The Venice Biennale, which opened this month and is one of the main events on the global art calendar, has a strong Arab presence this year. Work of individual Arab artists and country pavilions for Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates drew generally strong reviews. One pavilion was deeply flawed, however, and another reflected current political turmoil.
Under the title “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the 58th Venice Biennale opened to the public on May 11. Curated by Rudolph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery, this year’s Biennale focuses on what Rugoff describes in his curatorial statement as “an exhibition that, in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies. … It is my hope that art can give us tools to reimagine the possibilities of these ‘interesting times’ in which we live today.”
Since its founding in 1894 with a remit of showing contemporary art from around the world, the Venice Biennale has become a place that artists, curators, collectors and other art devotees descend on to spot current artistic trends and themes and to try to divine art’s future directions.
The Biennale was founded with individual nations showing works by artists in pavilions situated in The Giardini, the city’s large public park. Additional country pavilions have been set up since then in the nearby Arsenale area. Taking its name from the Arabic word “dar el asliha,” or “weapons depot,” the Arsenale was formerly a complex of shipyards and weapons depots for the city, a heavily-guarded site for building naval and commercial ships. Today, the Arsenale’s waterfront location and close proximity to the Giardini make it an excellent location for nations to showcase artworks riffing on themes of technology, commerce and global trade.
For Arab artists, the Biennale also serves as an opportunity to subtly explore historical themes owing to the city’s importance in the annals of Arab history. (Venice once made much of its money by dominating trade between Europe and the Levant, for instance.)
Along with the many pavilions from Arab countries at this year’s Biennale, several Arab artists were selected by Rugoff to show in the Biennale’s main exhibition, including Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui and sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who has recently been nominated for the prestigious British Turner Art Prize. (See a related article, “‘Audio Investigator’ Creates Revealing Landscapes of Sound.”)
Also, a fair number of Arab artists were shown in group exhibitions throughout the city, including the Kuwaiti artists Monia Al Qadiri and Alia Kadiri and the Palestinian duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, as part of the Pinchuk Future Generation Art Prize, which goes to artists age 35 or younger. London-based Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour was selected to represent Denmark, a choice that was viewed by some at the Biennale as a political act to highlight the country’s tolerance of immigrants despite rising racial tensions.
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Although most of the artworks by Arab artists displayed at the Biennale were strong conceptually and aesthetically, the Egyptian pavilion was an embarrassment to Egyptian artists and curators who either visited the pavilion in person or waited with much anticipation to see images on social media. The badly-curated pavilion was generally viewed as a wasted opportunity to showcase the best of contemporary Egyptian art.
Although Egypt has had an official pavilion in the Giardini since 1952, and won the Golden Lion (the Biennale’s highest award) in the national pavilion category in 1995, this year’s mixed-media installation titled “Khnum across times witness” did not draw many admirers. The artist Ibrahim Ahmed deemed it an “Absolute nothing.”
“It’s embarrassing,” Ahmed went on to say about the pavilion. “The audacity, it enrages me. Those artists haven’t been making art for years. The work had little meaning of any kind.” (See a related article, “Egyptian Artist Explores Themes of Identity and Belonging.”)