Arab Artists at the World’s Premier Art Event: ‘Art in an Era of Lies’

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.”)

From the Egyptian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Photo: Venice Biennale).

Commissioned by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the exhibition was a muddled and confusing showcase of the significance of ancient Egyptian history mingled with contemporary notions of surveillance. The installation consisted of golden sphinxes lined up with satellite dishes for heads, or else faces made of computer screens that swiveled to show videos commenting on questions of surveillance.  It was described by one American visitor as a “Vegas funhouse.” The poor technical execution of runny gold spray-painted walls added a sense of kitsch—probably not what the artists intended.

The pavilion was curated by Ahmed Chiha, who himself is one of the three artists featured in it. Being both curator and one of the artists for the pavilion shows what little understanding the commissioning committee had regarding the importance of selecting a curator to objectively conceptualize and oversee execution of a pavilion with an independent and clearly articulated artistic statement.

The Algerian pavilion included a group show of conceptual works by five artists. Initially commissioned by the Algerian Ministry of Culture, financial support was retracted two days after the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in early April. (See a related article, “Algerian Students Thwart President Bouteflika’s Bid for Fifth Term.”) A successful crowdfunding effort by the participating artists ensured that they would be able to cover the costs of mounting their exhibition under the title of “Time to Shine Bright,” ensuring Algeria’s first national participation in the Biennale.

“It was very important for us to ensure that we wouldn’t miss this opportunity to be present at Venice,” says artist Amina Zoubir. “It was important for us to voice our opinions and highlight the young generation of Algerian artists we represent.”

Handstitched leather “shells” evoke landscape forms in an installation by the Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi (Photo: Venice Biennale).

Highlights of other Arab pavilions included the elegantly minimal Iraq pavilion consisting of two works by Kurdish-Iraqi artist Serwan Baraan. Titled “Fatherland” and commissioned by the nonprofit Ruya Foundation, the pavilion included a large four-by-five-meter painting of soldiers lying in trenches eating a last meal, and a haunting sculpture of a general’s skeleton floating in a canoe. Taking inspiration from the tragedy of the many wars Baraan experienced firsthand in Iraq, both works show the artist’s mastery of painting and freehand clay sculpture. Haunting and mesmerizing, the works successfully comment on the Biennale’s overarching theme, commenting on the absurdity of war and its long-term affect.

Saudi Arabia chose to feature artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi to show. Her work is titled “After Illusion” and was commissioned by the Misk Art Institute, a government entity that is currently overseeing ambitious sponsorship and support of Saudi Arabian artists and cultural initiatives. Al Ghamdi is known for her use of natural materials such as leather, rocks and sand. (See a related article, “Can Arab Artists Survive?”) Her installation in Venice concentrates on the abandoned spaces of the artist’s childhood. By producing this work, the artist reworks memory into the present. For the pavilion, a site-specific large-scale installation of screens with thousands of hand-formed “shells” handstitched from leather form a landscape that recalls shoreline and nautical topographies. The shell objects, in varying sizes, are strewn across the floor and climb up the installed screen walls. Like the fleeting nature of thought, Al Ghamdi successfully creates a sensation of absolute immersion in her ephemeral world.

The Venice Biennale, in its somewhat unlikely Italian setting of canals and opulent architecture, serves as a map and compass through the trails and trials of contemporary Arab art. I will explore some of these artistic paths further in future columns.

The Venice Biennale will run until November 24, 2019.


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