May 26, 2015

Guest Writer Claudio Cravero, Venice Biennale II: "All Look The Same"

Claudio Cravero, curator at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, started as a guest writer on this blog with a contribution about the Icelandic Pavilion. Today he's looking more extensively at the representation of The Middle East in the ongoing Venice Biennale. And he does so with an in depth view: 

Adel Abidil, “I'm sorry”, 2008, light box installation within the Iranian Pavilion

A more focused view at the Venice Biennale may be addressed to geographical areas, which through propinquity and similarities are very often muddled and mixed up with one another. Since we live in a globalized world, to adopt this particular angle might also represent a justification of the still existing National Pavilions within the Biennale. And this is applicable especially to those emerging countries that wouldn’t have an international visibility otherwise. Especially when they claim a space to speak out with their artists’ voice in order to be recognized worldwide.

But what are we talking about when we talk about The Middle East? While nowadays the boundaries are described with acronyms, such as MENA (Middle East+North Africa) or MENASA (when extended to Southern Asia) and this could be a never-ending list depending on the presence of Turkey and yet of Azerbaijan, among others, it seems that all those geo-definitions are led by some unknown process of cultural and political inclusion or exclusion.

Looking at the on-going Venice Biennale, it is a matter of fact that many Middle Eastern countries are missing. While the Arabian Peninsula is only featured by the most liberal and trendy UAE (The United Arab Emirates that count the glitzy Dubai, the cultural-oriented Sharjah and Abu Dhabi), the rest of this wide and indescribable land is limited to the presences of Iraq, Iran, Syria and – moving towards the Maghreb - of Egypt. So, what happened to more democratic Bahrain? And what to Saudi Arabia that had its first National Pavilion in 2011? Yet to Qatar, Lebanon or Morocco that seem to be proud in different ways of their westernized art network?

Nonetheless their religion differ according to a series of historical interpretations and approaches, and their political systems result almost obscure from a western viewpoint, these countries are often gathered together by the same language: Arabic. So, needless to say that although they look the same, in the end they are not. However, Algerian artist Kader Attia always tries to answer back that “since we are all different, then we are the same.”

Setting aside the matter of similarity and differentiation, a first reflection on these Middle Eastern presences in Venice leads to who has been engaged behind the artworks on display. Who are the commissioners and the curators? With the exception of The UAE, with a local curator born and based in Sharjah, the other pavilions have been curated by foreigner curators. It may sound even as a paradox that a non-local curator is named as the best choice  to draw the content for a foreign pavilion. And it is generally a curator coming from a Western country to curate an Eastern one, and not vice versa. The first risk of that way of curating is a westernized disguise of extraterritorial art scenes. 

Secondly, it may result in an overemphasized orientalism that glorifies local and anthropological aspects, ignoring that universality belonging to art in being borderless and able to speak to anyone. Yet it is interesting to notice how curatorial positions change from time to time in this Biennial backdrop. Switching from being a storyteller to a mere observer, from acting as a creative art historian to an interpreter or a translator, this broad array of cultural perspectives also questions today’s role for a curator. But in none of those “Middle Eastern cases”, the curator has acted as a visionary and forward-looking scriptwriter of tangible and possible stories.

Egyptian Pavilion, exhibition view “Can You See?”,
Giardini, La Biennale di Venezia

Without taking into account the quality of the Egyptian presence at the Biennale, since the questionable nature of this pavilion is due to the non-curatorial vision of some non-curator politician involved in the selection of what, in the end, is a factitious interactive project around the meaning of peace, the other pavilion located next to Enwezor’s exhibition is UAE.
In a 250 square-metre portion of the Arsenal, curator Sheikka Hoor Al-Qasimi, namely the Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, decided to rebuild the young art history of The United Arab Emirates. Freestanding modular showcases, alcoves and mobile walls are covered with a hundred works by fifteen artists. Though the show is a time-specific exhibition, the works are not hung chronologically since the show has been conceived as a visual archive. Paintings and objects are thus juxtaposed in an eclectic way in order to let the visitor wander around the space. Besides some talented artists (Najat Makki, Abdulraheem Salim, and Abdul Qader Al-Rais), the exhibition visibly reveals the strong and earnest attempt to balance their local traditions with what has been considered artistically hip over the last four decades elsewhere.

