WRITER: Nadine Khalil
With more national pavilions than ever before, as well as several private initiatives, the contemporary Arab world has never been better represented at the Venice Biennale. Here’s what we think you should look out for.
I spend most of my time in Venice feeling a bit giddy. It isn’t just the charm of a city built entirely around canals, it’s the dizziness that comes with attending an event as big as the Venice Biennale. I soon realise that my constant sense of light-headedness must also come from all the bobbing about on those vaporettos.
Interestingly, I discover the most apt representation of this sensation at the UAE pavilion. There, in an enclosed chamber of the Arsenale, an installation by Mohamed Kasem, entitled “Walking on Water” features a 360-degree projection of the sea and horizon. As you enter the domed, darkened room, the sea stretches across the facing wall, appearing to completely engulf you. Everything is sea. The border between you and the projection seems to dissolve as the seascape rolls. At your feet, a GPS blinks changing digital coordinates in a bright blue hue.
Known for his video and multimedia installations, Kasem based the piece on an actual experience he had on a fishing trip, when he fell from the boat and was lost at sea for half an hour. Feeling a little off-balance, I leave the first Arab pavilion I visit at the Biennale.
Amongst this year’s newcomers are Kuwait and Bahrain. I am unable to locate the Kuwaiti pavilion in the teeming streets near the Rialto and quickly get lost in the tourist hordes. Things are more visible by boat, where the banners of the pavilions and other exhibitions that hang colourfully from the buildings are clear indicators but at street level, it’s a maze.
I do make it to the Bahrain pavilion, though. While a few people filter through the space, there is no representative to speak to. Perhaps this is for the better, as the exhibition is seemingly an expression of alienation, exile and estranging gender constructs. “In a World of Our Own” combines Mariam Haji’s near-mythical paintings of galloping horses and women with Waheeda Malullah’s stark photographs of a completely veiled woman in different situations: peering at an aquarium, near yellow gas tanks, walking through the spirals of an enormous pipe and enveloped by purple balloons next to a smashed truck window.
The pavilion also features Lebanese-born photographer Camille Zakharia, who has spent the last 20 years in Bahrain and who earned the country the Golden Lion at Venice’s Architecture Biennale in 2010, for a series of photographs documenting the way the Bahraini coastline is rapidly changing. Zakharia’s series of photo-collages are about being away from home and they juxtapose fragmented letters with pictures of Arab immigrants to Canada.
This question of having certain artists represent ‘their’ nation at the Venice Biennale has been contentious. Although the event has moved far beyond national pavilions to include various group exhibitions and collateral events that transcend borders, the Biennale is still very much about art that ‘belongs’ to a certain country, even if the artists themselves feel they belong elsewhere.
“We don’t choose the country we are born in,” Akram Zaatari mentions at the reception for the Lebanese Pavilion, organised by APEAL (The Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon). “And yet this is the only chance I have to include my voice.”
In the newspaper-style catalogue handed out at the opening of his show, Zaatari is quoted as saying “we could only be individual voices, fictive because we don’t represent. In fact, we misrepresent. Fictive because we are out of sync with national entities. Our voices are our nations’ imagination(s), rather than realities.”
One of the more politically provocative Arab pavilions, Zaatari’s “Letter to a Refusing pilot” is a three-part film and video installation that documents and reconstructs the narrative of an Israeli pilot, Hagai Tamir, who was ordered to bomb a building in Sidon during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Trained as an architect, Tamir knew the building was either a school or a hospital and so he refused, dropping his bombs into the sea. The building was the Sidon Secondary School for Boys, founded by Zaatari’s father, which is located near the Ain el Helweh Palestinian refugee camp. It was bombed a few hours later by another pilot, essentially rendering Tamir’s refusal useless.
Zaatari’s installation includes everything from archival imagery, family photographs, aerial views of bombings over Sidon, Israeli news footage of the invasion and personal diaries from when Zaatari and his brother were taken by their father to the damaged school, to a group of teenage boys making paper airplanes that can fly. It’s all woven together in a way that brings the truth of the archive into question, a blurring of lines that is Zaatari’s trademark style.
I noticed that on the opening day of the Lebanese pavilion, Chile, Argentina and Kosovo are also having their openings, yet the most commotion seemed to be coming from Lebanon. Despite the problems inherent in having an artist represent an entire nation, this did make me feel proud.
