In 1982, Rose Issa was stuck in Paris. A grim combination of a civil war and an Israeli invasion made it impossible for her to return to her home in Lebanon. Still, the Iranian-born curator felt that she “had to do something” and came up with the idea for a film festival.
“I managed to assemble enough money to hire a cinema and call all the friends who had done film about resistance and occupation, including some Israeli directors. I brought [the films] to Paris and we showed them.”
Watching the queues outside screenings, Issa realised that she had discovered a niche in the market. After moving to London, she set up the city’s first Arab film festival in 1987, frustrated by the lack of knowledge about Middle Eastern film. This also led her to organise an Iranian festival in 1999.
“I found that lots of people were starting to do MAs and PhDs on Iranian cinema without ever being in Iran, without speaking the Farsi language, therefore not seeing any of the cheap DVDs that are available,” she says, “I couldn’t understand how you can do a PhD on that basis of five films that you have seen at the London Film Festival.”
Issa is speaking in the airy front room of Rose Issa Projects, on Kensington High Street. She prefers the term “project space” to art gallery, finding it less restrictive. “I am not a gallery type – I cannot be a prisoner of a space. I wanted to travel and with a small budget you can never leave an office.”
Either way, it has been her base for the past four years. Having established a reputation in London as a curator of Middle Eastern art as well as film, Issa became impatient with the criteria imposed by public institutions on what art could be shown. “I thought, why should I wait negotiating for two years for one exhibition to happen? I just can make it happen. Every two months we can do a small show.”
Rose Issa Projects describes itself as showcasing work by contemporary Arab and Iranian artists, although Issa also keeps an eye on Turkey. Recent artists to have graced its walls include the Iranian artist Farhad Ahrarnia, the Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki and a number of modern calligraphers. Rather than relying on government grants, its revenue comes from successful exhibitions.
Issa welcomes the independence that this brings. She also enjoys working in London, which she describes as “fantastically cosmopolitan” and part of an Anglo-Saxon world that works “on merit”.
“I see some of my colleagues in Paris who are dependent on government funds and it takes them two years before they do an exhibition. I very quickly understood that I’m not somebody who can work with an institution and cater for its agendas [like that].”