UAE Pavilion, exhibition view “1980 - Today”, Arsenal, La Biennale di Venezia
Italian curator Duccio Trombadori represents the Syrian Pavilion located in San Servolo Island. The exhibition “Origins Of Civilization” aimed at bringing together international and local Syrian artists (the foreigners are mostly Italians, one Chinese and one Albanian), to tell about a global synchronicity among countries. Whilst the show invites to stop taking things for granted when we think about Syria, the exhibition doesn’t redeem the stereotypes. Very often a good dose of superficiality resonates in the exhibiting space, and there is no need to remark that exoticism is king in here.

Iraqi Pavilion, exhibition view “Invisible Beauty”, Cà Dondolo, San Polo, Venezia

Heading toward an historic palace facing the Grand Canal, Artistic Director of the SMAK Museum in Ghent, Philipp Van Cauteren, is the storyteller of the Iraqi Pavilion. “Invisible Beauty” is the title of the exhibition. While stating that beauty is invisible, one may wonder whether this refers to art in conflict zones and areas riddled with war (then where art is hard to find), or if beauty is still a way we look at art. Then the show strives to make visible something that is underneath, something that can represent the art to survival, about record keeping and psychotherapy (led in primary schools while children are used to drawing). Also a ubiquitous Ai Weiwei took part in the project. He contributed to a publication selecting drawings made by refugees in Iraq.
In the space there is a predominance of black and white works on display, event though they are sunken in the harrowing contrast between the luxurious building and the content of the images. Everything around seems to be too aesthetically correct (i.e. vintage Hantarex screens to project videos) compared to the Iraqi current political and civil condition. But this stalemate atmosphere is almost unlocked by a series of voices off broadcast in one of the rooms. It is the artists’ statement that tells the day-to-day world of artists living in Iraq, showing that there is more to give to existence than what is presented in the news. Therefore, directly from their studios, artists speak loud about their hopes claiming art as a catalyst for change.

Akam Shek, “Untitled", 2014-2015, Black-and-white digital prints,
within the Iraqi Pavilion
Finally, located in the Jewish Venetian ghetto, it is the Iranian Pavilion. Curated by Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia, who selected over forty artists from India to Iraq, the exhibition displays “The Great Game” and a special focus on “Iranian Highlights”. Here are many voices on show in order to investigate the socio-political concerns affecting what is meant to be contemporaneity in Iran. And probably the “great game” mentioned in the title dwells in that confused lack of order typical of a Risiko match, when the board is crammed of small plastic tanks to distinguish the outlines among the continents. The outcome is a hybrid and interesting, but still undefinable, melting point of political, cultural and religious issues. While Nazgol Ansarinia’s sculptures are dealing with Iran from an architectural point of view, where urban design is specifically deemed as an expression of main power, Adel Abidil’s light box recites “I’m sorry”. This represents the apology the Iraqi artist repeatedly heard when he first went to the USA and used to tell people where he was from.

Nazgol Ansarinia, "Article 49 Pillars", 2014, sculptures in terracotta,
installation view within the Iranian Pavilion

The point being is that there is no sorry for wars. But between power and conflict, between resistance and diaspora, art still continues to represent a space of freedom. And however visible or invisible artists may be in the Middle East, they daily struggle to find a way to express who they are in relation to where they live.

Claudio Cravero

Egyptian Pavilion
“Can You See?”
Artists: Ahmed Abdel Fata, Maher Dawoud and Gamal Elkheshen
Giardini – La Biennale di Venezia

UAE  Pavilion
“1980 – Today. Exhibitions in The United Arab Emirates”
Artists: Group Show
Arsenal – La Biennale di Venezia

Syrian Pavilion
“Origins Of Civilization”
Artists: Group Show
San Servolo Island

Iraqi Pavilion
“Invisible Beauty”
Artists: Group Show
Ca’ Dondolo, San Polo

Iraninian Pavilion
“The Great Game” and “Iranian Highlights”
Artists: Group Show
Calle San Giovanni, Cannaregio

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