The Iraq pavilion at the Palazzetto Ca’Dandolo offers a completely different take on the daily violence of the post-war country by inviting you into a beautiful Venetian house, decorated with carpets and books on Iraq, where you can help yourself to tea and biscuits.
Cheekily entitled “Welcome to Iraq”, the founder of the group commissioning the pavilion, the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art in Iraq, tells me that their aim was to depart from the usual cultural platform. “There are 30 million people living inside the country,” Tamara Chalabi says, “and so we thought it dishonest not to represent their reality. For that reason, we chose artists within Iraq. We took a risk in doing this. They may not fit the conventional art scene, but it isn’t their fault they live in Iraq.”
Chalabi then explained that because Iraqi artists have little access to resources, the quality of their work appears more rudimentary, despite their training in classical techniques.
Jonathan Watkins, the curator of the pavillion, tells me he was more interested in showing everyday life than the clichés of checkpoints and car bombs. So there are the political cartoons of Abdul Raheem Yassir, which depict the average Iraqi’s difficulties in humorous terms. There’s Hashim Taeeh and Yaseen Wami, the duo from Basra known as WAMI, who create an entire room out of cardboard – a bed, table, portraits bookcase and suitcase and Akeel Khreef, who makes chairs out of discarded objects like generator frames. “They are recycling by making things out of rubbish in order to say, the situation isn’t irredeemable,” Watkins says, “you can make something out of a bad situation.”
There are also traditional, figurative paintings of the Marsh Arabs by Bassim al Shakir combined with more abstract ones by Kadhim Nwir, composed of layers of dripped colours and traces of graffiti-like drawings. And finally, there’s Jamal Penjweny’s ironic photo-series “Saddam is Here”, which has people from different walks of life, whether a soldier sitting against the wall, a shepherd, a butcher, or a woman poised on her bed in underwear, covering their faces with a life-size picture of the former dictator.
If the Iraq pavilion takes a pared-down approach, Rhizoma (a generation in waiting), a collateral event supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives and the Edge of Arabia is completely dressed-up in multimedia. Set in Dorsoduro, it features 26 young Saudi artists and collectives engaged in multidisciplinary practices. These vary from new media and online platforms to traditional crafts.
The curator, Sara Raza tells me she was inspired by ‘rhizome’, a word of Greek origin meaning an underground root from which both horizontal and vertical roots sprout. Even before French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari treated the concept of the rhizome in their seminal book on the subject, Raza had encountered this notion through her reading of Persian polymaths like Ibn Sina and Ibn Farabi. “The rhizome serves as a metaphor to represent this youtube, post-oil generation and the multiplicity of their narratives.”
I visit the Saudi pavilion the day before the opening and everything is still covered in sawdust. There are different takes on the value of prayer, often with a critical, high-tech element such as Saeed Salem’s “Neoland III”, a triptych depicting a man in three stages of prayer under a neon, artificial palm tree and Batool Alshomrani’s “Untitled Athan” a sound installation that serves as a call to prayer with the timings regulated by software.
There’s also the issue of language, both in text and audiovisual form, like Heba Abed’s “Lost in Transliteration” which is illustrated like a children’s book, using numbers to represent Arabic letters that are absent in Latin script, a reference to the way young people send Arabic text messages. Popular new media outlets are also displayed, such as Telfaz 11, an online video network of satirical social sketches and U-Turn, with its reality TV-style shows.
Young female artists are, refreshingly, in abundance and their satirical portrayals of women reveal the incongruities and contradictions of life in the Kingdom. Basmah Felemban’s “Drawn Out Truths” is a series of large, suspended sheets of plexiglass carved with geometric patterns that form the figure of a woman wearing a niqab. Nouf Alhimiary’s “What She Wore” features young Saudi women wearing the same black abaya in various settings, ranging from the classroom and office, to the bathroom and in a store. Sarah AbuAbdallah’s “Salad Zone” is a humorously absurd video installation of scenarios like two veiled women smashing a TV with spades or a woman’s head disappearing into a pot while Eiman Elgibreen’s “Does a face make a difference?” initially appears as a series of 64 wooden cubes. You have to lift them to notice the photomontage of girls’ faces on them.
I walk to the nearest vaporetto and wait awhile. I have missed the sign saying that the line doesn’t run after 8. I think about how easy it is to miss signs in Venice and how glad I am that the Arab world has managed to make such bold strides, with the few that are available to them.