim representation within desirable fields (e.g. fashion, romantic leads, adverts). They are often seen as modest, conservative and limited in expression. This just didn’t feel like it represented me and so the clothes were a way to show off my own playfulness with fashion, my own desirability as an Arab man.

What’s the significance of the title ‘Shwaya, Shwaya’ to you personally?

Shwaya, Shwaya is a shield. It’s a joke to protect me from awkward conversations in Arabic where I would just stand dumbfounded, trying to remember any of the vague Libyan words I know. The term gets me off the hook. ‘Sorry, I only know a little bit of Arabic but I’m trying.’

What are some of the day-to-day challenges of having a dual nationality?

For me, it’s feeling quite culturally lonely. Not having a community and asking questions about my own heritage, about if I am alone in experiencing certain micro aggressions. That and wine; it is haram but so, so tasty.

Who is your work aimed at, and what kind of reaction do you hope it causes in them?

Arab and Muslim communities, particularly those of dual nationality. I want them to see themselves reflected in the work. I believe Arab and Muslim representation is incredibly poor amongst mainstream media and I hope this combats that. I would like those from other backgrounds to see that the modest, tight-lipped Muslims of racial stereotypes is so far from the colour and excitements that Muslims offer.

You work across many creative mediums, including acting - do they inform each other, and if so, how?

Acting has allowed me to learn effective storytelling. I hope that all my work tells stories. It has given me an outlet for my burning energy, and I want that energy to translate through performance and design.

Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

My attention span is too short to have a preferred medium. If I see a new way to do things, I will change my ways; I love to adapt. I want my work to have energy.

How would you like your creative career to progress? What do you feel are the challenges or barriers that you’ll be working against to create this progress?

I want to continue to find new and interesting ways to explore my story. This includes finding ways to incorporate physical worlds, sculptures and digital design to create engaging environments. I would love to play around with changing the entire visual makeup of a space, playing with space, more than themes. I feel that there’s a lack of opportunity for Arab creatives and that any opportunities that emerge expect the work to fit into the mindset of what they view as visibly Arab or Muslim.

Has your relationship with Liverpool impacted your work or your sense of identity?

As a child I would come to Liverpool to see what their galleries had to offer, amazed by the way artists would play games and push boundaries with their work. Liverpool has offered me a lot of opportunity to develop my skills. I do however have a conflicted relationship with Liverpool’s artistic scene, in particular theatre, which I felt has side-lined and ignored Muslim and Arab stories. This frustrating energy continues to fuel my restless drive.

What’s the significance of Back to the Future to you?

Back to the Future was the first time that I ever heard Libya get mentioned in mainstream culture. This is during a time where I had to show people where Libya was on a map. I accidentally coloured the flag wrong because the discolouration of my school's poster of maps meant it looked blue, not green. Basically, I didn’t think anyone knew it existed and then, there it was, being mentioned on a MASSIVE blockbuster. I was so excited that I even didn’t notice the characters were dubious to say the least. Great film, awful representation.

Do you feel depictions of Libya or other Arab nations in the media, cinema etc have changed or improved over time? Are there any examples of positive depictions you can mention?

I truly believe now is the time for Arabs in art and media. There are just too many people with big ideas and the energy to get it done. I feel like I’m on the crest of a wave and I’m gonna ride it all the way. Currently I still don’t think mainstream media wants to humanise or share the stories of Arab characters. I believe that too many stories are told from western perspectives, and that’s a current history they don’t want to engage with. Now there are some exciting Muslim-centric stories which are just fantastic and give hope. We Are Lady Parts is just something that would not have been on my screens when I was younger.

How did you get started making creative work?

My mum was a textile artist, so I think creativity was always around me and encouraged growing up. My first job was helping her at a local art club she ran, my family would spend school holidays making skateboards with trolley wheels and 2D guitars. At uni I was given the opportunity to create a small performance. I wrote, directed and set designed the whole thing. It  gave me the confidence to see that my stories were valid and that I could actually create something good.

Is there any connection between ‘performing’ different identities (or different sides of your identity) and later finding an affinity with acting?

I’m sure there is. For me I’ve always wanted to just do everything, be everyone. I would watch TV shows and want to do whatever job they did (Doctor from Scrubs, Pathologist from Silent Witness). These lives seemed fascinating, and I wanted to be part. As I haven’t fully felt comfortable in any of my identities, acting lets me explore the parts of me I want to enjoy.