A look at the UAE exhibitions in the past editions of the Venice Biennale Arte
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A look at the UAE exhibitions in the past editions of the Venice Biennale Arte

With just a few days left until the start of the 60th Venice Biennale, we have taken a look at the UAE Pavilion in the past editions of the Venice Biennale:

ArtDayME: The United Arab Emirates has been a constant presence at the Venice Biennale Arte in recent years, and many well-known Emirati artists and curators have participated in this Biennale.

The 60th Venice Biennale will be held from April 20 to November 24, 2024, and Abdullah Al-Saadi, a conceptual art pioneer in the UAE, will represent the UAE.

Curated by Tarek Abou El-Fetouh, currently senior curator and director of the performance department of Sharjah Art Foundation, “Abdullah Al-Saadi: Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia” proposes to look at his creative process in relation to the practices of Arab poets centuries ago. Al-Saadi starts to draw, paint, or write during his journeys once he feels immersed in nature.  Similarly, classical Arab poets described this immersion as the process leading up to the composition of their poems. 


Al-Saadi said in a statement: “I draw inspiration from my environment during my various journeys. I always like to travel alone, with the company of a specific book, music, animal friends, or means of transportation. The presence of these travel companions has a significant impact on my artworks, as they accompany me during my exploration of the land and humankind’s place in it.” 


With just a few days left until the start of the 60th Venice Biennale, we have taken a look at the UAE Pavilion in the past editions of the Venice Biennale:

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim:Between Sunrise and Sunset (2022)

Curated by Maya Allison for Biennale Arte 2022, Between Sunrise and Sunset was a single work by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim in which dozens of human-sized, biomorphic sculptures cluster in undulating color and movement—suggesting bodies or trees, metamorphosis, and mutation. The color spectrum transforms across the span of the installation: from sunrise to sunset.

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Between Sunrise and Sunset, 2022 | Lawrie Shabibi

These visceral forms evolve from what the artist sees “in the space between the pupil and the eyelid,” and from his physical dialogue with the materials. By hand he builds up papier-mâché over loose skeleton structures that shift and settle into their final position over time. Often incorporating actual earth, leaves, tea, coffee and tobacco, the texture and colors of the forms derive from his raw materials.


Nujoom Alghanem: Passage (2019)

Curated by Sam Bardaouil & Till Fellrath for Biennale Arte 2019, Passage is an immersive, 26-minute, two-channel video and twelve-channel sound installation by poet, filmmaker and artist Nujoom Alghanem. Filmed in the UAE and in Venice, the site-specific work was closely conceived and developed with the Pavilion curators.

Passage expands Nujoom Alghanem’s experimentation with contemporary Arabic poetry through the language of film. Taking her quintes -sential 2009 poem, The Passerby Collects the Moonlight, as a point of departure, this installation explores the universal experience of displacement.


It is structured along two distinct narratives, one “real,” the other “fictional,” which are simultaneously projected as two non-linear films on opposite sides of the same screen. The “real” narrative depicts the endeavors of Nujoom and Amal, a Syrian actress residing in the United Arab Emirates, to create a film for the Pavilion. The “fictional” narrative is an aestheticized portrayal of Falak, a displaced woman on an arduous journey. The latter is conceived by Nujoom and played by Amal. This Brechtian conflation of reality and fiction, culminating in a scene that depicts Falak arriving at the Pavilion in Venice, prompts the viewer to consider the parallels between the film’s three main protagonists: the director, the actress and the fictional character. These three women of a similar age are connected by the experience of shared dualities: the hidden and the revealed, fragility and power, as well as belonging and displacement.


Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play (2017)

Curated by Hammad Nasar for Biennale Arte 2017, Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play explored a strand of artistic practice in the UAE through the analogy of play. Featuring existing works, re-fabrication of “lost” works and new commissions, the exhibition staged a set of nested questions: where does “playfulness” in artistic practice come from? How and where is “play” nurtured? What does “play” do? The exhibition presented works by five artists who call the UAE home: Nujoom Alghanem, Sara Al Haddad, Vikram Divecha, Lantian Xie and Dr. Mohamed Yousif, and explores the theme of playfulness in artistic practice as a source of vitality and inspiration, and a mode of experimentation with movement, sociality, times and places.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play

In line with the curatorial premise, several cultural institutions across the UAE were invited to join the conversation in exploring the themes of the exhibition as part of a public program. Some of the institutions include Sharjah Art Foundation, The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi, Alserkal Programming, Tashkeel, Maraya Art Centre, Art Jameel, Warehouse421 and London-based art school Central Saint Martins. By developing these themes in ways they deem relevant, this served to extend, expand, critique, reflect and respond to the myriad issues that the exhibition catalyzed.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play

Dubai based artist Hind Mezaina was also commissioned within the same program, exploring the curatorial concepts of the exhibition. The program, titled Home: Food | Music | Sports, explored how food, music and sports contribute to building a sense of home and community. The events took place across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates (2015)

Curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi for Biennale Arte 2015, 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates was a group show that presented a selection of works by fifteen Emirati artists from different decades highlighting the emergence of art practices in the UAE. The Emirates Fine Arts Society, a non-profit association that was formed in 1980 in Sharjah, has served as a main point of focus and inspiration for research.

