Zooming out: the Arab World
For its third participation at the Venice Architectural Biennale (26 May – 25 November 2018) the UAE presents a pavilion entitled Lifescapes Beyond Bigness curated by Dr Khaled Alawadi, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute. Following Lest We Forget in 2014, which gave a voice to personal memories and The Emirati National House in 2016, this year’s exhibition continues a focus away from the mega-development projects that dominate news stories about the UAE to offer insight into the quotidian rhythms of different places, both urban and rural. Further representation from the Arab world will come from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which will participate for the first time at the architecture biennale, coming amongst a number of major announcements in recent months of ambitious new cultural projects. Elsewhere, Cristiano Luchetti, a professor from the American University of Sharjah has been named curator of the Egyptian Pavilion.
Misk Art Institute, a new cultural organisation established under the Misk Foundation, is backing a number of initiatives this Art Week, including Art Dubai Modern and Fully Booked Art Book Fair, Alserkal Avenue. “I believe in what artists can do when they collaborate with institutions,” asserts Dr. Ahmed Mater, Director of the Misk Art Institute. “Our intention is to be a grassroots community shaped for and by artists. This means we are responsive to the artist-directed currents that have been coursing through Saudi Arabia for many years.” Mater has been instrumental in furthering the careers of Saudi artists internationally for well over a decade, his current position will allow his ideas to have even more reach. As part of Saudi Vision 2030 the institute will roll out a number of significant initiatives this year, including an Arab Arts Festival in New York in October, a ‘Create and Inspire’ exchange programme in California and a collaboration as lead supporters of MoMA's seminal publication Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, a publication focused on modernism in Arab art which will have its regional launch at Art Dubai on 19 March 2018 (see p.97). The Institute’s headquarters in Riyadh is planned to open in 2020, with Michele De Lucchi of aMDL, Skene Catling de la Pena and Factum Arte declared as its architects.
Visitors to the fifth edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts (7 February – 5 May 2018), Refusing to be Still, curated by Tate Modern’s Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, had the added excitement of visiting Ahmed Mater’s solo exhibition Drum Roll, Please at King Abdullah Economic City and Ithra: King Abdullah Aziz Centre for World Culture which opens later this year in Damman. Building new spaces for creative communities is also high on the agenda for Art Jameel who recently launched Hayy: Creative Hub. Being built by ibda design and opening in Jeddah in 2019, it follows the Jameel Arts Centre Dubai opening later this year. “No doubt most cities aim to nurture artistic neighbourhoods,” Art Jameel’s Director Antonia Carver remarks. “There couldn’t be a better time for this in Jeddah – there seems to be to be a great thirst, particularly from young people, for a cultural ‘home from home’”.
Another burgeoning scene is developing at the opposite extremity of the Arab World – Marrakech. The international launch of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Macaal) coincided with the first edition of the African art fair 1:54 to take place on African soil this February 2018. It follows the opening of Musée Yves Saint Laurent in 2017 and balances cultural institutions in the continent after Cape Town’s Zeitz Mocaa, which also opened in 2017. Macaal’s mission here is to promote African contemporary art and it is home to the collection of the Lazraq family. It opens with a group photography show Africa is No Island (27 February – 24 August 2018).
The Levant has traditionally been the heart of the Arab art world and despite political turmoil it is still home to a number of institutions which support artistic practice and host important exhibitions. Amman’s Dar Al Funun celebrates its 30thanniversary with a series of exhibitions inspired by a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, Truth is black, write over it with a mirage’s light (First exhibition: 13 February – 17 May, Second: 3 July – 4 October, Third: 23 October - 24 January 2019). With work by regional heavyweights such as Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Hassan Khan and Akram Zaatari alongside emerging artists, the series illustrates that the organisation still lives up to its name, to be a home for artists. Beirut remains a critical centre for contemporary art in the region. Key exhibitions this spring include Knots’n Dust: Francis Alÿs at the Beirut Art Center (31 January – 3 May 2018), Fahrelnissa Zeid (the critically acclaimed retrospective that ran at Tate Modern in 2017) at the Sursock Museum (27 April – 1 October 2018) and The Sci-Fi Triology, Larissa Sansour at Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture (11 April – 6 June 2018).
“The Palestinian Museum seeks to engage with subjects and materials that are paradigmatic and important in Palestine,” says Rachel Dedman, curator of Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery (18 March – 25 August 2018). The museum finally opened its doors in Birzeit in 2016, after over 20 years of planning but has so far only arranged one major exhibition of note, JERUSALEM LIVES, curated by Reem Fadda. Dedman’s exhibition is the product of four years of research, applying the topic of embroidery to explore wider issues of gender, labour, commodity and class.
Returning to Venice, as the art world always does – the theme for this year’s Architectural Biennale is Freespace - the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara describing it as, “the sense of humanity at the core of any architectural agenda”. The Saudi Pavilion explores the concept. “Free space invites opportunity, redesign can activate the inherent potential of the spaces in between”, reads a statement from Misk Art Institute on the Saudi Pavillion which is curated by Jawaher Al Sudairy with the title Spaces in Between. Perhaps no better definition of the somewhat sprawling, ever captivating art scene in the Arab world.