Venice, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo Polignac, one of the oldest palaces in Venice was immortalized in one of Monet’s famous paintings of the floating city, but now the palazzo is playing host to the “Edge of Arabia in Venice” art exhibition that is taking place on the sidelines of the Venice Biennale. Walking through the narrow streets that epitomize Venice one finds a sign that points the way to the palazzo’s entrance where – unexpectedly for an Italian city – one is greeted by the smell of Arabian incense and the sound of Arabic music. Arabic coffee and dates is located at the entrance of the palazzo as if to give visitors a genuine taste of Arab hospitality, before astounding them with a glimpse of contemporary Saudi Arabian art.
The exhibition – whose very existence is a clear sign of the progress in the Saudi Arabian art scene – is being held for the second time after the first “Edge of Arabia” exhibition took place in London last year. This exhibition showcases the works of 8 Saudi Arabian artists including; Shadia and Raja Alem, Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Al-Gharem, Faisal Samra, Maha Malluh, Ayman Yossri Daydban, and Manal al-Dowayan. The exhibition is being curated by Stephen Stapleton, along with two of the artists, Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, who appeared at the opening ceremony wearing the traditional red Arabian shemagh headdress. All three curators spoke of their happiness at the “Edge of Arabia in Venice” exhibition taking place against the backdrop of the world’s largest art event.
The entrance of the exhibition is dominated by an image of Ahmed Mater’s “Magnetism” along with an installation of the same name. Both the picture and the installation are eye-catching, and Ahmed Mater says that “Magnetism” speaks of the spirituality experienced by anybody when making the tawaf [circling the Kabaa seven times during hajj], whilst in a more general way “Magnetism” is about the salvation that can be found in religion. Mater said “the exhibit is [created by use of] physics, magnets, and iron fillings. We see the strength of [magnetic] attraction and repulsion at the same time, which forms the movement of the tawaf around the Kabaa [with the magnet acting as the Kabaa, and the iron fillings acting as those circling it]. “Personally,” he adds ” this is the [spiritual] state that I find myself in when making the tawaf.” Another of Mater’s works being shown at the exhibition is his “Illumination I & II” which is a picture of a human x-ray superimposed onto a page of a book.
Shadia and Raja Alem are also exhibiting a number of works in Venice, including “Negatives: No More.” Visitors to this exhibit view a tapestry made up of dozens of rolls of photographic film [negatives], although when one steps back from the individual negatives one sees a larger image of a women dressed in black robes like those worn in the Gulf. Shadia Alem described this exhibition as being “an autobiography of the last twenty-five years of my life. I collected the pictures that I took in my travels and exhibitions; these are a part of my life brought together. I am using my work here to contradict the image of Saudi women abroad; that we are women under the veil who do not take part in any artistic or literary activities. But, through my work I am saying that we no longer take a negative position towards the world, rather we have begun to take part in cultural and literary activities abroad until we became part of the cultural movement.” Alem believes that “Saudi Arabian contemporary art is in the spotlight, and has begun to take its [rightful] place.”
Maha Malluh explores everyday objects that are taken for granted in her art by photographing a series of personal items and displaying them as if they are being viewed through a baggage x-ray machine at an airport. The items are arranged chaotically, and have no intrinsic link other than through the person carrying them.
Ayman Yossri Daydban is exhibiting two of his art works in Venice; including his famed “Maharam” [Tissues] work, which is a print on wooden tissue boxes advertising posters of classic Arab films from the 1940s and 1950s. Hamzah Serafi, the owner of the Jeddah Athr Gallery described “Maharam” as being both complex and intimate, dealing with identity and culture. Serafi said “Maharam may refer to tissues and the emotional situation that can affect a person when watching old Arab movies. Maharam also means family ties.”
Abdulnasser Gharem, who is also serving as one of the exhibitions co-curators, is showing his short film “Al Siraat” [The Path]. Gharem describes the story behind this work by saying that “in 1982, when heavy rainfall fell in northern Saudi Arabia, people in a small village in the Asir province decided to seek refuge from flash floods on a cement bridge. However the flood came and swept away the bridge, and the people who were seeking refuge on it.” Gharem therefore wrote the word “Siraat” over what remains of the bridge over and over again in reference to the path that all must tread and the choices people make in life.
The exhibition also displays Manal al-Dowayan’s “The Choice.” Al-Dowayan’s pictures show [Arab] tradition and its relationship with women in a personal manner. Al-Dowayan’s photographs show the obstacles faced by Saudi women, her photograph “The Choice” depicts a hijab wearing Saudi woman holding a car steering wheel.
The “Edge of Arabia in Venice” exhibition’s head curator, Stephen Stapleton said “I am proud of those who took part in this exhibition. As Curator of the exhibition I believe it to be a big step for the Saudi artists who exhibited their work in Venice. I believe this to be a step towards opening up to the world, and I believe that this will be an incentive to artists in Saudi Arabia to be even more productive.”
Stapleton added that the Venice exhibitions differed from the London exhibition in that “we also chose new conceptual works that compliment the nature of the Venice Biennale. Abdulnasser Gharem’s short film was shown for the first time here [in Venice] and this is important to emphasize that the [Saudi] artists can stand with their international counterparts in the same arena. We must exhibit new works at every exhibition.”
Stapleton also said “I expect we will be able to invite different and young artist [to future exhibits] to expand further. I appreciate that this will be difficult, and we need considerable support, and I hope that we will find this support from Saudi institutes.” Thanking the sponsors of the “Edge of Arabia in Venice” exhibition, Stapleton said “the sponsors of our exhibition deserve praise for going on this adventure with us, and trusting our work.
Robin Start, owner of Park Gallery in London and the representative of Jadwa Investment, one of the sponsors, said “we are delighted to be associated with this exhibition of works by a select group of contemporary artists from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These highly talented artists have produced works that go beyond the boundaries of traditional painting and sculpture, embracing positive-expressionism and engaging the viewer through their approach to conceptual art. The artworks exhibited in Venice first entice and then absorb the visitor’s attention with their thought provoking yet delightful imagery, intriguing story-telling and great technical ability.”