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Awareness & Empowerment

Before Sandblast

The birth of Sandblast is inextricably tied up with the long term involvement of founder, Danielle Smith, with the Saharawi refugee community.
Photo by Emma Brown
Photo by Kevin Grant
Danielle's first visit to the refugee camps in 1991 catapulted her into a life-changing journey of educational and cultural activism to shed light on the invisible Saharawi story. In the 14 years leading up to the launch of Sandblast, Danielle visited the camps many times for extended
periods to teach English, learn about Saharawi culture, including to speak their spoken language of Hassaniya and to document the Saharawi story through film and photography.

This period gave her insight into aspects of the struggle that were largely overlooked by the experts and pundits, namely how the Saharawi arts and rich oral traditions had been harnessed to play a vital role in expressing the unique cultural identity, resistance and aspirations of the Saharawi people.

The Birth of Sandblast

The initial aim for setting up Sandblast in 2005 was to organise the first-ever UK festival of arts and culture from Western Sahara. This idea evolved from the years Danielle spent learning about and being inspired by Saharawi culture. It also came from the conviction that the story of the Saharawi struggle, told through music, poetry, dance, photography, art, film, theatre would reach wider audiences and build awareness and solidarity.
Photo by Olivia Mann
Hosting a festival was attractive for a number of other reasons too:
1) It gave an opportunity to invite UK and international artists to become involved in creative collaborations and exchanges with the Saharawis,

2) The soft power for culture would help raise the profile of the Saharawis and their self-determination cause in a positive and peaceful way,

3) It would reaffirm the fundamental right of the Saharawis to freely express themselves; a right which was systematically denied to them under the Moroccan occupation

4) Lastly, it would engage audiences of all ages and backgrounds to foster greater understanding between cultures and help shatter negative stereotypes that existed around refugee situations and Muslim societies.

The Journey: Bringing Saharawi art & culture to the UK

The festival took three long years of hard work to become a reality. 

We started out with no track record and no roadmap. We also had minimal professional experience to guide us when we embarked on the huge tasks of raising funds, developing partnerships, sourcing the Saharawi artists in the refugee camps, getting their documents to travel and preparing them to perform for UK audiences. We were on a steep learning curve throughout this process and counted on enormous acts of faith, generosity and good will from all those who joined hands with us to make it happen.

Additionally, the founder was determined that the participating Saharawi artists be regarded as artists in their own right, who happened to be refugees, and not the other way around.
Danielle also set out to record and produce the debut album of Tiris - the Saharawi band from the camps that formed in 2005 through an X-factor type competition process and worked over two years to develop their repertoire and musical group identity before coming
to the UK.

Tiris in the camps

Danielle was in no doubt about their outstanding talents and ability to represent the best of Saharawi musical culture. It was her mission to ensure the world would equally appreciate them as they deserved.

Crucial votes of confidence

Initial support for the festival came from surprising sectors. The first backing came from the Trade Unions starting with Ruth Winters who was the head of the Fire Brigade Union at the time. More followed from UNISON, UNITE and smaller unions and a grant from the Arts Council gave us the wings we needed to fly.
Help from the Polisario Front to facilitate ourvlogistical needs was indispensable, as was the amazing support we got from the Algerian
National Radio Station to record Tiris. They generously made their state-of-the-art studio recording facilities in Algiers available to record Tiris over 10 days and the Watan newspaper covered the accommodation of our artists during
their stay.
The exceptional support and good faith we got from the British Embassy in Algiers, played a crucial role in making it possible for us to bring the Saharawi artists to the UK. And last but not least, we struck gold when Rich Mix, a community arts hub in East London, generously offered their venue in-kind to host the festival. They also gave us gallery space to exhibit photography from Western Sahara by Saharawi and non-Saharawi photographers for one month prior to the festival.
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Registered Charity (England and Wales) :1115288 | Companies House Registration number : 05397223
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