1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates

The exhibition features more than 100 works, built upon extensive research involving archives of newspaper articles, artists’ writings, and catalogs, as well as interviews with artists and cultural practitioners. Reflecting personal and geopolitical trajectories, the research focused on the underexposed historical record and evolving practices of some of the UAE’s most important modernist and contemporary artists. The works, many on loan from institutions and private collections as well as from the artists themselves, demonstrated a juxtaposition of conceptual and formal approaches, time periods, and media.

1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates

The exhibition featured works by: 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.

Mohammed Kazem: Walking on Water (2013)

Mohammed Kazem’s series of work titled Directions 2005/2013 as a site specific and an immersive installation produced for Biennale Arte 2013. Comprised of a 360-degree projection of the sea and illuminated interchangeable GPS coordinates within an enclosed chamber, the artwork engaged viewers in a seascape that invited them to experience what it is to be lost at sea, to walk the waters unafraid, to cross physical barriers, and to roam the borders of ideas freely, thereby questioning and challenging their perceptions of openness and universality.

Mohammed Kazem: Walking on Water

Mohammed Kazem has been a leading figure of the contemporary art scene in the UAE since the 1990s. Among the first artists to adopt a conceptual language and produce video and multimedia installations, Kazem combines his subjective point of view — sometimes manifested through his body and other times alluded to more abstractly—with references to natural and manmade landscapes, particularly of the UAE, to comment on the poetics of place, belonging, and change.

Mohammed Kazem: Walking on Water

Kazem’s most emblematic series, Directions, is a conceptual project that the artist began in 1999 and has continued to develop through various multimedia installations and photographic series. The water and the sea stand at the center of this project, which was inspired by an experience Kazem had while on a fishing trip. On that occasion, he fell, unnoticed, from the boat and was lost at sea for over half an hour before being located. Subsequent to this experience, Kazem became inspired to experiment with Geographical Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, which fishermen use to remember the location of the nets that they cast. GPS coordinates became a defining aspect of the Directions series and an iconic trademark for Kazem, who sees GPS as a tool for documenting his whereabouts, symbolically referencing his very existence, and underscoring the ability to traverse both literal and figurative places without inhibition.

Second Time Around (2011)

Curated by Vasif Kortun and commissioned by Dr. Lamees Hamdan for Biennale Arte 2011, Second Time Around featured three Emirati artists: Reem Al Ghaith, Abdullah Al Saadi and Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum who presented individual concepts set in same-size spaces that are actually islands on their own.


The title refers to the UAE’s debut appearance at the Biennale in 2009. A newcomer to the La Biennale di Venezia, the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) found itself in a position of answering extensive and curious demands, which it addressed with a humorous self-criticality. The second Pavilion was, in turn, a sign of slowly coming of age. Purposefully modest, Second Time Around referred to the barebones of the exhibition. The attitude adopted in choosing the title was also echoed in the approach to the exhibition, where each artist’s work was presented in a dedicated setting.


Second Time Around presented the work of three artists: One an incorrigible artist who does not care one way or another if he is in any exhibition as long as he is able to work in his own precise way (Abdullah Al Saadi), the second a very young artist whose installation practice speaks to the UAE in the most novel way probable (Reem Al Ghaith), and third an artist who has assimilated, and deconstructed the transformation of her environs (Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum). The Emirati artists selected by Kortun represented the UAE through displays of an installation, mixed-media sculpture, and photography.

It’s Not You, It’s Me (2009)

Curated by Tirdad Zolghadr for Biennale Arte 2009 and commissioned by Dr Lamees Hamdan, It’s Not You, It’s Me was a playful and provocative name for the country’s first pavilion at the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event. As a new arrival at the Biennale, the title It’s Not You, It’s Me is unapologetic about documenting the nation; even while the Pavilion as a whole can be seen as an exhibition about exhibition–making, reflecting on the very act of national showcasing at La Biennale di Venezia.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Built in a large and prominent location in the Arsenale, the Pavilion drew attention to its nature and function as a showcase through a combination of scenographic elements and architectural design by the partnership of Rami Farook and the Belgian architectural collective D’haeseleer & Kimpe & Poelaert.

Physically, the entire Pavilion highlights a “World Fair” theme that incorporates various components: A ‘Familial’ component featuring work by artist Lamya Gargash, Emirati photographer and filmmaker. Gargash was selected to exhibit a specially commissioned series of photographs titled Familial. The series plays on the aesthetics of hospitality, the politics of interior design and the disingenuous lure of documentation.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

‘Opening’, is a documentary of a Dubai performance by the Jackson Pollock Bar. A ‘Nation Builders’ component, with a kiosk featuring conversations with key figures in the cultural panorama of the United Arab Emirates, designed by German producer Hannah Hurtzig. The final showcase featured work by several established UAE artists, namely Hassan Sharif, Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Huda Saeed Saif and Tareq Al-Ghoussain. The archive consists of scenography reminiscent of the World Fair tradition, including text panels and architectural models of UAE arts infrastructure which included an audio guide written by Shumon Basar and narrated by Dr Lamees Hamdan.