Venice Biennale 2015: The United Arab Emirates Pavilion

By Abdulrahman Zainal

An exhibition curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi sets the record straight on contemporary art in the UAE.

With the theme of the 2015 Venice Biennial as “All the World’s Futures,” it’s no surprise that most national pavilions feature brand new, specially commissioned work—often by solo artists.

But the pavilion of the United Arab Emirates has taken a different approach. Instead, it reaches back to feature 100 paintings, sculptures, photos, and other art objects created over the past four decades by 15 Emirati artists. All are installed in the 250-square-meter space as a crowded collection of works in conversation with one another, rather than in didactic chronology.

Explaining her approach in an interview just hours before the Biennale’s opening, the pavilion’s curator Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi said that she was inspired by the “underexposed historical record” of work by Emirati artists from the 1980s and ’90s—specifically those affiliated with the Emirates Fine Arts Society. The society has served as an informal community and arts incubator among men and women working as artists in the nascent nation, which was created in 1971 by the union of seven emirates. 

Pointedly, the artists chosen by Al Qasimi were working long before the area’s current art boom, which is widely and erroneously understood from the outside as starting in 2005, when major auction houses and art fairs first took root in the region. “I wanted to say that this has been happening for a long time. That the art scene was very interesting, with people working in many materials and with very different styles,” she says.  

On May 7, a crowd of approximately 150—some of the men in the traditional, gleaming white national Emirati dress—waited more than an hour in the hot and dusty corridor outside Venice’s Arsenale before the grand opening of Al Qasimi’s pavilion. The show seemed in some ways a victory lap for her, coming as it has on the heels of the much-lauded Sharjah Biennial, which she also oversees in her role as head of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Though this is the fourth time the UAE has participated in the Venice Biennale, it is the first time the curator is Emirati.

There is in fact significant crossover between the artists exhibited in Venice and the Sharjah Biennale, where world-renowned Emirati artists like Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, and Mohammed Kazem also had works on view. 

Hassan Sharif, whose solo show inaugurated the first UAE pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, is broadly seen as having introduced conceptual art and performative art to the region. In Venice, photos from 1983 of him jumping illustrate that role. While other artists were still exploring calligraphic abstraction, a dominant regional art discourse in the 1970s, Hassan Sharif appropriated and made his own tropes, concepts, and materials from the Fluxus and British Constructionism movements. In a vitrine are examples from 1984 and ’85 from his ongoing Notebooks series (pictured below). The works make ample use of colorful commercial plastic and other found objects. 

Works on view by Hassan Sharif
Al Saadi, whose installation in the open courtyard of Sharjah’s Bait Al Serkal of more than two dozen life-sized scarecrows created from recycled materials has been the social media sensation of Sharjah’s Biennial is represented in Venice’s by several works including a similar set of sculptures, on a much smaller scale. Shaped like animals, the sculptures here are crafted from wood and animal bones he found on his journeys through the UAE. His colorful necklaces in an adjacent vitrine use wood, bone, shards of pottery, and commercial plastics.

An arresting corner of the pavilion is dedicated to a group of Mohammed Abdullah Bulhiah’s sculptures of metal, rock, and wood, several of which recall the elegant simplicity of Picasso’s Tête de Taureau (1942), the bull’s head created from a bicycle seat and handlebars. The dating of Bulhiah’s works—from the 1970s and ’80s—is approximate as the self-taught artist has been in a coma for the past two years. (He was one of only three featured artists not present for the opening ceremony.)

Gesturing towards Al Saadi’s work and to a vitrine with recent book-like objects made by Hassan Sharif from found and used commercial plastics, Al Qasimi remarked on the prevalence of “humble materials” these early contemporary artists employ in their works. “People have this misconception of the UAE’s wealth,” she says, “but actually all the artists worked with recycled materials and bones, metal, paper, and plastics.” 

More to that point: Just weeks before the Venice Biennale opened, I sat in on a symposium in the UAE called “Thinkers and Doers” hosted by the Alserkal Avenue arts district in Dubai. In a heated debate, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, founder of Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation and an art-world Twitterverse star in the region, drew applause as he argued that as Western collectors and curators have discovered contemporary artists from the region, there has been “too much emphasis” that artists must “create Middle Eastern related and relevant works”; in short, that have to look like they are from the region. “We don’t go to France and tell them to draw the Eiffel Tower…I don’t know why we should produce art by what Western collectors and curators want to see,” he said.

His comments came back to me as I considered the UAE pavilion—the overt historicity of the artworks in conversation with one another, and how this stood in contrast with the pavilions of other countries. I was pushed to reconsider my own expectations, as an American, and to appreciate its curator’s mission: Here in Venice, arguably the art world’s biggest, most important stage, Al Qasimi has taken the opportunity to announce to the rest of the world, as Americans would put it, “This isn’t our first rodeo!” Contemporary art in the UAE has been engaged with important international art movements for decades; it was not born when the region caught the attention of the West. 

With all the world’s futures ahead of us, we can thank Al Qasimi’s mission for first setting the record straight.