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Then and now
April 29, 2015
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The UAE’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennial will showcase the stirring history of art making in the country. Muhammad Yusuf has the details.
Through an unprecedented and dense grouping of over 100 works structured to create dialogues between artists and across practices, curator Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director, Sharjah Art Foundation, will showcase the diversity and the history of the art scene in the UAE at the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates during la Biennale di Venezia, the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

‘1980 - Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates’, as the exhibition is titled, was conceived as a retrospective on contemporary art exhibitions in the Emirates over the last 40 years. It will present a selection of works from different decades, highlighting the emergence of art practices in the UAE. The main point of focus and inspiration for research was the Emirates Fine Arts Society (EFAS), a non-profit association that was formed in 1980 in Sharjah.

The Venice exhibition is built upon extensive research involving archives of newspaper articles, artists’ writings, and catalogues, as well as interviews with artists and cultural practitioners. Reflecting personal and geopolitical orientations, the research focuses on underexposed historical records and evolving practices of some of the UAE’s most important modernist and contemporary artists.

It features work by fifteen Emirati artists: Ahmed Al Ansari, Moosa Al Halyan, Mohammed Al Qassab, Abdul Qader Al Rais, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Abdullah Bulhiah, Salem Jawhar, Mohammed Kazem, Dr Najat Meky, Abdulraheem Salim, Ahmed Sharif, Hassan Sharif, Obaid Suroor, Dr Mohamed Yousif and Abdulrahman Zainal.

“Reflecting our generation’s collective obsession with memory, many recent exhibitions have been conceived to look at the past in order to reflect on the present. For these archival exhibitions, curators travel the world to discover overlooked artists and art scenes, institutions invest in research, gathering material, and publishing texts. But how do we connect all the information?” said Al Qasimi.

“This exhibition - and its accompanying publication - invites viewers to make connections directly between objects, historical archives, and the collective memory they represent. The resulting discourse is both personal and collective and marks the beginning of a much more detailed and intensive research project”.

Inspired by historic exhibitions in the UAE throughout the 1980s, Al Qasimi tries to structure the exhibition to reflect felt aesthetic experiences and hopes to encourage connections between works. In addition to thematic groupings, some of the artworks will be arranged by the artists to highlight elements of an individual’s practice, while others will be paired to create complementing and contrasting dialogues between works.

Rather than following a formal chronology, the exhibition will create a sense of wandering through dense collections, in conversation with one another. The works, many on loan from institutions and private collections as well as from the artists themselves, will demonstrate a juxtaposition of conceptual and formal approaches, time periods and media.

The selection of pieces focuses on sharing fundamental stages of the artists’ careers as well as that of the UAE art scene collectively. For example, Najat Meky and Abdulraheem Salim have primarily worked on paper or canvas since 1990s. But their earlier practice focused on sculpture and reliefs.

Mohamed Yousif has in recent years been working with found objects and elements from his natural surroundings, while his older work included traditional wooden sculptures. While Abdul Qader Al Rais is best known today for his landscapes and abstract paintings, he will exhibit a series of figurative paintings, some dating back to 1968.

Works by Hassan Sharif from 1985 incorporating zinc and boiled linseed oil on canvas will be paired with Notebooks, a series he has been working on since the early 1980s. Al Qasimi’s research relied heavily on the public archives of EFAS, a treasure trove of English and Arabic books on visual art, theatre and literature, as well as catalogues, photo albums and copies of Al Tashkeel, EFAS’ newsletter, which has been published since the 1980s. EFAS is a non-profit association that was formed in 1980 in Sharjah, and has long served as a galvanising incubator for the UAE’s art scene.

“For our fourth exhibition at the International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia - we are delighted to be working with curator Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi”, said Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, Founder of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, commissioner of the National Pavilion of the UAE.

“Thanks to her vision and leadership, we are able to share essential works from this key period in the UAE’s art scene and also build links for future generations. I applaud her contributions to the development and advancement of the larger discourse on art from the region”.

The works together with the exhibition design creatively represent the subject and theme of the show. In order to maximise the National Pavilion’s 250 square-metre space and protect the historic walls of the Arsenale – Sale d’Armi, a custom designed grid of mobile vertical elements and an elevated floor will be installed.

The concept will combine free-standing modular showcases, a specialised hanging system and sunken alcoves to allow for a tailored presentation of heterogeneous artworks. The 56th Venice Biennale runs from May 9 – November 22, with a preview from May 5 –May 8. The official opening of the National Pavilion of the UAE - la Biennale di Venezia - is on May 7.

Al Qasimi is a practicing artist who received her BFA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002), a Diploma in Painting from the Royal Academy of Arts (2005) and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London (2008).

In 2003, she was appointed curator of Sharjah Biennial 6 and has continued as the Biennial’s Director since then. She is Chair of the Advisory Board for the College of Art and Design, University of Sharjah, Member of the Advisory Board of both the Khoj International Artists’ Association, India, and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

She serves on the Board of Directors for MoMA PS1, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; the International Biennial Association, Gwangju and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. She is the first Emirati to be appointed as the curator for the National Pavilion UAE - la Biennale di Venezia.

The National Pavilion UAE was established to endorse the UAE’s contemporary art practices on an international platform and provide a foundation to support the nation’s diverse and developing cultural scene. The UAE’s participation at la Biennale di Venezia began in 2009 with a national pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition, and has continued in subsequent editions of the art exhibition since.

2014 marked the country’s first participation at the International Architecture Exhibition. The National Pavilion of the UAE - la Biennale di Venezia - is supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development.

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